reflection: The importance of reaching for compassion, even when you don’t want to.

This piece is dedicated to my fierce, fearless friend Ian Callahan. Thank you for giving me the space to dissect the many levels and layers of compassion while loving me unconditionally through the process. I love you.

In my experience, feeling sadness or anger frequently indicates a deep desire to connect.

I’d even go as far as saying that sometimes, I use sorrow and rage as masks, hoping they’ll camouflage the deep longing to be loved that’s hiding underneath.

Anger has a funny way of providing us with a false sense of control and protection over the undeniable vulnerability that comes with wanting to be loved, and sadness gives us an excuse to refrain from any type of connection at all. In the midst of these emotions, my inner dialogue goes as follows: “I’m going to control this situation because I’m angry and I will make sure this doesn’t happen again,” or, “I’m too sad for this, I’ve given up, and I’m going to isolate myself so this won’t happen again.”

Different tactics, different emotions, same reasons: Protection from pain and freedom from suffering.

For me, breakups are when I get those “you’ll get what you deserve” or “our suffering is not the same” feelings. And, quite frankly, prior to learning about what compassion is and why it’s so damn important, after being hurt time and time again, I eventually became convinced that the only way to escape the pain I was feeling was to inflict it onto the person who had caused it.

This attempt to hurt those who I thought wronged me manifested in different ways: demanding an apology, seeking revenge, holding a grudge, or having that, “final conversation” over and over again. (Spoiler alert: That conversation never goes as planned, and puts the healing process to an abrupt halt.) I now realize that what I thought was “revenge” was really just my desperate need to gain the sort of closure I felt I needed to move on. To lick my wounds. To get a sense of freedom from the physical and emotional weight that accompanies betrayal, confusion, and loss.

If you’ve ever felt like the only way to relieve yourself of this weight is to avoid it or pass it onto someone or something else, you’re not alone. In her book, Lovingkindness, The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Sharon Salzberg discusses this recycled resentment. She writes:

“Anger and aversion express themselves in acts of hostility and persecution. The mind becomes very narrow. It isolates someone or something, fixates on it, develops tunnel vision, sees no way out, fixes that experience, that person, or that object as being forever unchanging. Such aversion supports an endless cycle of harm and revenge.”  

Ironically, while learning this in my meditation teacher training, my first reaction to this view was anger. “So, what,” I thought, “Everyone’s off the hook? No one has to pay for what they’ve done? I’m supposed to feel happy all of the time, and that will stop the cycle of suffering?” I’ve gathered I’m not the only person who’s jumped to these conclusions, for Sharon provides guidance on this notion as well:

“How can we let go in this situation? How can we change it? We can focus our attention more on the suffering of the situation, both our own and the suffering of others, rather than our anger. We can ask ourselves who we are really angry at. Mostly what we are angry at is the anger in the other person. It is almost as if the other person were an instrument for the anger that moved through them and motivates them to act in unskillful ways.”

The point: When we’re feeling sad, angry, confused, or hurt towards another, we aren’t feeling it towards them. We are feeling it towards their sadness, anger, confusion, or hurt. Our pain is a direct result of their pain.

Maitrī meditation—also known as loving-kindness meditation—is a practice where you visually invite sentient beings of all kinds in and out of your mind’s eye. As they come and go, you wish them happiness, health, safety, and a feeling of ease. This includes beings you love, beings you don’t know, and beings you don’t like.

So, why the hell would you wish well to those who have hurt you? Why would you wish someone you could never imagine hurting the same thing as someone you’ve super blocked on all social media platforms? Because, chances are—though it may manifest in different ways—all of this suffering is stemming from a similar place, no matter who is experiencing it. This suffering includes yours, mine, people we dislike, people don’t know, and everyone in-between. That being said, despite our initial instinct to differentiate ourselves from others, place blame on people or circumstances around us over and over again, and cling onto revenge or closure—this view offers an alternative approach: compassion. Rather than choosing to react to anger and sadness with more anger and sadness, we pause to contemplate the origin of these emotions. If we pause, bring awareness to the emotions, and respond (rather than react) to them, THAT is compassion.

To clarify: Reaching for compassion does not mean we shove our feelings into a dark, secluded place so we don’t feel them, face them, and learn from them. Reaching for compassion does not mean we allow others to impose pain into our lives. It does not mean we are giving a stamp of approval for harmful gestures, we have to be best friends with people who have left scars on our hearts, or that everyone is “off the hook.” It means that compassion does not pick favorites. It means you can be compassionate towards another’s suffering without allowing them to hurt you, and it suggests that “the hook” is merely a constructed concept we sometimes create in attempt to hurt another and protect ourselves. Paradoxically, in doing so, we hurt ourselves more.

Wishing yourself happiness and health can be done despite your imperfections and the mistakes you’ve made. Wishing another person safety and a sense of ease can be done without interacting with them directly. It is this concept—that hatred can only end where love begins—that has the ability to see through walls we try to build in hopes of protecting ourselves. These walls are no different than masks of anger and sadness, disguising our exposed hearts.

Compassion has the ability to aid courage. This courage can break these walls, take off our masks, and allow us to love. For me, no matter how exposed I feel, that is what makes life worth living.

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