How do you maintain compassion without getting miserable? How to deal with overwhelm and depression due to all the suffering in the world

A student writes: 

In the current world situation, with Covid, climate emergency and now the terrible war in Ukraine, I am struggling with the second of the 4 Apramanas, Compassion. Its near enemies, overwhelm and depression, often take over my meditation and daily life awareness. How can I maintain compassion without dulling out or being miserable? 

Lama Shenpen responds: 

That sense of overwhelm in the light of world suffering is called ‘revulsion at samsara’ in Buddhism and is an important quality to cultivate. It is actually the healthy functioning of our Buddha Nature – our intrinsic openness, clarity and sensitivity.  It is what compassion feels like.

What we need to cultivate and learn is how to bear the overwhelm so that it doesn’t overwhelm us but instead intensifies our determination to overcome samsara, which is suffering and its origin, by seeing our true nature and liberating our power of compassion that can benefit beings in inconceivable ways – helping and guiding them until all are liberated from samsara.

As westerners we tend to think that a happy, healthy human life and a ‘good death’ is everyone’s right and we are all responsible for making sure everyone has that. This is a noble aim – it is the aim of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – but for us westerners the danger is that we do not take into account the full extent of what we are dealing with.  We quickly feel overwhelmed and depressed when we don’t see any immediate improvement in our situation and the situation of the world. 

We keep looking for signs of things getting better and when they don’t we feel helpless as if whatever we do makes no difference. These feeling are associated with our short-sighted view of the nature of the world – of samsara.  We don’t realise or think about the Buddha’s teachings on the nature of samsara and the different realms of rebirth and the scale of all that. 

Hell on earth is nowhere near as bad as hell in hell – our human bodies simply cannot take that – we die before it gets as bad as hell itself.  Revulsion means that we get a glimpse of just how bad the suffering of samsara is and just how endless – and if we have no Refuge – no faith in something that is not samsara – then indeed contemplating the sufferings even of this world is enough to overwhelm and depress us.  

We need to open out to the bigger picture and count our blessings – we are still in a world where the Dharma is taught and practised and so we can enter that mandala and follow the inner path out of samsara.  All the good we do out of compassion for others is not wasted as it is intrinsic to our own path to Awakening and it is making the connection for others so that they will meet the Dharma and be able to follow the path themselves. 

So, our faith in the path is helping countless beings in this world and in all the six realms of samsara. The power of our compassion, intentions, punya and pranidhanas is helping the situation which is indeed overwhelmingly bad – as long as we are trapped in samsara and when we are no longer trapped, we will be able to see samsara itself is simply a misunderstanding of the nature of reality.  Seeing the truth liberates us like waking liberates us from the terror of a nightmare.

To overcome our sense of being overwhelmed by compassion we need a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of suffering and samsara and more faith in our Buddha Nature – the Bodhichitta and the power of the blessing of the Three Jewels of punya and pranidhanas. 

Perhaps the most straightforward thing to do is to just keep linking back into our Heart Wish for the peace and happiness of all beings and to make strong pranidhanas – even against what seem to be all the odds – make ourselves link back into the wish for all beings to be happy and free from suffering.

Wish all beings to realise what the Buddhas realise and wish it for everyone – the good and the evil – the victims and the perpetrators. At the very least this nips negative thinking in the bud!  It gives our hearts and minds a different direction to fear, overwhelm and depression – it connects us back to our hearts even though in pain.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

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