As monastics, we make a commitment to harmlessness.
However, the way our training works is to allow us to see directly those energies that maybe aren’t so harmless and aren’t so beautiful: the powerful lust, sensuality or rage that all come bubbling up. It can be rather alarming at first; but now, having experienced those energies within my own heart, I can understand much better the state of the world and the things that happen in it. Of course, I can’t approve of many of the things I hear about, but there is much less tendency to judge or to blame.
Karuna, compassion, is the second Brahma Vihara. Looking at the word, ‘compassion:’ ‘passion’ means ‘to feel’, and ‘com-’ is ‘with’, so it’s a ‘feeling with’, or entering into suffering. Now one response when confronted with a situation of pain or difficulty can be to distance oneself. It may come from fear, a feeling of ‘I’m glad that’s not happening to me,’ so we do and say the right kinds of things; but, actually, there’s a standing back and a sense of awkwardness about what we are feeling. This is what can happen.
It reminds me, again, of when I broke my back. There was one person who was very uncomfortable about it; when we met, I could sense that she was shocked and that she didn’t want to get too close. But for me, her response brought quite a lonely feeling; it didn’t really hit the spot.
So karuna implies a willingness to actually take on board the suffering of another, to enter into it with them. It’s a much fuller kind of engagement and demands an attunement with one’s own heart; having compassion for one’s own fear or awkwardness around another person’s situation.
Sometimes we feel awkward because we don’t know what to say. If someone is bereaved or terminally ill, what do you say to them? We might be afraid of saying the wrong thing. However, when we are willing to be with our own sense of discomfort with the situation, to bear with our own pain or suffering in relation to it, we begin to sense the possibility of responding in a spontaneous, natural way.
This state of being fully present with another person in their difficulty is something that I trust now much more than any ideas about a compassionate response. It’s not about giving advice or sharing the story of our aunt who had the same difficulty or anything other than the willingness to be with the discomfort of the situation, to be with our own struggle. When we are fully present with suffering we find a place of ease, of non-suffering, and somehow we just know what is needed.
It may be that nothing is needed other than to be there, or perhaps something needs to be said and suddenly we find ourselves saying just the right thing, or there may be some practical assistance we can offer. But none of this can happen until we have fully acknowledged our own struggle with what’s happening. It needn’t take more than a micro-second. We simply begin with tuning in to our own suffering, attending to that—from this arises the compassionate response to the other.
This reflection by Ajahn Candasiri is from the book, Friends on the Path, (pdf) pp. 65-67.