Adapted from a dharma talk given 6.11.17 by DGZ President George Sanders
Sometimes paying attention can be hard. Being mindful and fully present to what is taking place can be uncomfortable. This is particularly true when it feels like your heart is breaking; when impermanence is rearing its ugly head. Maybe it’s when a romantic partner has decided to hit the road without you or when you’ve lost a job; when a loved one has passed; or when you are feeling isolated or rejected for some reason. Or maybe it’s when you are simply experiencing the anxiety, fear, or regret about having to make a transition to another stage in your life. It is, of course, especially important during those times to exercise self-compassion.
The fascinating thing about that word “compassion” is made up of two words from Latin: com and passio. The meaning of the root word passio means “to suffer.” And com is usually translated as “with.” So compassion is typically translated as “to suffer with.” However, if one stays true to the Latin etymology, the com in “compassion” is more literally “alongside” or “beside.” So compassion actually means “to suffer alongside.”
It’s a subtle difference but an important one when thinking about how we exercise compassion—particularly self-compassion. When we understand compassion to mean “to suffer with” it elicits an association of getting caught up in the suffering, to exist inside the suffering. If instead you are suffering “alongside,” there is some distance. There is this thing, this body and mind, and the skandas, and beside you there is this other thing: suffering. When there is heartbreak in our lives we can easily get caught up in it. We lose ourselves in the sadness and despair. We often assume ownership over our suffering, like when we say, “I am suffering; I am depressed; I am heartbroken.”
In fact, true self-compassion means that we can instead say: there is suffering, there is sadness; there is heartbreak.” With self-compassion, we can acknowledge the impermanence of the suffering and relate it another word with “com” in it: “companion.” We can begin to relate to our suffering in a different way and acknowledge: “There is heartbreak. There you are. You may walk beside me for a time as a companion, and, like other companions, we will eventually part ways. “ I am not my suffering. I am not my heartbreak. You are not your suffering nor are you your heartaches.
There is a story in the Samyutta Nikaya where the Buddha is said to have told a group of followers: “Whatever feeling, perception, conceptual idea, or thoughts there are—whether past, present, or future; internal or external; quiet or loud, insignificant or extremely important; distant or close – each of these should be seen with this understanding: These thoughts, ideas, beliefs and the like are not mine; I am not any of those things; these are not who I am.”
One of the lessons I take away from this passage is simply this: we are not our thoughts and emotions. Neither are we our suffering, sadness, anguish, or loneliness. So maybe the next time it feels as though your heart is rending in two, you can find a way to say: “This is not my suffering. I am not this depression or sadness, this despair, or this feeling of emptiness and grief.” My hope is that you can find the means to practice self-compassion as you stand next to your heavy heart; may you stay present to it and honor it as a companion while it walks alongside you. And may you be gentle and kind to your companion as well as to yourself when it is time to part ways.