Humans are an empathic, compassionate, and loving species, so it is natural to feel sad, worried, or fiery about the troubles and pain of other people. (And about those of cats and dogs and other animals, but I’ll focus on human beings here.)
Long ago, the Buddha spoke of the “first dart” of unavoidable physical pain. Given our hardwired nature as social beings, when those we care about are threatened or suffer, there is another kind of first dart: unavoidable emotional pain.
For example, if you heard about people who go to bed hungry—as a billion of us do each night—of course your heart would be moved. I’m usually a pretty calm guy, but when I visited Haiti, I was in a cold rage at the appalling conditions in which most people there lived. On a lesser scale, but still real, a friend’s son has just started college and is calling home to tell his mom how lonely and miserable he feels; of course she’s worried and upset.
But then—as the Buddha continued with his metaphor—there are the second darts we throw ourselves: rehashing past events, writing angry mental emails in the middle of the night, anxious rumination, thinking you’re responsible when you’re not, feeling flooded or overwhelmed or drained, getting sucked into conflicts between others, etc. Most of our stresses and upsets come from these second darts: needless suffering that we cause ourselves—the opposite of being at peace.
Our second darts also get in the way of making things better. You’ve probably had the experience of talking with someone about something painful to you, but this person was so rattled by your pain that they couldn’t just listen, and had to give you advice, or say you were making a big deal out of nothing, or jump out of the conversation, or even blame you for your own pain!
In other words, when others are not at peace with our pain, they have a hard time being open, compassionate, supportive, and helpful with it. And the reverse is true when we are not at peace ourselves with the pain of others.
So how do you do it? How do you find that sweet spot in which you are open, caring, and brave enough to let others land in your heart… while also staying balanced, centered, and at peace in your core?
Keep a warm heart
Let the pain of the other person wash through you. Don’t resist it. Opening your heart, finding compassion – the sincere wish that a being not suffer – will lift and fuel you to bear the other’s pain. We long to feel received by others; turn it around: your openness to another person, your willingness to be moved, is one of the greatest gifts you can offer.
To sustain this openness, it helps to have a sense of your own body. Tune into breathing, and steady the sense of being here with the other person’s issues and distress over there.
Have heart for yourself as well. It’s often hard to bear the pain of others, especially if you feel helpless to do anything about it. It’s OK if your response is not perfect. When you know your heart is sincere, you don’t have to prove yourself to others. Know that you are truly a good person; you are, really, warts and all, and knowing this fact will help you stay authentically open to others.
Do what you can
Nkosi Johnson was born in South Africa with HIV in 1989 and he died 12 years later – after becoming a national advocate for people with HIV/AIDS. I think often of something he said, paraphrased slightly here: “Do what you can, with what you’ve been given, in the place where you are, with the time that you have.”
Do what you can—and know that you have done it, which brings a peace. And then, face the facts of your limitations, another source of peace. One of the hardest things for me—and for most parents—is to feel keenly the struggles and pain of my kids… and know that there is nothing I can do about it. That’s a first dart, for sure. But when I think that I have more influence than I actually do, and start giving my dad-ish advice and getting all invested in the result, second darts start landing on me—and on others.
See the big picture
Whatever the pain of another person happens to be—perhaps due to illness, family quarrel, poverty, aging, depression, stressful job, worry about a child, disappointment in love, or the devastation of war—it is made up of many parts (emotions, sensations, thoughts, etc.) that are the result of a vast web of causes.
When you recognize this truth, it is strangely calming. You still care about the other person and you do what you can, but you see that this pain and its causes are a tiny part of a larger and mostly impersonal whole.
This recognition of the whole—the whole of one person’s life, of the past emerging into the present, of the natural world, of physical reality altogether—tends to settle down the neural networks in the top middle of the brain that ruminate and agitate. It also tends to activate and strengthen neural networks on the sides of the brain that support spacious mindfulness, staying in the present, taking life less personally—and with those changes come a growing sense of peace.