Seeing Suffering and Having Compassion

By June 17, 2016 Metta, Mindfulness
(Last Updated On: June 17, 2018)

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There have been many times that I become annoyed with someone for how they are behaving. Before I had a meditation practice and before I was sober I would be frustrated and hold in my annoyance. I would wonder why in the world that person acted that way and how they did not realize how frustrating it was to be around them. I remember when I first started coming to the meditation center I used to go to, there was a woman who drove me crazy. She would take up the whole group asking question and talking about herself. She made very little room for other people’s thoughts and feelings. Every time she spoke I could feel myself tighten and my mind start to go off about how much she bothered me.

sufferingI talked to my partner, my mentor, and my meditation teacher about it. I asked them what I could do to make her less annoying to me. Someone suggested that I notice her suffering. They told me that usually when someone is acting that way it is because they have some kind of pain and suffering. We sometimes forget that we have been that annoying person who takes up too much time and space when we are going through something in our own lives. Once I realized the truth in this I was able to transform my annoying into compassion.

At first it was difficult. I found myself pitying this woman rather than having compassion for her. Truthfully, she still really got on my nerves. Every time she would speak I would think to myself, I know you are suffering and I feel so sorry for you because obviously it must be terrible to make you this annoying! This was not the compassion that my teachers were recommending I have for her. This was just pity that I was trying to use to justify my feelings about the woman. I talked about it and they encouraged me not to give up but whenever my mind drifted into those thoughts to come back to the simple phrase, my I care about your suffering. Using these words would help remind me not to pity the person who was suffering but to care about that suffering like I would my own.

As I continued with the practice of compassion I felt myself starting to open up to this woman who used to annoy me. I no longer pitied her but actually cared about whatever it was she was going through. However, whenever she spoke I would still tune her out so that I could say compassion phrases for her. I went back to my mentor and teacher and talked about my progress. They suggested that now that I was a little more open to her, the compassionate thing to do would be to actually listen to what she was saying and not just tune her out with compassion phrases.

The next time I went to the meditation center I tried this. I actually tried to actively listen to what she was saying. At points it was hard and I found myself getting frustrated and annoyed again. When I noticed this happening I would say my compassion phrase to regroup and then begin again with actively listening to what she was saying. I noticed the more I did this the more I felt connected to her. I felt like I actually had a relationship with her even though we did not really speak. This all came out of simply changing my perspective so that I cared about what she was going through.

In the years I have been practicing Buddhist meditation I have had to do something like this with many different people. Sometimes it is actually easiest to do this with people who I do not really know like the woman at the meditation center. Unlike people I am close to, I did not have to see her too frequently or interact with her if I did not want to. It is different when we have to have compassion for people we are close to or for ourselves. In fact, it has been hardest for me to recognize when my own actions are born out of suffering and when I need to respond to myself with compassion.

I can think of many  times when I have had to come back to this lesson with myself. This might seem small and minor, but it caused me a great deal of suffering. I have a partner who I love but he is not necessarily the cleanest person. I on the other hand am too far on the other side of the spectrum and am a bit of a clean freak. I began noting that every time I came home from school and walked in the door I would be short with him. I would be cold and annoyed. He would ask me what was wrong and I would say nothing was wrong because I did not realize my own behavior was born out of suffering. I never thought that I was annoyed because I would come home and spend a few minutes picking up after him.

After a few weeks of this happening and talking about it with my mentor I started to realize that going home and picking up after him was causing me suffering. It was not the actual act of having to put things back where I liked them that made me suffer. It was my expectation that things would be one way and my resistance to the way things actually were. When I realized this I decided I needed to respond to this suffering with compassion rather than resistance. I started a compassion practice where every time I would go home I would stand outside the door for a few moments and just say to myself something like, “It is going to be messy, and that is going to bother you. But I have compassion for this suffering and everything is alright”.

Once I started doing this and realizing that my behavior toward my partner was born out of suffering, my compassion was able to transform my behavior. After I began pausing outside of the door I noticed that I was happier. I would come in and not be annoyed with him but rather I felt content. I realized that I could probably not change his behavior but I could change how I responded.

The other time that I figured out that I needed to respond to my suffering with compassion is when I was in finals week and noticed I was starting to get very stressed. I had a few finals hanging over my head and I started to feel very anxious. I would wake up a little panicky and worried. I would barely take breaks from studying and would become overworked and even more stressed out. My partner brought to my attention that my stress and stress related behavior was probably related to my suffering. When I realized this I practiced self compassion by taking more breaks and trying to let go a little bit.

Over the course of my practice I have seen my ability to both recognize suffering and respond with compassion develop. At first it took me a long time to realize that someone who was acting in a way that bothered me or I found mean was probably doing it out of suffering. Likewise, it took me a while to realize that my own behavior was the result of suffering. Also in the beginning it took me a while to respond with compassion and not pity or self pity. However, with more practice I have become able to quickly see behavior that is the result of suffering and to respond with compassion.

Author Matthew Sockolov

Matthew Sockolov is a Buddhist meditation teacher and author. He was empowered to teach meditation by Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and is the founding teacher of One Mind Dharma. His new book, Practicing Mindfulness - 75 Essential Meditations is now available on Amazon.

More posts by Matthew Sockolov

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