To find true happiness you have to learn compassion for others. In his 1996 lecture, Compassion: The Basis for Human Happiness, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “As long as we are human beings, and members of human society, we need human compassion. Without that, you cannot be happy.” To be compassionate you have to stop focusing on your own problems, and allow yourself to shift your focus towards others.
When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others
as if they were his own,
he has attained the highest state of spiritual union.
~ The Bhagavad Gita.
Letting go of your focus on self is an aspect of nonattachment, which is a major part of the study of yoga, Buddhism, the Tao and Christianity. What does nonattachment mean? Does it mean you do not care about anything or anyone? This is a question that a friend asked of me. She asked, if you are unattached, do you no longer care about the people around you? If a child falls and hurts herself, do you just look on without caring? Is that what nonattachment means? The answer is no, of course. But, what does it mean?
The Buddha, someone who was as unattached as you can get, was known as “The Compassionate One.” He cared deeply for the suffering of humanity, while at the same time teaching nonattachment. It is said that after he attained enlightenment he sat for a number of days under the Bodhi tree basking in nirvana, and then got up, walked down the road and started teaching. He taught for 45 years, and did not stop teaching until he could no longer rise.
Nonattachment leads to compassion because as you let go of your obsession and identification with your own problems and your own desires, you naturally move towards becoming a more compassionate person. Nonattachment does not mean not caring, it means not being self-centered in your caring. It means not being so concerned with yourself that you have no concern left for anyone else. You care are about all beings (including yourself). It also means not being so protective of your own feelings that you cannot be open to the feelings of others.
There are many times in life when showing compassion for another would be the right thing to do. However, most of use are usually pretty uncomfortable in the face of someone else’s difficulty. We may not want to feel another person’s pain and sorrow. So, rather than be open and available we sometimes close up. At those times we are so attached to being comfortable that we cannot do the compassionate thing, which is to be open and sympathetic. We are unable to truly empathize with another’s troubles and grief.
The sad thing is that, even if we try to empathize with another, the reaction to that person’s pain may overwhelm our ability to be present and available. We may be reacting by going back and reliving our own traumas and our own pain. We may be worrying about how we may be affected. We may be asking ourselves, “What if this happens to me?” or “How is this going to affect me?” Of course, we may tell ourselves that we care deeply about the other person. After all, are we not reacting emotionally? However, if our reactions are to our own stuff we are not there for that person. We are no longer seeing or hearing that person. While I may tell myself that I care, what the other person sees in me is someone who is simply not present, not listening, and not empathizing.
People are frail, and true compassion for others is difficult. So, when you cannot show compassion for another, do not beat yourself up about it. It is equally important to show compassion for yourself, and your “human-ness.”
What is it to be unattached, then? It is to let go of your focus on your small self (your egoic self), with all of its fears, insecurities, needs and bad memories. This is the attachment that you break. If you are not attached to your own stuff you can be present to actually see, hear and empathize. You can be compassionate. You can take it all in without being “sucked in.”
In truth, if another person is in trouble what does that person want from you? Does that person want you to weep and moan, “rend your garments,” and otherwise make a great show of caring. Or, does that person want you to be present, listen carefully, and then act appropriately, or offer advice that addresses that person’s actual problem.
To be unattached and compassionate is to respond to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were your own, while remaining present and available. To be unattached means not identifying so closely with your own problems, that you cannot identify with those of others. Nonattachment means opening yourself completely and fearlessly to others. This is what leads to compassion, and a happy life.
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For more, see Finding Your Power to Be Happy.