By Richard Daley
Being there for others is not easy.
When someone is suffering a loss, or facing a challenging circumstance, there are a lot of ways we can impact them either positively or negatively. Although our aim may be to help, saying the wrong thing or not knowing what to say may cause more distress for the person than we intended.
Offering cure-alls or personal stories of similar challenges is best substituted for a state of calm collectedness. Saying nothing or offering our sympathies can be a more effective antidote. The pure act of being heard by an empathetic and receptive friend can be of great help and put those struggling on the path to healing.
When one experiences the loss of a loved one for example, the natural responses are rich, and powerfully human.
The impermanence of life, and the truth that we all eventually lose our strength and health is both confusing and concerning. Grief is tough to wrestle with, and the more we can do to help those we care for, the better.
In Buddhism there are teachings on four states of mind, and these seem to provide answers to situations that have a social context. Referred to as the sublime attitudes (brahmavihāras) or the sublime states, these teachings fuse with our innate desire for true happiness. Our existence is unfortunately rife with stress and obstacles that we must overcome or be trampled by. These mind states can help us navigate the maze and help others along the way.
The Four Sublime Attitudes defined by American Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
Of these four attitudes, goodwill (mettā) is the most fundamental. It’s a wish for true happiness, both for yourself and for others. Because the highest level of true happiness comes from within, your true happiness need not conflict with that of anyone else. Thus, goodwill can be extended to all beings without contradiction or hypocrisy. The next two attitudes are essentially applications of goodwill.
Compassion (karuṇā) is what grows out of goodwill when you see suffering: You want the suffering to stop.
Empathetic joy (muditā) is what grows out of goodwill when you see happiness: You want that happiness to continue.
Equanimity (upekkhā) is a different attitude, in that it acts as an aid to and a check on the other three. When you encounter suffering that you can’t stop no matter how hard you try, you need equanimity to avoid creating additional suffering and to channel your energies to areas where you can be of help. You also need equanimity to strengthen your endurance when meeting with difficulties or needing to make sacrifices in the course of striving for greater happiness. In this way, equanimity isn’t cold-hearted or indifferent. It simply makes your goodwill more focused and effective by opening your heart to the lessons of your head.
So, how can we utilize these Buddhist tools that are at our disposal to be there for others? Channeling these attitudes into verbal discourse can act as a support for those in need.
To show our goodwill we can speak on our appreciation for the person suffering. “Having you as a friend, has been invaluable. If you need assistance during this transitional time, please let me know.” Sometimes in relationships with our friends and family, we are hesitant to show thanks or appreciation. In tough times, it is more important than ever to be honest and provide care to those who need it.
In Buddhism, compassion is an application of deep empathy.
We tune in and recognize the suffering in other people. We come to accept this suffering is like our own and we actively wish for freedom from it.
“According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive—it’s not empathy alone—but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and loving kindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is loving kindness).” – The Dalai Lama
Feeling a deep joy is not typically something we associate with times of tragedy or challenge. We can; nonetheless, reflect on good times in the past, or on our bonds with others to find that joy. Celebrating successes or calling to mind moments of great happiness become the opportunity to support a grieving or suffering friend. We can remind those struggling of their virtues and inner strength and celebrate that together.
With Equanimity, we establish a peaceful calmness whether we are opposing the downs in life or underscoring the ups. Acceptance that all beings encounter both, and that our potential for happiness in this life is conditioned by our own patterns of intention.
We can fight a losing battle, or we can accept and move beyond our habituated reactions to our experience.
Richard’s writing draws inspiration from Buddhism, psychology, neuroscience, and sometimes his passion for plant life and bonsai. Some of the central principles in Buddhist practice are compassion, wisdom, meditation and equanimity. Richard attempts to integrate these principles into his content, and share ways that we can analyze, and make sense of our experience in an uncertain world. Look for more of him here.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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