There are many stories of Mother Matrina, a nun in the Early Christian Church and a prominent saint in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches. Here is one:
A young doctor came to see Mother Matrina. "Mother," they said, "I cannot bear all the suffering I see or hear about every day. It is just too much for me. I cannot understand why God allows such suffering to exist in the world!"
"There is no way for us to understand the existence of suffering," she replied. "We must learn just to bear it, with as much courage and love as we can find. This is the only 'answer' to the problem of suffering we can find."
"But this does not make it any easier to bear!"
"Yes, I know," said Mother Macrina, "but to find an easy way of bearing it is not what we are about." (Parabola, Spring 2003, "A Very Great Gift" by Irma Zaleski)
Every person has experienced suffering at least once in their lives, and most of us have experienced it multiple times in our lives. Because of the universality of suffering, each of the world's religions as well as spiritual and philosophical traditions have attempted to address the existence of suffering and how to bear it. Buddhism's Four Noble Truths teach:
dukkha or suffering is an innate characteristic of existence;
samudaya or the origin of suffering, arises from taṇhā or craving, desire or attachment;
nirodha or the cessation of suffering can be attained by the renouncement or letting go of attachment; The Noble Eightfold Path is the path leading to renouncement of attachment and cessation of suffering.
Many people find that their spiritual or religious beliefs are challenged when they cannot explain or justify the existence of suffering, even doubting their understanding of their god. "Why would god allow suffering in the world?" When experiencing suffering, we often feel powerless, trapped, useless, afraid, psychic and/or physical pain. Suffering is something we try to avoid. No one wants to experience such crippling pain and suffering. And when we see the suffering of others, at least some of us, and at least some of the time, feel enough connectedness with others that we experience some empathy for what they are going through and/or moves us to show them compassion, particularly if their suffering is somehow linked to our lives and/or to our own experience of suffering. Other times, some of us either ignore or numb ourselves or even avoid being aware of the suffering of others. When we see someone who is suffering how do we decide what our response will be? Suffering, as well as empathy and compassion for someone suffering, can bring up complicated and multifaceted feelings and reactions.
Orthodox Christian author and lecturer Irma Zaleski writes: "No religion [or philosophy] can make any sense to us, unless it teaches us, not how to understand … suffering—for that is never really possible—[nor] how to feel empathy with those who must carry its burden, but how to bear it with them. In other words, [religious or philosophical teachings] must [address] compassion…" Can we learn empathy—particularly for those who are suffering? Zaleski doesn't think so. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Some definitions describe it as a skill. We heard earlier what Leslie Jamison wrote: "Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us…it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion... Sometimes we care for another because we know we should or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations. This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention, and I believe in work."
When I think about empathy, two experiences come to mind. One is the homeless person sitting on the sidewalk or walking among the cars at a stoplight, with a sign asking for donations. And the other is sitting at the bedside of someone I love who is suffering and dying. Both of these bring up a variety of feelings, pity, fear, sadness, guilt, uncertainty, powerlessness. With someone I love these feelings are unbidden, as well pronounced, powerful, impactful, and difficult to ignore. However, I have found that I often am not so quick to activate my empathy for people I don't know. Empathy is not unbidden. It has to be intentionally activated or a like any skill, learned and practiced. I have found that the more often I don't activate or exercise empathy, the less often I have to deal with "downer" emotions of others, particularly if I have a "good reason" to ignore them. I can rationalize, telling myself "all that stranger will do with any money he gets is buy alcohol or drugs" or "that person probably works for some organization that hires them to be out here all day getting handouts" or "I have seen on the news that there are people who panhandle even when they are not poor, just to make a little extra cash" or "How do I know if that person is really in need, really suffering?"
Should I allow myself to activate or practice empathy for anyone who might not be suffering? Should I stop and open myself to empathy for everyone who is suffering? Even these two extremes—loved one and stranger, how can I predict how much empathy is enough? Could I get overwhelmed, exhausted, feel taken advantage of? What is the point of empathy anyway? Does it do anything tangible to reduce suffering? And yet even with all that, there are times when I choose empathy, when I choose to stop and recognize the suffering of a stranger. Even if it doesn't feel entirely genuine or powerful or effective. Even if it requires effort or work. Why? I do this because it's the right choice for me. It's who I choose to be, an empathic person. That means that it takes intentionality on my part, to be the person I want to be. I want to activate and develop the skill of empathy.
What happened when you participated in the empathy meditation this morning? Were you able to open yourself up to the pain that someone who you care about is experiencing? Did you experience the center of compassion within? What did it mean to you when you were invited to breathe out light or transform the pain? How does this meditation inform your continued journey of learning to activate or improving the skill of empathy?
I believe that we all have an abundance of compassion within us, or we might say an abundance of lovingkindness within us. And if we tap into it, it can be helpful in caring for ourselves and others. I believe I have enough compassion to be able to offer to hold the pain and suffering of another within in me. With one caveat, I need to be aware caring for myself, aware of my capacities, my limitations, my own pain and suffering. We also need compassion for ourselves. But here's the thing I have learned about myself, I am sometimes so afraid of running out of my own resources of self-love, self-compassion, self-care, attending to my own needs and feelings, that I shut down my empathy and overly limit my compassion for others—perhaps this is something I learned to do as a psychotherapist with 8-10 clients a day, 5-6 days a week, all suffering, all needing empathy. Awareness of self-care is important, in fact it is life sustaining. However, the balance of self-care and the need of others for empathy and compassion is not a static point on the continuum. Balance has a range of movement as we change within and as our circumstance's changes. It is possible to lean too far in one direction or the other. I think I leaned too far in the direction of self-care as a psychotherapist. What balance or moderation or the Middle-way, as Buddhists call it, is different for each one of us. I will not judge what the Middle-way looks like for anyone else but I will be attentive, mindful of what it is for me, so I can use my empathy and compassion more generously.
Zaleski also writes "We do not always understand compassion. We tend to think of it as pity—as feeling sorry for the suffering of others; or we think of it as mercy—an act of forgiveness or a deed of kindness, an offer of help…[like] God's compassion…forgiving us our sins…[or] Christ's compassion mainly in terms of his miracles of healing or feeding the multitude [or] Buddha's 'lovingkindness' in terms of his desire to help all other beings find liberation from suffering. In other words, we tend to view compassion as an attitude or action directed toward others, a kind of 'bending down' of someone more powerful and more fortunate to those who need consolation or help. Compassion does…involve an experience of pity for others and a desire to alleviate their pain. It is, however, more than that. Compassion…is above all, a willingness to share in the suffering of others: to be present to them in their pain and bear it with them, even if it is only in prayer [meditation,] …thought [or a touch]. Compassion is not what we feel, think, or even do, but what we are. The gift of our presence; it is really another word for love."
Empathy is to open ourselves to another's suffering. Compassion is the gift of presence, our willingness to show up, to listen deeply, bear witness, and be with suffering. There are a number of ways to intentionally bring these skills into our lives. Let me use a metaphor from Buddhist mindfulness to suggest one way to learn these bring these skills into our lives.
"Like our minds, puppies are chaotic and constantly getting themselves into trouble. One moment they’re investigating a bug, the next they’re chewing on the sofa and a moment later they’re stuck behind the washing machine. Does that sound familiar? It should. Our minds are just like puppies. They’re constantly darting between distractions, creating imaginary futures, replaying past events, and getting lost in over-analyzing every experience.
When training a puppy, one of the first things we do is teach it to sit and be still. We hope to accomplish something similar for our minds during meditation practice. In meditation, we choose to focus on one thing. Maybe it’s our breath or a mantra or an image. Whatever the object, the purpose is the same: to be mindful and fully in-the-moment, instead of chasing after thoughts and emotions." (Mindfulness Meditation: Why Training Your Mind Is Like Training a Puppy By Lama Tsomo). Empathy and compassion are all about being fully in the moment despite the many things—both internal, like rationalizations or fear of being overwhelmed, and external, like all the perceptions and events that call out to us every moment—that distract our attention. If we decide to make empathy and compassion central aspects of how we live in the world, we have to build those skills through focus and attention. Being mindful, with the intention of empathy and compassion. And when we are distracted, gently bringing our attention back to empathy and compassion. Sit, stay, be empathic and compassionate in the moment. Again and again. This is how we practice.
Obviously, we cannot do this every moment of every day. And likely any behavioral change, progress might be slow. And perhaps we might not even be aware of any change as we go strengthen our empathy and express our compassion, until at some future time we are suddenly aware that we're a little more empathic and/or compassionate than we used to be. Looking for the change to happen will not make it happen quicker, in fact it is like to make the process take much longer because we are distracted, letting our puppy mind wander around sniffing out whether or not we've changed.
Increasing these skills are about awareness and intention. They require time and work and patience. I will say this. In this space in which we share our journeys with one another, we can support one another in our learning and our work, here we can affirm one another's choices and action as we each move toward more authentically being who we are and how we are. That at least to me, makes this place holy. I offer these words by Unitarian Universalist Reverend Andree Mol as we co-create this space in which we can all cultivate compassion and become more empathic.
When I show you that I hear you,
When I say your life matters,
That is where compassion begins…
When I risk my comfort to ease your suffering,
When I act against hatred, violence, and injustice,
That is where courage begins.
When we experience the full presence of each other,
Because of our shared humanity,
Because of our differences,
That is where holy gratitude begins…
May this [sanctuary] be a space of beauty
we create a series of miracles, and
where all that we share is sacred.