Bearing the Pain of Others


I learned a lesson today about walking the Bodhisattva path. It started with a painful conversation with my daughter. She was in pain, sad, distressed, and it made my heart break. I never understood that expression, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” until I became a parent myself. When I first understood it, my eyes opened wide with the realization of how much my own parents love me. I felt incredibly humble and enormously grateful. The unconditional love I have for my daughter amazes me no end, and to know that there are people who love me the same way—well, that’s just stupefyingly mind blowing.

A manifestation of the unconditional love I have for my daughter is that I would bear any pain to spare her pain. I would rather endure agony than see her suffer the slightest pain; seeing her in pain is agony. I would bear any pain to spare my wife pain. I would bear any pain to spare my father, my sister, my nieces and nephews—really, anyone in my family—their pain. I love them, feel compassion for them.

Of course, it wouldn’t really be in any of their interests for me to spare them of all their pain. Pain is natural, common, unavoidable, because we are human and prone to suffering. Yes, we all desire to be free of it, but it exists nonetheless. The people we become, we become in part because of the suffering we have endured and overcome. Even if I had the power to spare my family all of their pain, I’m not sure I’d be doing them any favors.

The desire to free them of their suffering, however, is paramount. The compassion I feel when I see a family member in pain springs from my awareness of what pain feels like and my own desire to be free of suffering. Knowing pain’s unpleasantness, knowing that a family member is experiencing it, drives me to want to do all I can to help my daughter, wife, sister, father free themselves from their suffering.

I’m getting to the lesson now, bear with me. It occurs to me that a Bodhisattva is one who feels that love, compassion, and desire to help others free themselves from suffering, but for all beings. I try to imagine what it would be like to feel that kind of universal love, and it is difficult to comprehend.

Could I feel the compassion I have for my daughter for a close friend? Would I willingly bear his pain? Yes, I think so.

Could I feel the compassion I have for my wife for an acquaintance? Would I willingly bear her pain? Maybe.

Could I feel the compassion I have for my sister for a stranger? Would I willingly bear his pain? I don’t know.

Could I feel the compassion I have for my father for someone who has committed terrible crimes? Would I willingly bear her pain? If I’m going to be honest, then no, I don’t think I’d be able to. Not yet.

But I want to. I really do. And that’s a step in the right direction.


4 responses »

  1. It seems to me you might be missing a great distinction between compassion and empathy. I do not believe that a Bodhisattva would feel the need to take on the pain of another, no matter how much he or she loved them. The goal is to teach them that the pain is caused by their desire, Unless we are talking about some sort of physical pain then I think it would still be counter productive still to want to take on the pain, you cannot and stating such would be pointless except to be empathetic and I for one do not believe in empathy accept for maybe the suffering of a child brought about by circumstances beyond their control, still empathy only puts you at risk of causing an imbalance of your own chemicals.
    If you are concerned about the pain or suffering of another sentient being the most generous thing would be to sit and explain the 4 noble truths, help them to understand then introduce the 8 fold path. The “Universal Love” does not mean taking on the pain, it means lovingly and without bias presenting someone with the truth and with an open heart and open eyes teaching them the definition of desire and suffering and that it is a conditioned consciousness.

    • Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. You are correct. If you look at what I wrote in response to zensationalkids’ comments, you will see that we are on the same wavelength. Bodhisattvas will seek to relieve suffering, but more importantly will teach others to relieve their own suffering. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. They are very helpful to me. Peace.

  2. Do we need to bear their pain, or do we have so much love and compassion for others that it helps THEM to see through their pain. As a parent, it is difficult to see your child suffer with decisions, conflict and the occurrences in their path that begin to form the divides to take them in different directions. It is important to remember that it is these events that shape WHO THEY ARE. When we choose to interfere too much, we deprive them of their ability to access their own inner wisdom to determine solutions. Now teaching our children to use their own guidance system and inner brilliance is a great way to help them deal with pain.

    • It is so nice to have such brilliant friends. You are right in all you say. My poor expression left the impression that I meant that bodhisattvas actually intend to take on others’ pain. A better way to state it, though this lacking, is that they have that willingness to do so, and a wish to help others relieve themselves of their suffering. If give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Same is true of pain and suffering. Relieve their suffering, and they are free for a short time; teach them how to relieve their own suffering and they are free for eternity. Still, it is nevertheless important to relieve their suffering when you can, in addition to teaching them how to do it themselves. The Dharma does not mean that people should be left to figure out their own way out of suffering. Thanks for your wonderful thoughts.

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