Study the Self to Forget the Self

Training in Empathy and Compassion awakens our willingness to be with our own suffering and the suffering of others. Most of us believe suffering is negative, difficult, and to be avoided at all costs. Suffering breaks our spirit and ruins our life. So rather than face the suffering we blame others or the world for the unfortunate things that have happened to us. Or we blame ourselves, imagining that we are essentially incapable of happiness and right action. All of this amounts to a strategy of distraction. Blame is a way of avoiding the actual suffering we feel. And if we are unwilling to face our own suffering, how much more are we unwilling to take in the suffering of others, let alone the whole mass of suffering of this troubled world. There is no way we could even entertain such a thought.

But the training proposes that we do exactly that. That we take in our own suffering, the suffering of our friends, our communities, and of the world, because nothing is more effective than this to change our habitual point of view. We develop this capacity with the practice of Sending and Receiving, which begins with our willingness to receive and heal our own pain. Of course our efforts to do this will encounter powerful resistances within us.

Suffering constellates resistance and loves it, loves our fear, gobbles it up, becomes bigger and stronger. The more we try to push away the suffering the more difficult it is to bear. But through the practice of Sending and Receiving, repeated patiently over time, we discover that when we stop resisting we can bear the suffering with much more equanimity than we previously thought possible. The monster you run away from in the dark becomes more and more frightening the faster and further you flee. The monster you face in your own house becomes a pussy cat, which sometimes scratches, and sometimes makes a mess on the floor but you love her anyway. We discover we don’t have to be afraid of suffering, that we can transform it into healing and love. And this is not as hard to do as we might have thought. Whatever our state, whatever our capacity, we can do it. We need only start from where we are and go as far as we can.

Doing this, we discover that our practice (and our life) isn’t about, and has never been about, ourselves. As long as spiritual practice (and life) remains only about you it is painful. Of course your practice does begin with you. It begins with self-concern. You take up practice out of some need or some desire or pain. But the very self-concern pushes you beyond self-concern. Zen Master Dogen writes, “To study Buddhism is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self.” When you study yourself thoroughly, this is what happens: you forget yourself, because the closer you get to yourself, the closer you get to life, and to the unspeakable depth that is life, the more a feeling of love and concern for others naturally arises in you. To be self-obsessed is painful. To love others is happy. Loving others inspires us to take much better care of ourselves, as if we were our own mother. We take care of ourselves so that we can benefit others.

Training in Compassion, pp.65-66.