Be at Peace with the Pain of Others

Be at Peace with the Pain of Others

Can you stay open to the pain of others?

The Practice:
Be at peace with the pain of others.

Why?

Humans are an empathic, compassionate, and loving species, so it is natural to feel sad, worried, or fiery about the troubles and pain of other people. (And about those of cats and dogs and other animals, but I’ll focus on human beings here.)

Long ago, the Buddha spoke of the “first dart” of unavoidable physical pain. Given our hardwired nature as social beings, when those we care about are threatened or suffer, there is another kind of first dart: unavoidable emotional pain.

For example, if you heard about people who go to bed hungry – as a billion of us do each night – of course, your heart would be moved. I’m usually a pretty calm guy, but when I visited Haiti, I was in a cold rage at the appalling conditions in which most people there lived. On a lesser scale but still real, a friend’s son has just started college and is calling home to tell his mom how lonely and miserable he feels; of course, she’s worried and upset.

But then – as the Buddha continued with his metaphor – there is the second darts we throw ourselves: rehashing past events, writing angry mental emails in the middle of the night, anxious rumination, thinking you’re responsible when you’re not, feeling flooded or overwhelmed or drained, getting sucked into conflicts between others, etc., etc. Most of our stresses and upsets come from these second darts: needless suffering that we cause ourselves – the opposite of being at peace.

Our second darts also get in the way of making things better. You’ve probably had the experience of talking with someone about something painful to you, but this person was so rattled by your pain that he or she couldn’t just listen, and had to give you advice, or say you were making a big deal out of nothing, or jump out of the conversation, or even blame you for your own pain!

In other words, when others are not at peace with our pain, they have a hard time being open, compassionate, supportive, and helpful with it. And the reverse is true when we are not at peace with the pain of others.

So how do you do it? How do you find that sweet spot in which you are open, caring, and brave enough to let others land in your heart . . . while also staying balanced, centered, and at peace in your core?

How?

Keep a warm heart
Let the pain of the other person wash through you. Don’t resist it. Opening your heart, finding compassion – the sincere wish that a being not suffer – will lift and fuel you to bear the other’s pain. We long to feel received by others; turn it around: your openness to another person, your willingness to be moved, is one of the greatest gifts you can offer.

To sustain this openness, it helps to have a sense of your own body. Tune into breathing, and steady the sense of being here with the other person’s issues and distress over there.

Have a heart for yourself as well. It’s often hard to bear the pain of others, especially if you feel helpless to do anything about it. It’s OK if your response is not perfect. When you know your heart is sincere, you don’t have to prove yourself to others. Know that you are truly a good person; you are, really, warts and all, and knowing this fact will help you stay authentically open to others.

Do what you can
Nkosi Johnson was born in South Africa with HIV in 1989 and he died 12 years later – after becoming a national advocate for people with HIV/AIDS. I think often of something he said, paraphrased slightly here: “Do what you can, with what you’ve been given, in the place where you are, with the time that you have.”

Do what you can – and know that you have done it, which brings a feeling of peace. And then, face the facts of your limitations – another source of peace. One of the hardest things for me – and most parents – is to feel keenly the struggles and pain of my kids . . . and know that there is nothing I can do about it. That’s the first dart, for sure. But when I think that I have more influence than I actually do, and start giving my dad-ish advice and getting all invested in the result, second darts start landing on me – and on others.

See the big picture
Whatever the pain of another person happens to be – perhaps due to illness, family quarrel, poverty, aging, depression, stressful job, worry about a child, disappointment in love, or the devastation of war – it is made up of many parts (emotions, sensations, thoughts, etc.) that are the result of a vast web of causes.

When you recognize this truth, it is strangely calming. You still care about the other person and you do what you can, but you see that this pain and its causes are a tiny part of a larger and mostly impersonal whole.

This recognition of the whole – the whole of one person’s life, of the past emerging into the present, of the natural world, of physical reality altogether – tends to settle down the neural networks in the top middle of the brain that ruminate and agitate. It also tends to activate and strengthen neural networks on the sides of the brain that support spacious mindfulness, staying in the present, taking life less personally – and a growing sense of peace.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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