Can You Stay Open to the Pain of Others?

This comes from Rick Hanson, Ph.D., neuropsychologist, New York Times best-selling author, Advisory Board member of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and invited lecturer at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard universities. It’s kind of long, but it’s worth the time to read to the end.

            Can you stay open to the pain of others?

The Practice

Being at peace with the pain of others.


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 are 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 ourselves 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?


 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 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 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 a 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.

Spirited, Awaken the Spirit Within, and Maxed Out

It’s been fun receiving book recommendations from you! Thank you!

Mary Ann recommended two books by Rebecca Rosen that I really enjoyed and think you will, too. Spirited: Connect to the Guides All Around You and Awaken the Spirit Within: 10 Steps to Ignite Your Life and Fulfill Your Divine Purpose

Rosen is a medium who communicates with souls who have crossed over–along the lines of John Edward. I found her writing style and stories interesting and enjoyable. She also gives lots of great techniques for getting in touch with your inner guidance system, increasing your overall consciousness, and practical tips on how to use your spiritual gifts in daily life. I’m always surprised my library has these types of books, but I’m so glad they do!

Tambra turned me on to, Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, by Katrina Alcorn. I wish I’d read this when my kids were younger, but still found it interesting and relevant. I had just finished, Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg when this one finally popped up on my hold list at the library.

While I enjoyed Sandberg’s book, it made me question whether or not I was putting in enough effort in trying to work either more hours or in a more traditional job. I went to grad school for crying out loud and what the heck did I have to show for it besides an impressive student loan?! An MBA doesn’t give you much street cred on the psychic scene.

In any case, I appreciated Alcorn’s candor on many levels. It was also a good reminder that no matter what our situation, we’re all out there doing our best. While some people may appear to be “doing it all” and “doing it all well!” or just plain, “doing it all better than we are,” that’s not always how it is behind the scenes. We’d be wise to stop comparing ourselves and trying to meet unrealistic expectations, whether self or other induced.

As always, thanks again for the recommendations!

Women’s Reclamation and Renewal

Way back in this post, I talked about the incredible growth I’d experienced as a result of a Women’s Renewal Retreat I participated in last January. That weekend was so powerful, that our group asked the supremely talented facilitators, Sharon and Jess, to create more opportunities for us to continue what we’d started. As a result, Women’s Reclamation and Renewal was born.

I won’t go into all the details about what we did during those gatherings, because Sharon and Jess are offering another series commencing September 13th for those of you lucky enough to live in California’s Central Coast. I will say, however, that I continue to reflect upon and use the wisdom I gained from those experiences in more ways than I ever could have anticipated.

Here is a quick description of the next series:

Women’s Reclamation & Renewal is a four part series that guides women on a journey of transformation in a wilderness context. Guided group practices and solo experiences are intended to offer opportunities to build a relationship with the landscape that activates your personal potential, enriching your lives and inevitably the communities that hold you.


Weekend I:  September 13 & 14 ( 9am Saturday – 5pm Sunday)

Weekend II: October 4 ( 9am – 5pm Saturday)

Weekend III: October 19 ( 9am – 5pm Sunday)

Weekend IV: November 7 – 9 ( 9am Friday – 5pm Sunday)

If you’re looking for a guaranteed way to shake things up in your life, this is your ticket!  Let me know if you take the plunge and we can have our own private pow wow. If you have any questions or hesitations, feel free to contact Sharon, Jess, or myself and we’d be happy to walk you through them. Ooooh, I’m getting the tingles just thinking about all the wonderfulness that will surely happen here!