It’s worthwhile to observe that it is pain that trumps (sorry) kindness, and the openings, insights, and healing that kindness can lead to. But not always. To experience pain and still manage to be genuinely kind is the domain of those who have insight into reality and to the mechanisms that drive our suffering.
When we are in pain, whether physical, emotional, or mental, we find it hard to be kind or generous in our viewing and interpreting of events. Not high math. Completely natural and automatic for most of us. Forget kind or generous in our viewing, we can’t begin to be accurate in our assessments of situations.
Without training it’s hard to be any other way. When we resist letting our pain cause ourselves and others more suffering by restraining impulses to retaliate, backbite, demonize, etc, we bring the wheel to a grinding halt.
How does this work?
Someone says something to me that I don’t like. In that moment, I feel the sting of the words. I feel my sense of self getting big and dark and solid. Instead of looking closely at that, I look at the source of the words I have just heard, and I insist the pain’s source is located there and not in my viewing.
I refuse to acknowledge that for pain to arise in this body and this mind, I have to be complicit. The impulse to blame everything outside of ourselves for our pain is deeply hard wired in us.
We do not ask ourselves: what causes and conditions gave rise to this experience in me? In that person? We seize on something that belongs to no one as belonging to a “self” that is constructed by identification with things that are impermanent, limited, and not truly “me.”
Let’s break it down. Fictional scenario as an example.
Sylvia, my assistant, has become indispensable for me; she takes care of many chores I can’t take care of as I caretake my ailing aunt. She does this usually happily and reliably. She has struggles of her own, as all of us do, which I’ve tried to help with as much as I have been able. I take pride in supporting the less well off, the less educated. She has a brother who’s in jail and a mother who’s an alcoholic. She manages to be present for her tasks in spite of her personal challenges. Sometimes I am annoyed at remarks she makes that from my perspective are self-important and ignorant. But then, I just think, someone with that much pain needs to feel a sense of worth and control. No biggie. Nobody’s perfect. I am lucky to have this help just now.
One day she makes a remark about my nose; comparing it to the unattractive (from my perspective) nose of a person on TV. Suddenly, that remark erases every single good and kind thing I know she has done for me. On the basis of a moment that was built in her and in me by innumerable causes and conditions she is suddenly written off by me as being absolutely and inherently dark, evil, bad, manipulative, monstrous even, and I want her out, away from me and my space. This is one level of what the Buddhists mean when they talk about denigration and exaggeration. Denying good qualities that are there and exaggerating bad ones. We no longer see the situation in any accurate way at all.
From there I call my friends in my righteous indignation. I have now assumed the victim role. I am a victim of an objectively existing “other” that has nothing to do with “me”. I do not see that the target of my discomfort should be my misknowing, my misunderstanding of this experience. I want to be shown compassion according to what I believe compassion to be: validation of my interpretation, however deluded, however destructive. I can’t see that a truly compassionate friend would stop me in my tracks from generating more negative karma for myself and others. I would prefer to marinate in my habitual and self-created distress. At some level that I am as yet unwilling to entertain, I resent those who have learned to leverage out of at least some of their delusion through admitting to their role in the drama.
Thus begin the proliferations as I nail the lid on the coffin: I report, as though with great objectivity: she did this after I helped her with xyz. How dare she?! In my own home! My rage requires validation of my incomplete interpretation, as though that interpretation can function to free me from this pain I am feeling now.
So now I have the vivid pain I am feeling in response to her words, along with the pain of my rage to exacerbate and fuel the suffering even more, now and ongoingly. And on top of that I have invited others into this misknowing, exporting my ignorance and demanding they come along with me in further reinforcing the wheel of suffering caused by ignorance through generating wrong, mean, vindictive, and therefore unkind acts of body, speech and mind. By relating the story to others from a place of reactivity, I have infected them with my inaccurate interpretation, and thus caused the wheel to spin more and faster, such that now my friends, unless they have the strong immunity of discernment and wisdom, create negative karma along with me by joining me in an inaccurate characterization of the situation about someone (including myself) who simply made a momentary mistake, and is temporarily ignorant and suffering, as am I.
This is how dukkha, our own pain, is made and reinforced. We can see none of our motives, none of our own self-referential behaviors. We cannot see how the very notions of “me” and “mine” are the culprits in this ongoing drama. All along we were “helping” not freely, but conditionally, to prop up our sense of ourselves as good and decent persons. Only we did not have enough understanding of how our “helping” can actually be tainted by not understanding how this “I” we cleave to is at the crux of every bit of our experience of pain and misery.
How else might I look at such a scenario? In fact, our experience has put us in touch with what it is that we identify with. That process of being identified with this or that has to be clearly seen, since seeing that can help us solve the riddle of identity…but for that further contemplation is required. Another approach is to ask ourselves: have I never acted wrongly? How would I feel if my spiritual mentors wrote me off as they observed my lapses? How would I feel to be written off as irredeemable?
If we are truly committed to a path of practice, we will need to put a stop to blaming the appearances in our lives for our suffering and start asking ourselves how we can change the way we view things… our view of things determines whether we will be able to respond consciously or continue in the endless cycle of unconscious reactivity, or what keeps the wheel turning, relentlessly.