by Pablo Das
One of my earliest spiritual insights was that the development of compassion had something to do with a willingness to be present for pain. Over the years, I've picked up some good lines from my teachers on the subject. One teacher would say "compassion is what kindness morphs into when it encounters suffering". Another said "compassion is the appropriate response to pain". That same teacher would point out that compassion was only necessary when pain was present. It only made sense in relationship to pain. The message was that compassion and pain are intertwined. They are connected. One conditions the need for (or development of) the other.
A human being can have lots of responses to pain. We can deny it, choose not to deal with it, we can numb it, we can rage against it or channel it into violence. Pain can harden us. We can construct narratives about ourselves, others and the world in response to it. We can, in a sense, become it. It can make us bitter, addicted and dangerous to others.
Or... we can do something totally different with it.
The dharma has what I believe to be a unique and perhaps defining relationship to pain. Often one of the first teachings we hear in dharma circles is an acknowledgement that pain is a non negotiable fact of life. We hear right away that pain and suffering are of primary concern in the dharma. We hear that to live with more freedom requires more presence for pain.
When I was younger, I found this to be so helpful. I first encountered the dharma when I was 19 after the deaths of my mother and a family friend. I was struggling with coming out as a gay man in the middle of the AIDS crisis and had experienced a couple significant traumatic episodes connected to random gun violence as a young person. I was in a lot of pain.
Hearing that pain was a normal part of life was very affirming. It made me feel less alone and gave me hope that through something called "practice", I could find a balanced relationship to my pain. So I started meditating.
Around that same time, I also started drinking. Years later, when the cost benefit analysis of the drinking swung too much in the direction of "cost", I stopped. When I did, I was amazed to see that I had somehow, through "practice", developed a new skill set that allowed me to relate to my pain differently. Good thing, because, despite my attempts at running from the pain with alcohol, it was all waiting for me on the other end of my run. But I was prepared this time in a way that I hadn't been earlier in my life. I could stay more present and more importantly, meet the pain with kindness, patience, acceptance and, yes, compassion. This was how I was trained in the dharma.
The possibility of a compassionate life begins with the acknowledgement of pain in ourselves and others and a willingness to turn towards it and be present with it. To be compassionate means to acknowledge pain with acceptance, as just a part of what it means to be alive. If you're a human you're going to experience pain. Your body will hurt, you will experience loss and disappointment. Life will not always do what you want. Perhaps you'll even experience trauma. When we start to be present with it, we get a sense of a whole new way of living opening up. A more responsive way. When we aren't so afraid of pain and discomfort we can begin to find new ways of being with ourselves and with others and we can think, speak and act in ways that support wellbeing and minimize harm.
It's important to remember, especially in these times, that pain is not the whole story. Life is always some balance of pleasure and pain. Sometimes we get so caught up in what's difficult that we forget to orient to the beauty and joy that's right in front of us.
One of my teaching colleagues once said "no matter what your heart and mind get contracted around there's always something else that's true". Life is never just pain. If it were, none of us would make it. We all have resources that keep us resilient. We could benefit from making them conscious.
Staying connected to the joy and beauty in this life makes acknowledgement of that which is not preferable to us possible. It makes the work of presence with pain manageable. Life is never all pleasure and no pain. It is also never all pain and no pleasure. Our practice is a call to orient to both. Our practice is to cultivate more presence for the full range of human experience. In this way you become whole. In this way you begin to heal.