This week I went to the funeral of a six month old baby who died suddenly. The whole family was in terrible pain, especially the grandmother. How do we deal with such pain?
Aaron: This is a difficult situation for you. You are asked to do two things simultaneously, to respond compassionately to the suffering of those around you and at the same time to keep your own calmness and not become involved emotionally in the pain. Yet it seems a conflict for you. If you don’t become involved, if you keep a distance, then you wonder how to respond compassionately.
When someone is feeling great pain, it does them no good for you to break down and weep. I am not saying it is wrong to cry. If your tears are natural to you, that is fine. But if you go to a place which has been ravaged by war or natural disaster and all you can do is sit and cry over the pain you see around you, you cannot help.
A mixture of two vital elements is needed here. There must be awareness that makes you sensitive to others’ pain. Within this awareness is compassion which allows you to deeply feel your oneness with every being and to know that your pain and theirs is the same. The second element is equanimity, a deep inner calmness and balance which comes from a knowledge that all phenomena and feelings are impermanent, that they all are these passing clouds we’ve talked so much about. Equanimity also grows out of a trust in each soul’s wisdom to have chosen the situation it needs for its own learning and an acceptance that sometimes the learning situation will be painful.
Your lives weave a complex tapestry. Every life touches every other life. For whatever its reasons, this child has moved on. Of course this death affects family and friends. You spoke of the intensity of the grandmother’s pain. Certainly, I cannot say that the grandmother has chosen the grandchild’s death for her own learning, and yet certainly she is learning here, something perhaps that her grandchild was willing to teach her.
In each place where your life touches another’s and that person chooses, with its own free will, the decisions for its own life, you are touched by that being’s choices. Your ability to accept the decisions of another is what allows you to respond with calm awareness and to give love. Here is where the elements of awareness and equanimity must work together. Where there is awareness without equanimity, you will be overwhelmed by all the pain that comes past you. Where there is calmness but little awareness, you dwell in a center of self, calm within yourself but insensitive to the world around. This is not true equanimity, but fear which walls off the pain. There is a semblance of calmness, but it grows from a closed heart, not an open one.
When you cultivate both of these qualities you can learn to respond to others compassionately and truly to serve them, not from a center of self but a center of love. You become able to accept their pain into yourself and to know that you are big enough to hold it and not to be afraid of it. Then it ceases being their pain or your own pain and becomes our pain, the shared pain of mankind, born with love by the heart we all share. To do this you must simply let the pain pass through you and acknowledge it without holding on to it. I am not saying this is easy, but keep it in mind as a goal.
It may help you to think of a being who serves others who are in pain, such as Mother Teresa. Such a being gives selflessly to others and does not break down and weep helplessly amidst the suffering but copes with it calmly and accepts it without approving it. You truly can absorb these qualities of acceptance and compassion into yourself by thinking about them in a being you admire and understanding them at a deeper level.
Let’s return to the being sitting and weeping at others’ pain, perhaps in a war zone or with a friend by their loved one’s grave. You wonder, “Isn’t it sensitivity that leads to the weeping?” I tell you it is not sensitivity so much as fear. The being who weeps at seeing death and brutality is aware and sensitive, but eventually stops weeping and works to alleviate the suffering. The being who keeps weeping is not responding to others’ pain but to his own suffering which grows out of his own fear of finding himself in a similar situation. This is what I mean when I say it comes from a center of self.
You must be honest with yourself here. Are you weeping for another or yourself? When the distinction between self and other is dissolved, there is no longer your pain and my pain but our pain, and together we are strong enough to bear it. When you personalize it and claim it as your own, then your fear grows. It becomes impossible to respond with love when your life is ruled by fear.
Each being who works with others who are suffering must confront this fear in himself. Unless you acknowledge it, you cannot move beyond it. There is nothing to criticize or blame here, just feeling, your own very real feeling of “What if that were me?” Let the fear in and look at it, without judgment. Then you will be able to transcend the pain and in doing so, your own strength and calm will lend peace to others and allow them also to move beyond it. What you are asked to do here is to allow love to replace the fear, so that you are freed of the negativity and your own natural compassion may take hold.
The more you are able to send love to pain, the less hold it will have over your lives and the more your own compassion will serve as a guide and inspiration to others. Love is a very potent tool. I urge you to try it.