Log in

No account? Create an account
21 March 2008 @ 09:17 am
Little Bitta Buddha: The Second Enemy of Compassion, Getting Overwhelmed  
Overwhelm is a sense of helplessness. We feel that there is so much suffering - whatever we do is to no avail. We've become discouraged. There are two ways I've found effective in working with overwhelm. One is to train with a less challenging subject, to find a situation we feel that we can handle. [...] The second way of training with overwhelm is to keep our attention on the other person. This one takes more courage.

When someone else's pain triggers fears in us, we turn inward and start erecting walls. We panic because we feel we can't handle the pain. Sometimes we should trust this panic as a sign that we aren't yet ready to open so far. But sometimes instead of closing down or resisting we might have the courage to do something unpredictable: turn our attention back toward the other person.

- Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You

And, as if to remind me to post #2 in this series, my little Yogi Tea bag this morning told me:

"Love, compassion and kindness are the anchors of life."
Current Music: "Video Killed the Radio Star" - Buggles
Prince of Happinesspoh on March 21st, 2008 04:38 pm (UTC)
I grok this completely. This layers easily over my pre-existing thought pattern developments.
urlgirlurlgirl on March 21st, 2008 05:52 pm (UTC)
I'm having trouble engaging with this statement today. I understand and support it for what it is, and this is especially because of the use of the word "sometimes."

But to me "overwhelm" already assumes having had a certain level of courage. Time and attention are both finite quantities. Sources of need are not. Some sources of need, individually, can have boundaries that cross so far into my own sphere of ability that they may as well seem boundless. Sometimes turning one's attention to the source of need is not courageous - it is foolhardy. And I have to admit feeling a bit of resentment at the value statement implicit in saying "we aren't ready to open so far." I have trouble imagining myself ever becoming a vessel for someone else's pain to quite that extent.

I guess what I'm saying that to me, this is more of a dance than a one-way sender/receiver relationship. I can open, and I can receive, and I can engage with someone's pain with attention and mindfulness. But there must be an acknowledgment on the other side of this, a certain willingness to work, to respect, to pull back when need be.
Kburgunder on March 21st, 2008 06:19 pm (UTC)
Heh, you bring up an excellent point, and I get to reveal a bit of my Ellie-Robot self here.

I don't consider neediness to be pain, so I actually consider the above advice to not be intended for needy people who think they're in pain because their needs aren't being met. Callous? Maybe.

That said, though, the whole neediness thing is such a worthy topic and I'm so damn full of opinions about it... it's been a problem I've had to explore a lot in the last few years, first by working on my own needy BS and then as I became increasingly frustrated by people who are needy and demanding with very little return value.

I consider deeply needy people to be behaving in sub-human ways. I used to be needy most of the time (esp. in romantic relationships of my 20s, oh my) and I used to be sub-human in those ugly moments. Is that compassionate? Hell no. But neediness demands pity, and Pema's first enemy of compassion is Pity. Giving pity and demanding pity are both derailing compassion with catastrophic results, and it alienates everyone from the more common experiences.

I personally strongly associate neediness and self-pity, and I have almost no tolerance for people who are constantly needy. I'm totally mellow with someone who is expressing their needs clearly and consistently, esp. someone who can gracefully take no for an answer. That's totally different than someone who is constantly needy.

Am I needy? Sure! I love engaging conversations, and I'm constantly fire starting them with posts like this O:> But I don't expect anyone to fulfill that need and I expect everyone around me to enforce their boundaries so my little pond of passionate conversational neediness doesn't get all swampy in their grill. (And I think we can safely award me a D- in mixed metaphors for today!)

Will I someday be compassionate about needy people and their pain? Maybe.

But, man, baby steps. Today is so not that day, and neither was yesterday, and neither is tomorrow. And, this might seem kind of close-hearted, I don't know, but it's not even a goal of mine to get there. If I get there by chance, cool. But I'd rather open up to and focus on real pain than the pain of those who self-actuate it.

Which tangents back to the point of the post somewhat. I used to get so overwhelmed with my compassion for the pain in the world that I would become pained and then turn it into the pain being all about me, and I love how succinctly Pema doesn't say yet says - it's not about you, it's about the people actually experiencing the pain - keep your focus on them, not on yourself and your discomfort with real pain in the world.

Man, I'm not being very concise or eloquent today. I'm not even sure if I've conveyed the heart of my point without coming off as way more bitchy-towards-the-needy than it's intended, heh. But I don't seem to have the focus to self-edit at the moment, so here's the brain dump :)

I fully acknowledge that most needy people have some real pain underlying. I don't have any objection to that core pain or their right to it, my objection is to wrapping it up in a million little needy band-aids that only treat symptoms... engaging in that game doesn't actually help anything, and just depletes resources.

Hey. Maybe I finally just said what I meant in less than 5,000 words! ;>
urlgirlurlgirl on March 21st, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Neediness!
Hrm. That was too easy, I think we might have missed something.

The following are not cogent arguments, just two starting points that may or may not be valid - or maybe not even starting points, maybe just reactions -

- pain is subjective and usually internal. suffering i define as the external manifestation of pain. neediness is something else entirely, and maybe i'm wrong about this, but i cannot imagine someone behaving needy while not being in actual pain. because of the subjective nature of pain, then, i cannot ever say whether someone is or isn't experiencing it, so i have to take them at their word.

- i can't appreciate someone's pain or hold their space without feeling empathy - that's my vehicle to the connection i forge with that person. so that if i end up feeling pain, it isn't the self-imposed "oh i wish i could help" kind - yes, i do feel some of that, but that's not the majority of it. the majority of it really is a genuine reflection of what they're describing to me. i'm not sure if it's "good" or "bad" that i do this, only that it's what i seem to do.

I could go on. The conclusion I seem to be moving toward is that any advice or value statement that requires this much twisting and paring down for me to engage with it, is a bit suspect. Not that I mean any disrespect toward your reading. Only that the more I think about it, the more it feels hollow and disingenuous to me. Now - either I'm being defensive and missing the point, or the point isn't nearly as universally applicable as the passage implies.
urlgirlurlgirl on March 21st, 2008 08:10 pm (UTC)
Re: Neediness!
Another hrm. I was trying to avoid writing a 5,000-word essay myself, so I pared down my comment a lot, too much I think. My mental jumps from paragraph to paragraph aren't obvious at all. Sorry! Maybe this would work better offline?
Kburgunder on March 21st, 2008 08:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Neediness!
I think it's an excellent comment :)

I'm just still thinking about it and distracted, for the moment, by work. And there's a super teensy chance I might not be able to respond until next week, as I'm hopping on a train for Bellingham right after work tonight.
urlgirlurlgirl on March 21st, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Neediness!
Have a total blast in Bellingham! :-) And like I said, maybe this would work better offline, so not until next week anyway?
yvetteserpentmoon on March 25th, 2008 03:39 am (UTC)

I think there's a difference between being overwhelmed and feeling overwhelmed and, also, a difference between feeling compassion and showing it.

I wouldn't say that overwhelm is a sense of helplessness, but rather, when feeling overwhelmed, the sense of helpless that often accompanies it can affect one's ability to show compassion. However, one can actually be overwhelmed (over powered) in a situation without feeling a sense of helplessness.

One can recognize that they are overwhelmed in a situation. They can do nothing to remove the cause of the suffering, but they can still feel compassion and also show compassion if they desire.

A sense that something is too emotionally overwhelming can cause a person to put up walls or flee the situation, certainly hindering ones ability to show compassion. I don't know that I have ever experienced that in particular. I'm fairly empathetic and staying there usually comes without choice. However, I may have done this with minor things during a narcissistic moment.

Personal experience in being overwhelmed and feeling overwhelmed:
The Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, Darfur and the Palestinian crisis make me feel overwhelmed emotionally and and I am physically overwhelmed by it, but I can still exercise the first way of training and actually do something that shows how I feel about it even though I can't fix the problems by myself, I can at least help. And it's really something I need to do...but, you know, I have been feeling overwhelmed by it and haven't managed to get off my ass yet. :|

An example of failing the second way of training from my own experience:
I was too immersed in emotions.

When my grandfather died, I called my grandmother to offer my condolences. I was unprepared for the empathetic experience of feeling the depth of her loss and the love that was there. It was profound and all I could do was cry... It was terrible. She thought I was upset about my grandfather's passing, which was sad, but that wasn't what I was crying about. The more I tried focusing on her to express my condolences, the deeper I felt her pain. So, instead of me offering my condolences and comforting her, she ended up trying to comfort me. I felt bad about that. I failed in tending to her sorrow and showing how much I cared about how she was feeling. At least I think I failed. I don't think I conveyed it very well.

In this situation, I didn't put up walls, I stayed there and was wide open emotionally and that is why I think Chödrön was saying the second way takes more courage. It's painful. But I think it takes practice as well. It's more difficult to manage what you're feeling while focusing on the other person without letting yourself become overwhelmed.

So, getting overwhelmed can be an enemy of feeling compassion and also showing compassion.

Kburgunder on March 25th, 2008 04:18 pm (UTC)
Wow. This is very well said. Better than Pema said it, and better than I could say it. Thank you for taking the time to put these thoughts together.