For weeks some of my dearest loved ones have been going through hell – one from the stress of an unknown future, another with heartbreaking relationship agonies, another with oppressive health issues. These are the closest people to me in my life, and when they suffer, I suffer with them. Of course. I can’t help it, it’s what we do. Every parent and spouse I know does this.
Today, exhausted from all this self-flagellation, I go to hear Anam Thubten Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist, speak in Pt. Richmond. Hundreds of people come to hear him and talk with him whenever he is around, and it is as always joyful and calming to be there, in silent focus with all those people, meditating in search of the unnamable and the Profound.
In his talk after the meditation, Anam talks about compassion: how difficult life is, how we all suffer, how everyone has the same fears and doubts. How we all would like to find a “special friend” to help us in our difficult moments, and how hard it is to find one. The only way out, he said, is compassion. In the end, that is the only “special friend” you can rely on: the compassion in your own heart.
Afterwards I go up to greet him. My daughter went to hear him last time he was here, and I want to tell him how much his talk meant to her. When my turn comes I sit before him and I tell him that, and the whole time I am speaking he looks at me curiously, like he does when he knows you’re not saying what you came to say.
Finally I say, “Today you were talking about compassion… there are so many people in my life right now who are suffering…” and just telling him that, I get emotional and start to cry.
He cuts me off. “Oh! No. No co-suffering!”
His cheery forthrightness shocks me tearless. I feel like a dog being scolded by his master for doing something bad without knowing better…
“There are so many people suffering already in this world!” he says gently. “I don’t want to add to it by co-suffering with them.”
For a moment I am silent. Of course, it’s so simple! I see all at once, like a flash-forward of possibility, that all I have to do is not go to the place of suffering…
Then doubt comes to save me. All very good to say that, but I don’t know how to not go to the place of suffering.
I do know that suffering is not part of compassion. When I was listening to Bach not long ago, the music made me feel such joy and reverence that when my thoughts drifted to my son and his agonies, I found myself for one long, miraculous moment feeling compassion for him without suffering. It was as if the Sacred both amplified my ability to feel the fullness of his suffering, and made me immune to it. I could feel it completely, like never before – but without any fear or anxiety. Instead, all I felt was the most enormous love and compassion…
That was a precious and rare experience. A teaching.
But I did not learn from it. Since then, I’ve continued to wallow in suffering with my loved ones at every possible opportunity.
As if in answer to my doubt, Anam tells me, “My mantra is this: I want to be able to open my heart, so that I will be able to help people.”
He looks at me intently to make sure I got it, and then dismisses me with a bow.
And it hits me: compassion is something I have to do intentionally. Whether I know how to or not, I have to go in that direction, because that is the only direction that brings peace and happiness.
As the day unfolds, the dark opportunities whirl into orbit around me. There are so many possible disasters… At first, amazingly, it isn’t hard to ignore them. Anam’s admonishment, “No! No co-suffering!” are fresh in my mind, and when the opportunity to suffer arises, I just don’t go there.
What’s more, not-going-there is not something I have to do – it’s a not doing. Like making a void, turning a blind eye, to the option of suffering.
It’s not so hard – just a matter of choice. I only have to ignore the seductive gravity of suffering. When I am able to do that, I’m in a void – a strange, bounteous emptiness that good things like compassion and love can fill.
It may be easy, but as the day progresses it eludes me. I’m so out of shape – my not-suffering muscles have dwindled to nearly nothing from disuse. I have to get in training.
And I remember the Bodhisattva’s Vow:
Just as all the Buddhas of the past
have given rise to the awakened mind
and continually lived and trained
in the way of the Bodhisattvas,
likewise, for the sake of all,
I shall give rise to the awakened mind
and continuously train
in the way of the Bodhisattvas…
Doggedly, I keep trying. Again and again the shadows bombard me.
Sometimes I’m able to the plug on the darkness and face into the brilliant void, full of potential. When that happens all is well. Then, with gratitude and excitement and only a smidgen of guilt for not suffering, I put my life before me, flush with possibility, and sally forth with joy to give my all.
More and more, though, I fail. Then, floundering down into the murk, I pull the darkness over my head like a blanket.
Because that’s what I’ve always done. It’s what I know how to do, I believe it’s the right thing, and I hope it will somehow help.
By the end of the day I am exhausted. Not-suffering does not come naturally.
But I know it’s possible – I just have to persist.
To make it easier, I remind myself of what helps:
It helps to immerse myself in beauty – in Nature and Art and all Sacred Creation.
It helps to give thanks – for beauty, for Life, for Love, for all opportunities to learn.
It helps to remember that co-suffering just adds to the world’s already steaming mountain of woes.
It helps to go deep inside and ask for help: help me open my heart so that I can help others.