I gave a dharma talk on Compassion recently at our Sunday Morning Zen program. What I found interesting in my preparation was that you can’t truly be compassionate to others unless you are also compassionate to yourself. Which means a willingness to feel your own pain, either physical or emotional, without judgment. It’s a gentle yet strong ability to bear witness to exactly what’s going on, whether within your body or your environment.
Compassion means to directly feel passion with. Within this context passion means pain. Another way to say it is that compassion is the willingness to feel another’s pain as your own. I think that most of us are pretty terrified of our own pain - whether physical or emotional - and seek to fix, change or distract ourselves from it whenever it arises hoping it will go away.
When was the last time that you willingly felt your own pain? It’s not easy. Emotional pain includes fear and anxiety, to name just two. Working with pain is practicing self-compassion by which you are willing to shift your attention to be with what is there - to feel your fear or physical pain consciously and breathe.
In Zen we say that enlightenment or awakening is to see things as they are.
When we’re angry, fearful or anxious can we just breathe and be with those states. Can we try to let go of our grip on the story thatʻs running through our minds? Larry Yang teaches that if we donʻt look deeply into these states, we deny the authentic reality arising in the moment. He says, “We must listen to what is underneath it all, to where freedom is calling from, by asking: Can I open to this? Can I turn toward this? Or in the inadequate language with which we must communicate, can I love this too?”
I was lying in bed last night and noticed my right hip and lower back area felt tight and a bit sore. I tried to gently stretch my body to see if that would help, but the ache didn’t go away.
I decided to bring my attention to this area and simply witness it. I greeted it, and said gently to the area, "Hello pain, I see and feel you." I focused my attention on the pain. I didn’t try to fix or change it. I was simply bearing witness to it. After a few minutes, I noticed the pain shifting and lessening in intensity. And then it was gone, and I fell asleep.
Patience is important when practicing compassion. Little by little we practice and extend our capacity to open our hearts to suffering. Zen master Bernie Glassman said, “Wisdom is the very state of what we are and being in that state without separation is nothing but wisdom. But,” he continues, “awakened beings don’t stop there. Because they are enlightened they practice compassion, the function of wisdom.”
Be compassionate to yourself and witness your pain. Be braver and love it.
Malama pono (take good care of body, mind and heart),
June Kaililani Ryushin Tanoue
Kumu Hula and Sensei