We don’t suffer because of compassion; we suffer because of attachment and anger

May 25, 2023

Let’s say you see suffering in the world, like Covid, like Ukraine – you name it. Every day there’s always going to be something terrible happening on this planet; we know that. 

So, what happens is you’ll have compassion, “Oh, no, look at the suffering.” And then we feel terrible, get angry, or depressed, or confused and fearful. 

In other words, we start to suffer too. And we just assume that we suffer because of the suffering out there and because we have compassion, empathy.

But that’s not accurate. Using the Buddhist view of the mind that talks about how we have negative, neurotic, unhappy states of mind such as attachment, anger, depression; and the positive, virtuous, productive states of mind such as love and compassion, necessarily the virtuous states of mind cannot cause suffering. 

What causes us to suffer when we look out into the world and see the mess it’s in is our attachment, anger and the rest. This really needs thinking about. It’s so totally natural for us to get angry or depressed when we see bad things, but we never question it, we don’t do the analysis. 

One thing is the event out there, the other thing is our interpretation – in this case, anger. “But of course I’m angry, look at what those people are doing to these other people!” we’ll say. In other words we don’t distinguish between the external event and our own interpretation of it. 

So how does attachment play a role in our suffering when we see others suffering and then have compassion? Well, it’s deep in the bones of our being. It’s an assumption that we must see and hear and touch and taste and smell only nice things. It’s a junkie for nice experiences, and when they don’t come, when attachment doesn’t get what it wants, we have a panic attack that manifests in anger, if our personality is more volatile, or in depression if we’re quieter.

That attachment and anger or depression then pollutes our compassion and drags us down. But we assume it’s the suffering out there that causes our suffering. No. It’s our emotional hunger for it not to be there because it’s disturbing our peace, and then the anger.

Then what happens, we follow our compassion and try to do something to help the situation. Let’s assume it’s our alcoholic sister. What we don’t see is that our attachment pollutes the compassion, clouds it, limits it; it causes us to stick our nose in and get her to go to AA or whatever; it causes anxiety.

Because compassion in its best form has some clear wisdom: you see the suffering and you can see whether she is ready to be helped; you’re more objective. But attachment messes it up. Attachment also has masses of expectation that she will get better, and if she doesn’t let’s say, we get angry with her, disappointed. And we suffer even more.

We think we suffer because of our alcoholic sister. No. We suffer because of attachment, anger and the rest. This is very sobering.

As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, “Meaning well is not enough. We need wisdom.”

Which means by learning to lessen these delusions we can just naturally grow our compassion and our wisdom.

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