This week a patient arrived in a state of abject grief. A teen he knew had committed suicide. “I couldn’t sleep; so I tried offering the parents of this child lovingkindness. But wishing them happiness felt wrong, and wishing myself happiness felt like a betrayal to them.” Tears fell from his eyes, “How is compassion relevant under these circumstances? I found myself doubting the usefulness of the dharma.” This was not the first time I had witnessed the conflation of compassion and lovingkindness with peacefulness, joy and the ending of pain. One must discern the difference between pain and suffering in order to wisely offer compassion to the inconsolable.
In the West, the Brahmavihāras (compassion, lovingkindness, altruistic joy and equanimity) are often taught as existing separately from wisdom. This is a huge mistake. “Buddhist philosophy is unique for its insistence upon the unity of mind and heart; a compound entity that co-generates wisdom and compassion in a continuous, interrelational dance. An awakened heart integrates the insights of mind and an awakened mind offers solace to a heart open and extended to suffering,” (Miller, 2014).
I suggested that he try discerning the difference between the pain of loss and the suffering he was mentally generating about loss. This wise, yet kind recognition is the first step in generating compassion. He sat and contemplated this request. Then he shared that his misapprehension of happiness as the absence of sadness was a form of suffering. Knowing this allowed him to soften into the pain and receive its wisdom. The relief he felt, even in a state of abject pain, showed him a truly compassionate act he could do for his grieving friends. He wished them freedom from the suffering of unwarranted guilt and blame that might be arising in their mind. He wished them the capacity to open and receive the love of their friends and family. That was when this patient began to more deeply comprehend the union of compassion and wisdom and the healing power of lovingkindness and compassion.
Addendum: I posted this blog entry on a LinkedIn group and was asked by a group member to elaborate on the union of compassion and emptiness. Here is my response: Without wisdom, we can mistake co-dependent impulses and actions for compassion. In my book I spend a lot of energy explicating the meaning of emptiness precisely because the “bird of enlightenment” to which you refer is actually the recognition of emptiness, suchness, or the way things actually are. If one does not wisely discern misapprehension as the main cause of human suffering, one can not appropriately apply compassionate action to relieve inner and outer suffering.
Miller, L.D. (2014). Effortless Mindfulness: Genuine mental health through awakened presence. New York: Routledge.