I remember being a young girl and finding a flyer that PETA, the animal rights organization, had put out that had photos of animals being abused and suffering. It affected me so deeply, I both couldn’t stand to look at the photos and at the same time couldn’t stop. I finally broke into huge body-heaving sobs that lasted over an hour. I released a lot of pain that had more to do with the photos of animals, it was the pain of all the suffering I was feeling and the anger at the injustice of it all. Most children are deeply in touch with the part of themselves which has the ability to be affected by the worlds’ pain. As we grow up, we develop a hard outer protective layer that makes us somewhat immune and at worst indifferent to the suffering in the world.
The suffering in the world sometimes feels like more than we can bear. In fact, many people refuse to even listen to or read the news, it feels too overwhelming and furthermore, we don’t feel like we can do anything about it. Famine and genocide, immigrants being detained and separated, the brokenness of the criminal justice system, political upheavel leading to crackdowns… these all feel like immense problems out of our control and if we take it in we may feel sad and depressed. Add that to the fact that we all have our own challenges and troubles and we feel like we just don’t have the capacity to feel it all. On the other extreme, people feel obligated to be overly involved in political commentary and activism, they argue with others on-line and feel like maybe they can turn the tides by being uber active and opinionated. Where is the balance and how do we hold our own and other’s suffering without being overwhelmed?
In order to build capacity to take in our own and others’ suffering, we have to first allow ourselves the time and space to feel. We have to drop the storylines and arguments about why this is happening in the first place and just breathe into the feelings, allow ourselves to be touched. It feels counterintuitive, but it doesn’t take a lot of time to just stop and feel. We can take a few seconds after we read or hear something that overwhelms us. Or if we’re lucky, we may have the time and space to really drop into the feeling.
We may feel a soft tender heart, we may feel our heart rate increase, we may feel fear of being overwhelmed and feel like running away or quickly distracting ourselves. But if we stay with the feeling of pain and sadness that our own and others suffering brings, what we find is that our heart begins to awaken and that we actually feel relief. I recently overheard a story about some children being neglected and I felt completely overwhelmed and saddened. My habit is to usually brush it off or distract myself, instead I just sat with the feeling. I held the image of these children in my mind and just took it in for a few minutes.
To be with your own and others suffering does not mean you are sinking into a deep dark hold of self-pity. When we allow ourselves to just feel the pain-our own and the world’s-we can actually tap into a well-spring of compassion. Compassion is our ability to feel the soft tender heart of our humanity. Compassion is from the Latin root compati, to suffer with. It doesn’t mean we look down in pity or feel strong for someone else (although there is real strength in compassion). It means we feel our own suffering as inseparable from someone else’s.
It’s the place inside of us we’ve had our whole lives that allows us to understand the suffering of another person without them even saying a word. Compassion is our willingness to feel the suffering, pain, and messy stuff of life that we would rather avoid. It’s our ability to take off the hard, protective layer we’ve been carrying around our whole life because we thought the suffering of the world would overwhelm us.
And here’s the magic, when we actually build our capacity to feel compassion, we find underneath it all there is actual genuine joy. Not the kind of joy that comes from things going your way, or any external reference. This deep well-spring of joy comes from finally allowing ourselves to feel. It’s the feeling I had after I let myself sob for an hour over the PETA photos. I not only felt relief but I also felt the openness of my own heart, which felt truly joyful. I felt more open and clear.
The world needs more people who base their actions on the clarity of having an open heart. Free from pity and opinions, compassion allows us to take intelligent action because we know that ultimately we are all connected through our suffering and joy.