bounded compassion among buddhists
May 6, 2017 9:51 PM   Subscribe

how do buddhists stop their compassion for all things from negatively impacting them?

i am not a buddhist, but i am very interested in the principles and practice. one thing that i particularly like is compassion/loving-kindness meditation. however, i have a hard time understanding how to turn that compassion off. i am very interested in resources - discussion boards, in-person resources (i'm in atlanta), or books - about the role and limits of compassion.

personally, i feel like i am hyperaware of people's individual and mass suffering at all times, and it makes me suffer in turn. it hurts me to know my fellow beings are suffering.

my specific questions are something along the lines of: is the answer just an understanding that these you are bringing more suffering about by suffering about suffering? how is the motivation and drive to help others maintained while holding their suffering separately? i

understand that these questions may be too specific, but any resources would be appreciated.

i know there is not just one school of buddhism, or one train of thought, etc. i appreciate answers and thoughts from any domain.
posted by quadrilaterals to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
My understanding is the trick of understanding, that everything is the same thing. You have to make compassionate and joyous choices whenever and wherever you are in the world. I have often wondered if the concept of suffering was an arch description of how the nervous system works. All we experience is nervous activity, whether it is perceived as suffering or pleasure. I am not attempting to negate the fact of the mass misery humans inflict on each other. The miserable are at least still alive to experience it. Even the miserable grow tired of it and turn to synthetic nervous stimulus to escape, whether it is love, drugs, passion, religion, it is still all the same.
TS Eliot:

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
First, the cold fricton of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and sould begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer."
posted by Oyéah at 10:35 PM on May 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

Compassion and empathy are not the same thing. Some detachment is necessary, and an awareness of your own motivations and also compassion for yourself.
posted by fshgrl at 10:36 PM on May 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

I am not a Buddhist, but one thing that struck me once watching an interview with a Buddhist nun was the incredible compassion she also had for herself. I think part of the answer must be in there. You are also a living being, and experiencing the world in a way that increases your own suffering can't be right.

In that interview she talked about how following the schedule and rules at the monastery was making her physically ill. And it wasn't her fault, she didn't just need to try harder. She was young and needed rest. So they adjusted her schedule until she got older and needed less sleep.

There must be a parallel for experiencing compassion and empathy for the suffering of others. If it's making you sick, you have to try something different . It's not that you just need to try harder.
posted by ohio at 12:15 AM on May 7, 2017 [13 favorites]

I am not a Buddhist, but my experience is that when one is in touch with higher Self, one feels great love/compassion for other beings who may be experiencing pain,but that does not mean you experience the pain. On the contrary.
posted by elf27 at 1:48 AM on May 7, 2017

is the answer just an understanding that these you are bringing more suffering about by suffering about suffering?

Yes and you have pretty much summarized Buddhism!

The Four Noble Truths comprise the essence of Buddha's teachings. They are the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering.

Essentially, through meditation and a meditative life, you will investigate your own truths of suffering, how you choose to let your suffering affect you, and be willing to accept it. Once you have accepted that your suffering is not actually an obstacle but instead is your path, it will actually become easier to let those feelings go.

This is quoted from this article in Elephant Journal, based on Pema Chodron's teachings:

Right now is all we have. We will never have anything more. So, whatever arises–regardless of how neurotic it might be–is our path.

The path of meditation is a path that co-emerges with the path of suffering.

This is why a study of the first two noble truths is so important. Not merely a conceptual study, but a realistic examination of our own lives. We must conduct a fearless and thorough investigation of our own suffering and the causes and conditions, which give rise to that dissatisfaction. It is the discovery of our neurosis, and our willingness to relate with it–to see it as a pattern which defines or limits the nature of our experience–that enables us to walk the spiritual path.

Meditation is essentially walking backwards down the path that gives rise to suffering. Therefore, it is our discontentment, our own neurotic energy, that serves as the material we have to work with in meditation. So, the situations we generally refer to as obstacles are, in fact, the path.

H.H. the Dalai Lama has said,

“If you want to cultivate generosity you cannot view a beggar as an obstacle.”

Well, in the same way, an obnoxious co-worker is not a hindrance to the practice of patience, but an opportunity to discover your natural capacity to be patient. Furthermore, an attachment to a painful relationship or unhealthy situation is not preventing you from learning how to let go. The unhealthy relationship and the ensuing attachment are an invitation to let go.

You may want to check into Pema Chodron's work -- here is a video where she talks about pain and compassion.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:51 AM on May 7, 2017 [11 favorites]

By taking the long view.

The reason why that obnoxious jerk of a seat mate on your aeroplane is is so absolutely loveable is because he is both mind-blowingly miraculously unique and ephemeral. He is made out of a complexity too great to attempt calculation, chemical processes, emotions, gene expression, evolution, experience, evolutionary processes, social processes and chance....

He is controlled by biological forces that are far beyond his control, delicate beyond belief - let his blood chemistry waver by one ph, let a single blood clot three millimetres wide stop in the wrong blood vessel, let the precise balance of serotonin-norepinephrine-epinehrine waver, let a trace of pheremones enter his nostrils, let an infant half a continent away stop breathing and he is lost. He is utterly destroyed.

And he is the host world to more living beings than the number of humans on earth, probably than the number of mammals on earth - and he is only one of so many billion humans each equally meaningful as he is - but in terms of history he is just one invisible person in three billion, and in eighty years no one will remember his name or anything about him, although every emotion he has and every ambition and every hope - every inch of floor space on the airplane is deeply important to him - it's all nothing in terms of short term history, week from now this flight on the plane means nothing even to him.

A million years from now his species will no longer exist, one hundred million years perhaps his planet will cease to exist. How can he -and you - matter so much to yourselves and the people who love you when you are such incredible violations of probability and such brief tiny blinks of time? But you do and you are and you are maginificent.

And so so stupid to take anything seriously, and so so wonderful to take anything seriously.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:08 AM on May 7, 2017 [20 favorites]

Meditation also teaches (over time) a different relationship to pain, negative feelings, and suffering -- you stop identifying with the pain, in a way, and you are more...watching it pass through? It's difficult to explain, but it makes a big difference. It is, so far, in my experience, the difference between compassion and drowning in suffering.
posted by schadenfrau at 5:59 AM on May 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Just to remind people: the question is specifically about Buddhists. Your own strategies for dealing with this problem are not relevant to the question if you are not a Buddhist.
posted by languagehat at 7:38 AM on May 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

So speaking IMHO as a student of Buddhism, compassion for oneself is key and is the place to start. People can't really have compassion for others if they are dealing with their own emotional insecurity, tendencies to be negatively competitive, selfishness, contempt, self-deception, greed, shame, self-hatred, guilt, insert other self and outwardly directed negativity here. By dealing with this, they stop being a source of suffering for themselves and others. If everyone did this, this world would be so amazing, it would be a pure land.

In my experience, a big part of this work is recognizing that even though having intense empathy may be understandable given what we know about the suffering of others, and even beautiful (it's amazing that you are capable of that -- so many people are not), it's not useful to others to be suffering along with them to the point where it's incapacitating. It's better to work on balancing that out with wisdom and the intention to be of benefit to others in any way that we can. That requires a lot of self honesty about where we are at and what we are capable of right now. We may not even be able to do much, but we can all do something (even if it's only working on ourselves), learn to be contented with that, and aspire to do more when we can (which may not even be in this lifetime, so patience with ourselves is also required).
posted by jazzbaby at 8:32 AM on May 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

I practised Buddhism on and off for years, and the answer is not so clear to me, which is one reason I've let it drop.

A big flaw in how Westerners adopted Buddhism is that many of us expected to take on the religious tasks of someone who, in the lands of its origin, would've been a monk or nun, supported by the community, and not also trying to have a job, family responsibilities and so on.

One of the lojong slogans runs "Take all defeat upon myself. Offer all triumph to others." I asked a respected teacher how I was supposed to work this out in terms of my working life, and they had no answer that made sense to me.

You still have to protect yourself, no matter how much compassion you feel.
posted by zadcat at 8:35 AM on May 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

What you are wanting to understand is typically addressed in the second stage of teachings for beginning students, and then practiced for a lifetime. You begin with what is often called Calm Abiding, which is stabilizing the mind with shamatha practices, then, once you have done that, you move into bodhicitta practices that encompasses the Four Immeasurables (what you referenced), and often tonglen, from the Lojong teachings. You start looking at the interdependence of all beings as well (how if I want to happy, I need to consider others' happiness, that sort of thing).

A really good book on the Lojong is by Dzigar Kontrul, called The Intelligent Heart. You would probably also like to read books by Pema Chodron (a student of Dzigar Khontrul), she is a Westerner and has an easy to understand and relatable style, and teaching about suffering is totally her thing.)

I am also a big fan of Mingyur Rinpoche, who teaches to exactly your question in his Joy of Living books (and classes).

The short answer to your question is that in Buddhism, we accept that suffering exists, every being suffers. We accept this. We do the practices to open our heart to the nature suffering, and when an opportunity arises where we can help, we can do that in a pure way. We also don't attempt to disengage from the suffering. It is both simple and complex, and I don't think possible to understand without practicing (god knows I tried).
posted by nanook at 8:37 AM on May 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

One can open the heart to the world without it causing stress and suffering to themselves. I think this is one of the main purposes of the entire practice.

To me it seems challenging to really be compassionate and have an open and soft heart when I am too stressed out about the suffering of others. I find there is a balance in touching into others suffering - too much is overwhelming, and too little fosters indifference. Finding that balance for myself and knowing how to navigate too much or too little helps.

"Compassion doesn’t make us victims of suffering, whereas feeling distress on another’s behalf often does. Learning how to see the suffering in the world without taking it on personally is very important; when we take it personally it is easy to become depressed or burdened. We can avoid taking it as a personal burden or obligation if we learn to feel empathy without it touching our own fears, attachments, and perhaps unresolved grief.

This means that to feel greater compassion for others we need to understand our own suffering. Mindfulness practice is a great help in this. With mindfulness, we can better see our suffering, its roots within us and the way to freedom from suffering; we can begin to cultivate both equanimity toward our suffering and release from its causes.

In this regard, it’s helpful to appreciate the great value in staying present, open, and mindful of suffering, both our own and that of others. We often need to give ourselves time to process difficult events and experiences and to let difficult emotions move through us. When immediate action is not required, staying mindful of suffering doesn’t necessarily require a lot of wisdom or special techniques. It mostly takes patience and perseverance. Relaxed mindfulness of our own suffering increases our ability to feel empathy for others’ difficulty and pain. It gives time for understanding and letting go to occur. By practicing to be free of habitual reactivity, we take the time to see and feel more deeply what is happening. This allows empathy to operate and for deeper responses to arise from within. In this way, compassion is evoked rather than intentionally created."

Compassion is one of the brahmavihāras, also called sublime attitudes. Another one is equanimity which I think has a component to your question.

"The fourth support is a sense of well-being. We do not need to leave well-being to chance. In Buddhism, it is considered appropriate and helpful to cultivate and enhance our well-being. We often overlook the well-being that is easily available in daily life. Even taking time to enjoy one’s tea or the sunset can be a training in well-being.

The fifth support for equanimity is understanding or wisdom. Wisdom is an important factor in learning to have an accepting awareness, to be present for whatever is happening without the mind or heart contracting or resisting. Wisdom can teach us to separate people’s actions from who they are. We can agree or disagree with their actions, but remain balanced in our relationship with them. We can also understand that our own thoughts and impulses are the result of impersonal conditions. By not taking them so personally, we are more likely to stay at ease with their arising.

Another way wisdom supports equanimity is in understanding that people are responsible for their own decisions, which helps us to find equanimity in the face of other people’s suffering. We can wish the best for them, but we avoid being buffeted by a false sense of responsibility for their well-being.

One of the most powerful ways to use wisdom to facilitate equanimity is to be mindful of when equanimity is absent. Honest awareness of what makes us imbalanced helps us to learn how to find balance.

The sixth support is insight, a deep seeing into the nature of things as they are. One of the primary insights is the nature of impermanence. In the deepest forms of this insight, we see that things change so quickly that we can’t hold onto anything, and eventually the mind lets go of clinging. Letting go brings equanimity; the greater the letting go, the deeper the equanimity.

The final support is freedom, which comes as we begin to let go of our reactive tendencies. We can get a taste of what this means by noticing areas in which we were once reactive but are no longer."
posted by Mr. Papagiorgio at 10:33 AM on May 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Wisdom and compassion are the two wings of the dharma. Compassion without wisdom will devolve into identification with the suffering of others. That kind of identification will prevent you from helping in any way, and then will create more suffering for yourself, making you a roadblock on all beings' journey toward liberation. If you dissolve into a puddle of sadness every time you think of suffering, you are practicing aversion -- a way to stop directly experiencing what is in front of you, and you are also making it about yourself.

Meditation is a great practice for learning to sit with what is while observing our reactions to it and learning that there are other modes of being with the world.

Keep in mind that compassion is just one of four Brahma Viharas, and that equanimity is equally important, as are sympathetic joy and lovingkindness.
posted by janey47 at 10:41 AM on May 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

(Zen Buddhist)

Lots of good advice here. I like jazzbaby and janey47's takes a lot. And here is mine. Buddha didn't say "Good men and women of the assembly, set aside your boundaries" -- snuffing out the fire of suffering is a job for life, or many lives -- which means endurance and persistence and pace are extremely important to develop.

I have found the support of a sangha and good teachers to be invaluable when I have questions like this. YMMV if you aren't Buddhist, but there is a certain pragmatic element found in running with a sangha that is IME better at answering such questions and basically impossible to find in any book.

"i am interested in how to turn that compassion off" is also blowing my mind as a concept and I so want to know more but don't want to derail your ask.

It does sort of sound like lovingkindness meditation is interesting to you but also kind of bad for you right now if it's making you upset. There may be other tools to try out that suit you.
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 4:24 PM on May 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

You might look specifically for discussions of how to cultivate metta, i.e. loving-kindness, which is connected to compassion (karuna), but not exactly the same thing.

There are four Brahmaviharas: the other three (besides compassion) are loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. For you, it sounds like maybe the other three are the ones to work on! They're all connected to compassion, so you won't be 'turning compassion off', but rather, making sure that compassion doesn't turn into its near-enemies, pity and despair.

When you say 'compassion-lovingkindness meditation' do you mean, practicing in this sort of way:
-are you using formulae such as "May X be safe, may X be happy,", etc.?
-do you switch X to be sometimes: -yourself, -someone you love, -someone you find a bit difficult, etc., working your way up to 'all sentient beings'?

If not: you might find this sort of practice helpful.
If yes: try focussing specifically on the good wishes.

(Official rakusu-wearer here, telling you to Think Happy Thoughts.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 6:08 PM on June 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Belated: oh, I am not the only one.
posted by quadrilaterals at 7:47 AM on July 25, 2017

Response by poster: For anyone in the future, here is an article about boundaries and bodhichitta:
However, invariably a few students—usually women—would ask about “compassion fatigue.” Where do you draw the line? they asked. I could hear an important subtext in that question: for women who have been raised to feel and believe that their primary value is in taking care of others, it can be exhausting and frustrating to imagine that you must be available for everyone’s needs at all times, or that you must find some way to relinquish any personal need that is at odds with the needs of others.

In our conversations, we discussed the difference between bodhicitta and obligatory caregiving. Bodhicitta doesn’t mean that you are always available for everyone else’s needs. Feeling compelled or expected to care for children, elders, one’s partner, one’s supervisor, and others at one’s own expense is very different from bodhicitta, which is a heart and mind primed to stay open for the benefit of all.
posted by quadrilaterals at 1:40 AM on May 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

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