Compassion, Pain, and an Open Heart

Mike Blouin led our reflections this past Sunday, aided by a talk by Michele Macdonald, with whom he attended retreat this May. 

Difficulties such as pain and overwhelm can prompt in us a response of compassion rather than evasion, if we have come to understand the spirit of Kwan Yin (Guanyin), the buddhist patron of mercy.

The talk itself cannot be posted because it was available for retreatants only, but here are a few excerpts.

Excerpts from Michelle McDonald talk (from 5/25 – 6/2 retreat at IMS)

“So we’ve been offering different ways to understand what mindfulness is, which is including mindfulness of compassion. And one definition we gave, which is from Suzuki Roshi, in the book Beginner’s Mind, is “soft readiness”. And soft readiness is implying that anything can happen. And we tend to not quite get that….that the message of mindfulness if that you’re developing a mind strong enough to be with anything that happens. The more that you’re connected with that truth that anything can happen, the safer you are, the more protected you are…the more disconnected you are from that truth, the more we will tend to think that the appearance of pain is our fault, or someone else’s fault.”

“And when something unpleasant appears….we’re caught in believing we can control it. We believe we can push it away, or with pleasure passing, we believe we can hold on. And the Buddha said that the willingness to go through seeing this is what causes the end of suffering.

“When we want something, we tend to get caught up in the object of the wanting…when we’re caught up in the object, we are completely disconnected from reality. None of us want to be objectified and yet we do it a lot. In this practice, it takes even getting remotely protected and quiet to even be interested in this. Because if you pull the projection back from the object, you’re stuck with the pain of wanting. It hurts. Wanting hurts, but it’s totally okay. Wanting is okay, aversion is okay. It’s just being caught in it, being imprisoned by it, and then it’s acting on it…acting on this disconnection from reality that causes so much suffering. There’s the object of the fear, which has nothing to do with anything, and then the fear, which is the pain in the heart.

“This is a question and answer with a teacher named Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, from the book I Am That. The question is: but pain is not acceptable. And he answered: why not? Did you ever try? Do try, and you will find in pain a joy that pleasure cannot yield, for the simple reason that acceptance of pain takes you much deeper than pleasure does. The personal self by its very nature is constantly pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. The ending of this pattern is the ending of the self.

“If you’re having doubt, then just stop. It is one of the few times I will encourage someone to reflect back. The degree of doubt will be dependent on how painful something was, and how overwhelmed we got by it. Because if we’re not able to be mindful of pain, we tend to think that when we are overwhelmed by it, that it’s all our fault, even the appearance of pain is all our fault.”

“The Buddha described the proximate cause for the appearance of compassion, which is that pleasant feeling of caring about pain – the awareness is pleasant because it’s caring for pain – he said that the proximate cause for the appearance of compassion is the overwhelm we feel in the face of suffering. We tend to think of the helplessness we feel in the face of suffering, our own…that helplessness or the overwhelm, he said, is how compassion can arise.”