The Power of True Compassion

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Over the past few months, I have had several experiences with family members and friends offering help or advice that I neither asked for nor wanted. Mostly, these offers of help were as simple as offering to do something for me or suggesting that they might be able to do something better or more efficiently. I have noticed how resistant I am to this unsolicited help.

At the spring Still Water practice retreat, I caught myself offering unsolicited help. It was a silent retreat, and my wife and I were members of the same cooking team. I decided to slice the bread in order to “help her out.” It had the exact opposite effect. It annoyed her, and believe me, I was still able to determine that my actions were not pleasing to her even though no words were spoken.

Since the retreat, I have noticed several instances where I rushed in to “help” someone or to solve a problem without consulting with the person I was trying to help.  I have been noticing that my desire to fix or rescue has very little to do with the other person. When I look deeply at my motives and behaviors, I realize that most of the time I am simply attempting to micromanage circumstances in order to spare myself some future suffering.

In an interview recorded by the filmmaker Martin Doblmeier Thich Nhat Hanh describes how helping others can be helpful to ourselves:

At the heart of Buddhism is the idea of interconnectedness. We all suffer. That is the first noble truth of Buddhism: Suffering is a reality. And the practice begins with the awareness that suffering is there in you and it is there in that other person. When you have seen suffering, you are motivated by the desire to remove suffering — the suffering in you and the suffering in that other person — because if that person continues to suffer, it will make you suffer somehow later on. So helping other people remove their suffering means doing something for you also.

However, offering unsolicited help to solve a problem that the other person does not want me to solve is not really helping the other person. What is lacking is compassion.

In Peace Is Every Step, Thay writes,

Compassion is a mind that removes the suffering that is present in the other. We all have the seeds of love and compassion in our minds, and we can develop these fine and wonderful sources of energy. We can nurture the unconditional love that does not expect anything in return and therefore does not lead to anxiety and sorrow.

The essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves ‘inside the skin’ of the other. We go ‘inside’ their body, feelings, and mental formations, and witness for ourselves their suffering. Shallow observation as an outsider is not enough to see their suffering. We must become one with the object of our observation. When we are in contact with another’s suffering, a feeling of compassion is born in us. Compassion means, literally, ‘to suffer with.’”

When I look deeply at my own motives in trying to solve a problem for someone who has not asked for help, I realize that I am merely making a “shallow observation as an outsider” and then acting in accord with my own assessment of the situation.

A more skillful approach would be to use the power of compassion in order to see more deeply and to understand more fully how the other person suffers and how to best offer help. As I have practiced this, I have realized that often the other person is simply wanting someone to listen to them. Moreover, rather than being experienced as a kindness, my efforts to rescue someone or fix something for someone who is not asking for help is experienced as an intrusion. The person “being helped” may feel overpowered, controlled, or manipulated.

This Thursday evening after our sitting and walking meditation, our Dharma sharing will focus on our experiences with helping and being helped. I offer these questions to guide our sharing:

    • What feelings and emotions arise in you when you receive unsolicited help?
    • What helps you ask for help when you feel you need it?
    • Have the mindfulness practices of developing understanding and compassion changed how you help others and how you seek help for yourself?

I hope you will be able to join us.

Warm wishes,

Eric Donaldson

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