“The more we can be with our own difficulty, our own pain, the easier it is to be with the pain and difficulties of others.”
~ Joseph Goldstein
The naked man
Many years ago, I was waiting for a bus to take me into Mumbai. My traveling companion had accidentally booked us a hotel room in a small town on the outskirts of the city. Instead of canceling our reservation and losing our money, we decided to stay there for a couple nights. Needless to say, this was not a touristy place.
It was early morning and the air was cold. The temperature was probably hovering just above freezing. The streets were deserted and we were shivering on the curb in a tired daze.
Suddenly, I became aware of a completely naked man meandering down the street toward us. I had to look twice to believe my eyes.
Poverty is a shocking reality in India, especially for someone like me from a middle-class family in Canada. Even after traveling for a month in that country, this still came as quite a surprise to me.
The man, I observed, wearing not even a pair of sandals, was slowly collecting pieces of trash. He sat himself down across the street from where we were waiting and started a fire with a short stick.
I continued to watch, mesmerized, as the man huddled by his small fire. Then, the bus arrived. I boarded and left the man behind.
Where is he now? I sometimes wonder.
What is compassion?
It wasn’t until months later when I was reflecting on this event that my friend said, if she had been me, she would have given him the shirt off her back. That was a difficult comment for me to hear.
Why didn’t I give him my shirt? Clearly, he needed it more than me.
The thing is, it was cold out. I was shivering in the little clothing I had on. Removing my shirt would have made me terribly uncomfortable. Besides, it would have looked ridiculous for me to be walking around shirtless, right?
According to Cambridge Dictionary, compassion is “a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them.”
The truth is, I had no compassion for this man, which was painful to admit. Obviously, I could not have helped all the people I encountered on my journey that needed it, but I could have helped him. I could have alleviated some of his suffering, if only for a moment.
What made me very uneasy months after this incident is that I had valued my own comfort more than this man’s well being. A small act of kindness could have made a meaningful difference in his life, yet that wasn’t a sacrifice I was willing to make.
Why? Why wasn’t I willing to make that sacrifice?
I wasn’t a bad person. I wasn’t a mean person, either. In fact, I was mostly a kind, empathetic, and loving person. I did my best to get along with people.
But, how do I reconcile these seemingly true things with my lack of compassion?
It’s taken me a long time to make this connection, but my lack of compassion for others stemmed from a lack of compassion for myself. It doesn’t sound right to say I hated myself at the time, but I would say I felt a lot of hate toward myself.
Do you ever feel this way? Do you ever feel like when you turn your gaze inward you are disgusted or ashamed or hateful of what you see? This was how I felt about myself back then, although I would have found that difficult to communicate. In a strange way, I was blind to the negative thoughts I had toward myself and to the suffering they caused.
Perhaps I was blind to this because it was all a habit formed long ago. Perhaps the negativity and suffering just felt normal. Perhaps I thought I deserved to suffer.
One habit I had was negative self-talk. If you’re anything like me, you can’t let a single mistake go without directing some kind of negative judgement toward yourself. And, of course, the bigger the mistake, the worse the judgement.
Have you ever screwed up a recipe? Said something you later regretted at a business meeting? Had a bad game at a sport you play? Gotten into a car accident that was your fault?
If you’ve ever made a mistake in your life, chances are you’ve spent some time beating yourself up for it. Oddly, we can be so absorbed by the perverse pleasure we get from hating on ourselves that we don’t even really notice (or care?) how much suffering we’re causing ourselves.
(To be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t critically reflect on our behavior. At least for me, I tended to regularly cross the line from self-talk that was useful to self-talk that was indulgent and detrimental.)
Addictions and fears
Have you ever felt disgust or shame or hate toward yourself for an addiction or fear?
Two of my addictions were videogames and Netflix. Whenever I wasn’t distracted by some other activity, I would be desperate to return to them, to be lost in them. But no matter how much of them I got, I would always leave feeling empty and hollow, like no amount of those activities would ever be enough to satisfy my thirst for them. Inevitably, I would feel ashamed for avoiding what I really needed to do.
Then, there were my fears. I’ve had a lot of social anxiety in my life. I was afraid of people not liking me and of people thinking I was uninteresting or dumb. And this caused me to shut down whenever I was around people. I didn’t try to connect with anyone I didn’t know well or add value to any conversation in which I felt uncomfortable. I would return home at the end of the day feeling disappointed and frustrated that I couldn’t be myself around other people. I hated that I was so fearful.
What we do with our suffering
Do you think it’s odd that we cause so much of our own suffering?
I certainly didn’t! It felt natural, easy. It was an ingrained habit. When I was upset with myself I believed that I deserved to feel like shit. So, I gritted my teeth, bared down, and absorbed my suffering like a hard right hook to the chin.
These are the kinds of suffering we endure day in and day out. These are everyday kinds of suffering, which can’t compare to the suffering we see on the nightly news.
Day after day we watch heart-wrenching stories about the harrowing journeys of refugees or bus crashes involving youth sports teams. These are the stories we’re told deserve our sympathy. These are the stories we’ve been trained to feel compassion about. And, sure enough, you frequently see people reaching out during these times to help.
So, we accept our everyday suffering as a normal part of being alive, of being human. We pay as little attention to it as possible and pretend that everything is fine.
But, it’s not really fine, is it?
Try as we might, our suffering permeates every aspect of our lives. And the more we turn away from it, the more we pretend it’s not there, the worse it gets.
The question is, if we don’t consider our own everyday suffering to be worthy of our attention and compassion, how can we expect ourselves to think of someone else’s everyday suffering as worthy of our attention or compassion?
Short answer: we can’t.
So, when we see a naked man sitting across the street from us, cold and alone, it’s hard for us to relate to his suffering because we can’t even relate to our own.
Turning our minds toward our own suffering is what helps to make other people’s suffering relatable. But, how do we do this? How do we turn our minds inward to start to understand how our suffering affects our lives?
For me, the answer was simple: be mindful.
In the past, I never paid much attention to the thoughts rolling through and around my mind. So, when I first sat down to simply follow my breath, I didn’t know what to expect. What I discovered was that my mind was completely out of control. It was such a simple exercise, but my I couldn’t focus at all.
It was the first time in my life that I’d ever observed my thoughts in this way.
Eventually, I began to distinctly notice my thoughts outside of the times when I was meditating. It was then that I was finally able to observe how much negativity I directed toward myself on a daily basis.
Since then, my perspective on suffering has changed, and my life along with it. After noticing how critical I was of myself, I began to see how profound an impact those thoughts had on the quality of my life.
Since I could no longer ignore or deny the suffering I was causing myself (it simply became self-evident whenever I did it), I had to ask whether this was the way I wanted to live.
It wasn’t, I decided.
It was in this decision that the seed of self-compassion took root in my mind. This was the end of treating myself as an enemy and the beginning of treating myself as a friend. I suddenly cared about the quality of my life and I felt motivated to improve it, not because I didn’t feel good enough but because I felt I deserved it.
Finding compassion for myself flipped the switch on what I felt I deserved. Whereas before I felt I deserved to suffer, now I felt like I deserved to flourish.
To my surprise, seeing my own suffering from this newfound perspective opened up my mind to seeing other people’s suffering from the same perspective. I found myself caring about other people’s internal suffering — the suffering I couldn’t see yet knew was there.
Because none of us escape everyday suffering. We’re all engaged in negative self-talk. We’re all dealing with our own addictions and fears. And we all mostly suffer alone.
So, be mindful.
Be mindful so that you can be compassionate with yourself and live with less suffering. Be mindful so that you can see the suffering of others and be moved toward compassion for them.
When I think back on that man in India, I feel a small measure of solace in understanding why I did not act toward him with compassion.
Today, I am simply grateful for all that has happened since. He was the catalyst for one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned.
I will never forget him.