In Buddhism, compassion is sometimes said to be a ‘cool’ emotion. It has a soothing, calming quality, rather than a passionate, excited one. This makes sense to me. When you are responding passionately to the suffering of others, chances are you are swept up in your own related, but unacknowledged suffering. It’s not until your own emotional storm has passed (or you reach a calm point at the eye of that ongoing storm) that you really become available to respond to the suffering of someone else.
|Cool or not cool?|
Then our conversation warmed up. My friend described an incident in which his wife had let him down, and it seemed to me that he did so in terms that were exaggerated and aggressive towards her. I responded by defending her behavior: “It’s not that bad.” He looked incredulous. Obviously from his perspective, what she had done (or not done) had been extremely hurtful, so I was flatly invalidating his feelings. At this point, I think it’s fair to say, I had dropped the role of the supposedly compassionate friend and had shifted to a more passionate, and honest, identification with my friend’s wife.
After my friend left, this small part of our conversation kept coming back into my mind. Later I tried to do some loving-kindness meditation for him, but realized that I wanted to send my love to his wife instead. When I allowed myself to concentrate on her, I burst into tears. I’m pretty sure that this was not because I was exhausted by compassion, but rather because I was recalling or reliving my own distress in a situation that was similar to the way I imagined hers to be. It made me feel much happier and lighter to let myself feel this and have a good cry. Afterwards, I felt spontaneously more connected to the people around me.
The following morning while I was making breakfast, I suddenly had an idea about why my friend might have been so upset by his wife’s behavior. It was a thought that made me feel sympathetic toward both him and his wife. My guess may or may not have been accurate, but it showed that I had shifted from reacting to my friend’s feelings and judgments to wondering about what had caused them. I had a sense of my mind expanding, no longer tense or turbulent with my own distress, but rather relaxed, energized and open. This, I think, is the kind of ‘coolness’ that is associated with true compassion. If this right, I don’t think anyone could ever get tired of it, or tired because of it.