It might also be of little help to other people because experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout. This issue is explored in the Buddhist literature on morality. Consider the life of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person who vows not to pass into Nirvana, choosing instead to stay in the normal cycle of life and death to help the masses. How is a bodhisattva to live? In Consequences of Compassion (2009) Charles Goodman notes the distinction in Buddhists texts between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to empathy, and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided, as it “exhausts the bodhisattva.” Goodman defends great compassion, which is more distanced and reserved and can be sustained indefinitely.
The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo was one place I had been looking forward to visiting in Nigeria. As prevalent as indigenous religions still are in West Africa, it is often hard to find public expressions of them in towns and cities; the Christianity brought by European slavers and colonialists has taken root and pushed most of these religions out of mainstream life. But in the Sacred Grove shrines honor all the local deities, including Obatala, the god of creation, Ogun, the god of iron, and Oshun, the goddess of water, whose aqueous essence is made manifest by the river running through the trees. The place is unique in the Yoruba religion, and that intrigued me.
Identifying these feelings and habits and recognizing where they are coming from will naturally begin to shift the dynamic in our relationships. We’ll start to realize that perhaps it’s not that the people are difficult, but that we have difficulty with people. Instead of placing all our expectations on the people around to bend around our opinions and preferences in order to make the relationship work, we can instead turn inward and look to change our own mind frame. This doesn’t mean simply adopting new behaviors or repeating a mantra in our heads. Rather, it is about facing the truth about ourselves and how our inflated sense of self breeds the negative emotions we suffer from.