Why We Suffer
Like the mother of the world who carries the pain of the world in her heart, you are sharing in the totality of this pain and are called upon to meet it in compassion and joy instead of self-pity.—Sufi master Pir Vilayat Khan
Alan Wallace, a leading Western teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, puts it like this: “Imagine walking along a sidewalk with your arms full of groceries, and someone roughly bumps into you so that you fall and your groceries are strewn over the ground. As you rise up from the puddle of broken eggs and tomato juice, you are ready to shout out, ‘You idiot! What’s wrong with you? Are you blind?’ But just before you can catch your breath to speak, you see that the person who bumped into you is actually blind. He, too, is sprawled in the spilled groceries, and your anger vanishes in an instant, to be replaced by sympathetic concern: ‘Are you hurt? Can I help you up?’ Our situation is like that. When we clearly realize that the source of disharmony and misery in the world is ignorance, we can open the door of wisdom and compassion.”
Each person who comes for spiritual teachings or psychotherapy carries his or her measure of confusion and sorrow. Buddhism teaches that we suffer not because we have sinned but because we are blind. Compassion is the natural response to this blindness; it arises whenever we see our human situation clearly. Buddhist texts describe compassion as the quivering of the heart in the face of pain, as the capacity to see our struggles with “kindly eyes.” We need compassion, not anger, to help us be tender with our difficulties and not close off to them in fear. This is how healing takes place.
Beneath the sophistication of Buddhist psychology lies the simplicity of compassion. We can touch into this compassion whenever the mind is quiet, whenever we allow the heart to open. Unfortunately, like the clay covering the golden Buddha, thick layers of ignorance and trauma can obscure our compassion. On the global scale, ignorance manifests as injustice, racism, exploitation, and violence. On a personal scale, we see our own states of envy, anxiety, addiction, self-judgment, and aggression. When we take this blindness to be the end of the story, we limit the possibility of human development. Consider Freud, whose revolutionary work brought so much understanding of the psyche. But in Civilization and Its Discontents, he comes to a deeply pessimistic conclusion about the human heart. He states, “Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man’s aggressive instincts . . . the ideal’s commandment to love one’s neighbour as yourself . . . is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to original human nature as this.” Yes, we must recognize this aggressive aspect of our human nature. But in this essay, Freud stops there, completely missing the opposite and more powerful fact that our individual lives and our whole society are built upon innumerable acts of kindness.