The first thing I would like to say is that I am not what I would call a Practicing Buddhist. It just so happens that Buddhism and my natural beliefs and attitudes are expressed in Buddhist. It has actually been through your website and podcast that I have come to realize how Buddhism can help me to a an easier and more rewarding journey on path than the the way I have been struggling along on my own, so thank you very much for that. I mention this because , as an amateur, I do not have the vocabulary to talk about the more advanced concepts in Buddhism and I hope my question makes sense.
My question concerns compassion. When I find myself meditating on compassion for all living beings, there often comes a point where my I become overwhelmed by what I would say is my love for everything and everyone to the point that I compassion becomes pity. As soon as pity creeps in, I feel tainted and self indulgent and I am not able to get myself back on track.
I was hoping that you had some advice about this, or maybe some specific meditations that you or anyone else think will help keep me in line.
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. –Dalai Lama
The first thing that sprung to mind when I read your question was, “What’s wrong with pity? Isn’t it just a strong form of compassion?” And then it hit me. No it’s not the same at all.
Compassion is genuinely caring about others, understanding their plight and taking action in your decision to actively help in some way. Pity is an outpouring of empathy so strong that you may be tempted to help more out of the need to ease your own sense of guilt or obligation than real compassion.
Have you ever seen the television commercials for charities with the sad-looking thin and sickly cats and dogs? With the lingering shots of their sad faces and the mournful music playing in the background? How about ones with the starving children in Africa with the emaciated bodies and flies everywhere? These commercials aren’t appealing to your sense of compassion, they’re striving to create pity. Give them money, and you will feel better for having done something. The central character in pity is YOU. YOU feel bad because of whatever the problem may be, and by helping you make yourself feel better. In the “big picture” some good is still being done by donating to those charities, but your personal karma works out differently because of the motives behind the giving.
Now on to your question. You are doing metta meditation (loving-kindness meditation which we have discussed elsewhere), and you are putting yourself in someone else’s extreme situation and losing yourself in pity for them. This is yet again another form of attachment. As a Buddhist grows his or her sense of non-attachment, they can look at things more objectively and feel compassion without too much painful emotion. Compassion is your genuine desire to help others, while pity is all about helping yourself.
Pity is far from the worst emotion you can experience, but true compassion is much better for everyone involved; you should work towards channeling one emotion into the other. I’m not sure that I have any special “meditation tricks” to solve this problem. You need to have a clear understanding of the difference between pity and compassion, and I hope I have been able to help with that. Keep that difference in mind as you meditate, and as you feel yourself sliding into pity, use the knowledge to pull yourself back.