Beginner’s Mind is a special project from BDG collecting insightful essays written by US college students who have attended experiential-learning courses related to Buddhism. Some of the authors identify as Buddhists, for others it is their first encounter with the Buddhadharma. All are sharing reflections and impressions on what they’ve learned, how it has impacted their lives, and how they might continue to engage with the teaching.
Surya Anna Bromley wrote this essay for her Buddhist Meditation and Philosophy course at George Washington University, a private university in Washington, D.C. Surya graduated with a BA in International Affairs, with a focus on development and sustainability. She is passionate about public access to nature and likes to take long walks. She is currently teaching English in Thailand and continuing to learn about Theravada Buddhism.
Self-Compassion: Learning to Hear Myself
On the morning of 12 May 2021, I woke up. Something felt a bit off. My right ear felt clogged and I couldn’t hear anything out of it. I assumed that it just needed to “pop,” and then the feeling would go away. But as the day went on and nothing changed, I began to worry. I went to a pharmacy where I received some ear drops, but that didn’t help. Since I was due to travel home in a week, I decided to wait until I was home, then I went to a doctor who gave me decongestants, which also didn’t help.
A month later I was diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), a form of sudden deafness. My right ear is deaf for all intents and purposes. There is no identified cause nor cure for this ailment. Suddenly, at the age of 21, I found myself in the market for a hearing aid. At the many doctors’ offices I visited in the following months, I was always decades younger than the other patients. I felt cheated by my body. I was facing issues that I had not expected to confront for many years, despite taking care to exercise, feed, and love my body. I had thought that those ingredients would be enough for it to thrive in the way I wanted and expected. Coming to terms with my fragility continues to be a difficult journey.
For months after my diagnosis, I mourned the loss of the hearing that I had taken for granted every day until it was gone. I was angry with my body for the wrong that I felt it had committed against me, for the experiences that it had tainted, such as sitting at a loud dinner table or in a crowded bar where I strained to follow the conversation. I couldn’t come to terms with this change or let go of this thing to which I had no idea I was clinging.
In the spring of 2022, the endless string of doctor’s appointments continued as I searched for solutions to my predicament that might allow me to once again hear my classmates and friends with clarity. At the same time, I began the final semester of my senior year at George Washington University, where I signed up for Buddhist Meditation and Philosophy as an elective. We began reading about the meaning of suffering (Skt: duhkha). According to Buddhist psychology, the primary cause of suffering is attachment. Our perceptions construct our realities, and these realities are unstable and constantly changing, I have found that coming to terms with the ephemeral nature of life and letting go is necessary but incredibly challenging. This is especially true when our self-identity is involved.
Buddhist philosophy also emphasizes the interconnectedness of all phenomena. Realizing how interconnected we are can remind us that we are not alone, yet this can be hard to accept, particularly when going through isolating experiences. Geshe Thupten Jinpa, a former Tibetan monk, and translator for the Dalai Lama, writes in his book A Fearless Heart (2015) that compassion is the answer to relieving not only our own suffering but also the suffering of others. But as my journey taught me, learning to cultivate compassion, especially for oneself, can be difficult.
Western cultures face additional challenges. Growing up in America, we are taught to set goals, mostly related to status and material achievements, and we are judged on our abilities to reach them through grades, through acceptance, and through perceived success. I grew up in this culture and therefore see myself as an achievement-oriented person who strives to live a prosperous life. Yet all of these are outward indicators and say very little about a person’s well-being. Facing this new, personal struggle, I could not set a goal that would bring me contentment upon its completion. I needed a new approach.
Compassion is seeing the suffering of a being and wishing for that suffering to cease. However, it is also imperative to focus on the liberation attained by the cessation of the suffering and not on the pain itself. (Bhikkhu Analayo, 6) Moreover, my own experience told me that self-compassion is much more difficult. The way that our culture ties self-worth to material success means that we tend to take the blame for failures, even when they are outside of our control. This often leads to anger at our suffering and the feeling that we have been unfairly wronged, when in fact suffering is simply a part of life. To be compassionate with oneself means to accept that suffering is inevitable. Pain and disappointment are a part of life, and when they occur we must treat ourselves with kindness and understanding in order to learn from any mistakes we may have made.
When I was first diagnosed with SNHL, I was told that if I had gone to the emergency room when I first lost my hearing, they may have been able to bring it back with a steroid shot into the eardrum. However, since I waited, the diagnosis came too late. I was furious and berated myself for not acting sooner. Of course, at the time I had no idea what was happening nor what was the right course of action. I have rationally accepted that I am not to blame, but deep down I still struggle to forgive myself.
To be human is to be imperfect, to suffer, and to make mistakes. The sooner we realize how our suffering connects us to the rest of humanity, who have suffered, are suffering, and will continue to suffer, the sooner we can see ourselves as part of the human community. After losing my hearing I was of course upset, but I tried to keep the mindset that there are so many people whose suffering is greater (which is true) and that my suffering was minimal (which was false). I found myself often oscillating between feelings of anger, fear, and sadness, causing myself greater anguish by overindulging or ignoring them. My confusion about these emotions made it easiest to keep them to myself. Yet in that, I deprived myself of being able to see how my suffering relates to people across the globe—this could be someone who has experienced my type of hearing loss, which is rare, or someone else who is feeling angry, lonely, or scared; all emotions that I was experiencing periodically.
I felt a hatred toward my ear, a part of me, because it had failed. I was angry at myself for not being able to move on and be fully happy and present for this wonderful year, my last year of college, which was slipping by. On a basic level we all need love, care, and to feel heard. Yet, it’s hard to share the experiences of one’s suffering because it requires us to be vulnerable and to face those things that are hurting us, whether external or internal. One way to give oneself compassion is to practice mindfulness, which reminds us to receive our feelings with a non-judgmental mind, without trying to suppress or deny them. When we forget to be mindful, we can begin to over-identify with the challenges we are facing.
One side-effect of my hearing loss is that I have tinnitus in my damaged ear. This means the ear produces a range of noises that are not actually occurring. Most commonly it’s a sustained ringing—as one of my doctors put it: I have “a whole orchestra in there.” It’s not constantly making sounds but it’s frequent enough to become annoying. I found early on that sometimes making a noise close to my ear, such as snapping or tapping near the opening of the ear canal, would help distract my brain and allow it to move on from the sound of the tinnitus. Over time, however, my gentle tapping turned almost into smacking as a result of my frustration. I was holding on to the idea that my hearing loss was a personal failure, and subsequently acting toward myself with hate only deepened my suffering. By confusing our shortcomings or just bad luck with our self-worth, the problem begins to encompass our entire being, instead of viewing it as an isolated event. Acknowledging our suffering and letting it pass with an open and compassionate mind can change our relationship with ourselves. But how do we do it?
I looked toward meditation. The first thing to bear in mind is that Buddhist meditation techniques can take time to practice and become accomplished. While I’m still a novice, I find that the following two Buddhist practices, which invite the cultivation of compassion, resonate with me.
First, compassion meditation practices begin with giving oneself compassion or loving-kindness and expanding it outward in ever-widening circles to one’s loved ones and eventually to all beings. (Jinpa, 120) However, as discussed earlier, for many people in the West, self-compassion may not come naturally, while compassion for loved ones may feel more accessible. The practice of repeating a phrase expressing love and compassion for someone we love not only reminds us of that person, but also of our connection with the broader world. If we are suffering, this can help us to take a break from that pain and give our body and mind the space to relax and to feel the presence of compassion within us—even if we are not quite ready to direct it toward ourselves.
Second, if our physical being is what most needs our compassion, a meditation on death might be more useful for increasing our mindfulness and our appreciation of ourselves. In the West, death is a topic that is generally avoided, but in Buddhism it is recommended that we think about and meditate on our own death. One could visualize a body after death and reflect: “this body, too, is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.” (Satipatthana Meditation, 189) Mortality is something we all must face, and if we can do so with compassion and mindfulness it can help us better appreciate each day. The impermanence of my capacities and my being is one of the main causes of my own suffering. As a young, healthy person, I did not expect to have to face the reality of my own fragility for many years. Yet, suddenly, I found myself uncertain of the capabilities of my body and realized how precious each of my senses are. We cannot prevent disease, decay, or death, but we can prepare ourselves for their unavoidable occurrences that touch our lives. This can also help us remember to not be too harsh with ourselves when confronting our own shortcomings. We have only a limited amount of time and we are not in control for most of it. Our delicate bodies deserve compassion and care.
These practices have helped me come to terms with my ever-changing body and mind. Trying to act with compassion helps me to center my focus on others and not to be consumed in myself; it allows me to give myself forgiveness and care, and reminds me of all the people in my life who have supported me throughout this challenging time. Reaching out to friends and family, being vulnerable with them, and acknowledging the challenges of this change in my life has been difficult. I’m still not far along the path, and I often still struggle with being able to give myself the gift of compassion. But I hope that by sharing my story, others will strive to create a space for compassion in their own lives—for themselves and for those around them.
Bhikkhu Analayo. 2015. Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications.
———. 2018. Satipatthana Meditation: A Practice Guide. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications.
Jinpa, Thupten. 2015. A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives. London: Penguin Books.