During my university years on one icy morning I fell with my bike and had to make my way to a doctor’s office with an injured knee. I felt the physician to be lacking sensitivity as he worked on my wound. But his nurse noticed my discomfort and held me in her loving gaze. My memory of this whole experience is dominated by the feeling of her loving attention.
Many of us can remember an experience like this. The support and compassion we received are now a treasure deep within, and they help inform how we benefit others. We all grew up in an environment that shaped our way of thinking, being, and acting. Especially in these modern times, when we have access to the diversity of so many different cultures, we can see that our particular culture strongly influences us. There is a lot we can learn from other cultures, but it’s also good to know about how we were uniquely shaped.
Difference between cultures
The American psychotherapist John Welwood studied and wrote about the differences between Western and Eastern psychology. And the well-known Tibetan teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche teaches and writes about the challenge we Westerners face with our strong tendencies towards self-criticism and low self-esteem. In some areas of Asia, especially in Tibet, children grow up relatively free of demands and restrictions. The idea is that they are to be educated, but very slowly. They are first allowed to be as they are. This slow approach engenders a deep sense of being fundamentally good, welcomed as they are naturally. Usually in the West we learn very early that we are especially welcome and good if we do what others like.
The effect of this difference shows up in our psychological functioning and also in our spiritual needs. This helps explain the different styles of teaching meditation and Buddhist ideas. If we have a conscious connection to our basic goodness, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche spoke about it, this affects our well-being and our self-understanding in a different way than if we are identified with weakness, shame, and fear.
If we don’t have confidence in our own basic goodness, then we have a complicated relationship with loving kindness and compassion. If we don’t know that we are basically good, then we have difficulty trusting our love and compassion. At the same time, typically our experience of kindness and compassion from outside has been mixed. Someone may have treated us kindly, but with a less than kind motive. We’ve learned to be careful. Consequently most of us modern Westerners have a lot of doubt and self-doubt. It can be very helpful to keep this difference in mind as we approach traditional Asian methods and teachings.
Modern psychological research recognizes more and more positive effects of practices related to loving kindness and compassion. In communicating and relating to ourselves and others, there are numberless healing outcomes. What can we do to awaken and strengthen these capacities? Last week we began to reflect on loving care; compassion is closely related.
Compassion and pity
When I first met Buddhism I was fascinated with the concept of compassion (Mitgefühl in German). Mitgefühl means “feeling with,” while Mitleid (translated as “pity” in English) means “suffering with.” Also I was surprised to notice the Tibetan lamas pointing towards their chest and heart area when saying “I” and “me” and not pointing to their head. I felt an important difference but could not really understand it. Until that time both privately and professionally, opening to someone else’s pain and suffering I tended to be a bit scared of becoming overwhelmed. People talked about the importance of being able to protect oneself in some way. But surprisingly, experimenting with some of the Buddhist methods I found that something changed: I felt soft and warm instead of helpless in the face of suffering.
It is possible to connect with our heart in the face of difficulty.
If we are nourished by warmth and space there we can find a more beneficial way of responding to challenges. Compassion is warm and empathic with the experience of difficulty and the person who is challenged. Pity is a different feeling. Facing suffering in private or professional situations, we sometimes might feel the need to protect ourselves from it. This is a complex topic, but one thing we can know for now is that feeling compassionate nourishes us too. We are sharing the heaviness, intensity and warmth of someone’s experience, but we don’t have to get lost in their suffering. There is a lot to explore. In German we have a saying: shared suffering is half suffering.
The same is true for us. Drowning in self-pity, often we have trouble to see a possible way out. On the other hand, feeling what we feel in a warm, clear, and comforting manner, we can see where we really are in that situation. This view can coexist with our feelings of suffering.
There is nothing to avoid, nothing to change. We feel and see where we are with compassion and exactly this might open our view. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have a solution, but we feel very different. It’s a gentle, accepting, and loving approach with ourselves.