Buddhism is not commonly framed as a religion that requires generous exercise of the imagination. Yet a cardinal moral requirement of Buddhism is to see others’ pain as our own, and we can only do this by imagining life from the point of view of another.
A lack of compassion can lead to a whole range of unskilful mental habits, from a basic misunderstanding of someone else’s (or even our own) needs or preferences to systemic discriminative systems. A lack of compassion makes it very easy to downplay the suffering of other people and dismiss their concerns. Very often we don’t see what their issue might be, or understand how severe it is, until we ourselves or someone close to us experience the same problems.
Reducing suffering—for ourselves and for others—means moving past the projections we place on our experiences and those of others, ceasing our constant mental “storytelling” that solidifies events into narratives that form attachments or aversions, and as the teacher Bodhipaksa wrote: “Drop down” below the level of emotion and thought. “Down to the level of raw feeling—that ache, that bruise, that sense of having been ‘punched in the gut.’” (Wildmind)
After this first step of embracing our own hurt with a mind of compassion (Buddhist texts describe this non-judgmental acceptance of the pain as “wishing it well,” like an old friend) there is no need for anger or fear, and therefore none of the mental activities that lead to suffering. “And having empathized with our own pain, we can then feel empathy for the other person and have compassion for them.” (Wildmind)
Therefore, we set out to reduce suffering—our own and that of others—with a heart of compassion, and through wisdom we see that suffering is caused by all manner of mental habits and neuroses. This requires real work, particularly as there is a common confusion of compassion with empathy. Too much empathy can be exhausting; when we are too distressed about the suffering of others, we lose the cognitive and emotional resources to help effectively, to see things with nuance, or simply to work in a sustainable way that is kind to our own emotional wellbeing.
Compassion is a different force. In a study comparing empathy and compassion, neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki found that participants focusing on empathy registered activity in their brain’s insula (insular cortex), which is linked to emotion and self-awareness, and in their anterior cingulate cortex, which is linked to emotion and registering pain. However, those exercising compassion expericed activation in their medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is connected to learning, and their ventral striatum, which is connected to rewards in decision-making.*
In the Buddhist tradition, compassion is an ongoing project of inner development and spiritual growth directed to benefit others—this is the engine of bodhicitta, or the heart of enlightenment. It is fueled by mindfulness, which can in turn shape our active intention to help others. As Buddhist academic and thinker John Makransky noted: “The sufferings of transience and self-centered conditioning are mediated by unconscious habits of reification—the mind’s attempt to generate and cling to a sense of permanence in self and world that the mind projects onto its impermanent experience. As our tendencies to cling to illusions of permanence are illuminated by mindful awareness, we become newly conscious of how much anxiety and unease our clinging has generated. We can then start to recognize the same sub-conscious layers of suffering operating in all others.”
Makransky argues that compassion for others and for oneself becomes easier when we paradoxically let go of the constructed nature of self and permanence (which we too often build up in the mistaken belief that it will protect us from harm). This then informs our own mind to open up not just further insight about ourselves, but also to “empower an increasingly compassionate and discerning awareness of others in their conscious and subconscious sufferings.”
What might this empowerment and the ceasing of mental discrimination mean in our everyday lives? Aside from meditation and active mental cultivation, there are two simple things that can gradually change our habitual mindsets.
Help others more often. Exactly how we help others and who motivates us to help doesn’t matter too much. By helping others we naturally open ourselves to the reality that we aren’t the only one with worries and anxieties and problems, and that our issues are often minor compared to those of others. Helping others and engaging with their problems give us opportunities to “drop down.”
“When we recognize the commonness of suffering, and have sympathy and compassion for others’ pain, we can (once again) let go of our stories—let go of our thoughts and emotions—and drop down to the level of raw feeling, and have compassion for that pain too.” (Wildmind)
Don’t turn away from encounters with suffering. In her Buddhist Parenting column for Buddhistdoor Global, Summer Adams recounts a time in her childhood when she was chided for not wanting to be exposed to the unpleasant sight of someone’s misfortune, in this case a traffic accident. “My friend’s mother quickly corrected my outburst. I cannot recall her exact words, but she spoke of being calm, compassionate, and sending a prayer when we see suffering. The correction made a strong impression on me and I quickly regretted being inconsiderate. I have actually returned to that moment as an adult when I see myself wanting to look away instead of facing the suffering of others.” Summer now tries to bring out the “natural goodness” in her children, while mindful that the self-centered norms of society aren’t easily diminished.
This is a complicated, interlocking world, so our assumptions of someone else’s problems not affecting us are incorrect, no matter how distant or unrelated they may seem. Even at the conventional level, we have an opportunity to realize non-self, and therefore move toward the enlightened mind through practicing deep compassion, seeking to help others, and perceiving suffering with clear eyes.
* Compassion Is Better than Empathy (Psychology Today)
John Makransky. 2014. “Compassion in Buddhist Psychology.” Christopher Germer and Ronald D. Siegel (eds.). Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy: Deepening Mindfulness in Clinical Practice. Guilford Publications. 61-74.