Compassion as co-suffering

Can you take on another’s suffering and love that?

Google defines compassion as: the sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. I find this definition to be a a slightly superficial interpretation of a truly loaded word. Wikipedia tells me the etymology of “compassion” is Latin meaning “co-suffering”. In this post I’d like to explore this idea of co-suffering and how one might bring tremendous healing without having to do that much at all.

My mother came over the other day. I’m not sure what triggered it but I could sense that emotionally there was something going on. You know how you can feel or see this in some people’s faces sometimes? There’s a narrative running through their mind, it’s bothering them and it’s painful. The person is struggling to relieve the pressure of thoughts that won’t stop running, they need to offload. A friend once said to me jokingly that sometimes the more people you can tell your story to the better you feel. So with my mother it turned out that she was re-living some painful memories after divorcing my dad almost 20 years ago, this is something she tends to do every once in awhile. On that particular day however, the narrative was being directed at me and every childhood instinct in my body wanted no part of it – and I had good reasons! Firstly, the series of events that she was describing occurred way in the past so whatever narrative she was thinking about, in my opinion, had absolutely no relevancy to the present. I also couldn’t validate her claims, it seems some divorced people never get over blaming the other party (present company included). This, in addition to the fact that I could just feel the pressure of this story coming at me. Sometimes a person just desperately needs to be heard but that need unfortunately makes it harder to actually listen to them. We’ve all had these experiences and been on both sides of them. My typical response is to resist this kind of negative energy because my body is saying no and we’re supposed to listen to our bodies, right? But in this particular instance and because she is my mother after all, I decided to, against those bodily sensations, simply listen. I listened to the painful memories (which involved me of course), felt her agitation and acknowledged how difficult that must have been for her. But I did this while firmly holding onto a place in myself that was rooted in a knowing that stories are only as real as you make them. No arguing or judging, just listening while holding in that place of non-reactive stillness. Don’t get me wrong it wasn’t easy and it was somewhat emotionally draining but after some time I sensed some shift in her. She was relaxing and there was a subtle gratitude for just letting her be as she was.

I’m not above stories or anything and this situation could have easily been flipped the other way around. For sure you can give a person a thing, a meal, some money, advice, anything that you or they believe that they need at that moment and for sure those needs are very real for many people. But the deepest and greatest gifts I got from people had nothing to do with the perceived immediate need. Sometimes the greatest thing you can give someone is release. Another friend of mine once said to me, “sometimes the worst thing that can happen is to get what you want. Because for a moment you are relieved but then you become dissatisfied and want something else and the cycle of suffering continues.” With release however, the person is cleared from their perception of any need so they are renewed with strength and clarity of mind to get what they want for themselves. Beneath every story or identity that I ever construct for myself is always a being-ness, an essence and spaciousness that knowns it is fundamentally worthy and equal.

Can you hold that space for someone? My experience was that this co-suffering is a bit of a competition. A competition between a mind so attached to its narrative that it has become lost in suffering and a truth that one is not an incessantly running mind trying to confirm to itself that it is real. This space, this wellspring of love, is safe and sane, without judgement and thus without rejection. We all know it, it just gets obscured sometimes so we forget how to access it, sometimes we need a mirror. I’m not saying this a superpower that will always work although I do believe that anything that can bring healing and wholeness is truly a superpower. But unconditional love is about embracing the good, the bad and the ugly and if we can extend that to the people closest to us, the people who trigger us then by gosh giving it to ourselves should be a piece of cake. Happy co-suffering!