Practicing compassion and equanimity with difficult people in our lives can be challenging. However doing so greatly increases our capacity to care for all beings, including ourselves. It also helps release us from getting caught up in negative emotions.
The Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, translated as “sending and receiving,” is a powerful compassion practice. In practicing tonglen, we take in others’ suffering, and send them healing and compassion. Each time you breathe in, you take in others’ pain and suffering. You take it into your heart, where it is transmuted, transformed into compassion. Then you breathe out, and send them healing and love.
Tonglen is practiced in stages: first for ourselves, then for a loved one, then for a neutral person, then for someone we dislike, and finally for all sentient beings everywhere. Tonglen can be done as a formal sitting practice or “on the spot”.[b] For example, I practice tonglen on the spot when I pass a homeless person, instead of looking away. I breathe in the suffering of that person, and send him or her healing with my out-breath.
Tonglen became a mainstay of my healing from the trauma of witnessing firsthand the horrors of 9/11. It was fairly easy for me to practice compassion for myself, those who died and their loved ones, and all others who witnessed the planes crash, whether in person or on the news. What truly healed me was practicing tonglen and developing compassion for the young hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. I saw them as confused young men who abandoned their lovingkindness and basic goodness in the name of religious zealotry.
The transformative power of tonglen lies in directly experiencing that we are all born with basic goodness, and that our suffering, borne of clinging to a solid sense of self, obscures our basic goodness and lovingkindness as we move through life’s challenges.
Practicing equanimity is another transformative practice. It is a powerful way to let go of negativity and an “us versus them” mentality. Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Han says that equanimity involves seeing everyone as equal: “We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others. In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides.”[c]
I have recently been practicing compassion and equanimity for Donald Trump. Bear in mind that compassion does not mean approval. Without getting into a political discussion and simply based on my observations, I do not condone Trump’s lies, inflammatory language and divisiveness.
When I find myself getting caught in negativity listening to the news, I take a breath and step back. I’ve made it a practice to look at Trump’s eyes and practice compassion and equanimity on the spot. I am then able to see the fear and suffering in his eyes. Behind his tough guy façade, I see a scared little boy. Sometimes Trump’s eyes seem eerily empty, a reflection of a person who has been called “an existence without a soul.”[d]
Observing Trump’s pained eyes, I wonder how his soul became so damaged. As a psychotherapist, it is tempting to diagnose him. I prefer to try to understand, based on my understanding of trauma and attachment theory, how Trump has become the person he is today. His mother has been described as emotionally distant and frequently absent. His father has been described as a “tyrant.”
It is thus no surprise then that Trump is so sensitive to criticism. His bluster and boastful arrogance are likely a mask to hide his deep insecurity and fear of being seen as weak or unworthy. As Dr. Justin Frank notes:
One of the things that you do when you’re feeling ignored and abandoned in some way is develop contempt for that part of yourself. You have the hatred of your own weakness and you then become a bully and make other people feel weak, or mock other people to make it clear that you’re the strong one and that you don’t have any needs.[e]
Fear seems to be a driving force in Trump’s life. As Zen teacher Ezra Bayda says:
“[F]ear makes our life narrow and dark. It is at the root of all conflict, underlying much of our sorrow. Fear also…disconnects us from the lovingkindness that is our true nature.”[f]
Understanding Donald Trump in this way helps me practice compassion and equanimity, not only for him, but for all others who have suffered because of difficult upbringings. May they all discover the “lovingkindness that is [their] true nature.”
[a]Please note that this article is not intended as a political statement, but rather, an essay about how to work with compassion and equanimity for all beings, including those who challenge our ability to be compassionate. Also see my blog article “How To Be a Mindful Activist…And not lose your mind: https://bethspatterson.com/mindful-activism/
[b]Pema Chodron, (Summer 2002). “Tonglen on the Spot.” Tricycle.
[c]Thich Nhat Han (1997). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. New York: Broadway Books, p. 162.
[d]Dan McAdams (June 2016). “The Mind of Donald Trump.” The Atlantic, quoting Mark Singer, who interviewed Trump for a profile published as “Trump Solo” in The New Yorker (May 19, 1997).
[e]David Smith. “Mommy Dearest: A Psychiatrist Puts Trump on the Couch.” The Guardian. (September 29, 2018).
[f]Ezra Bayda (Spring 2009). “The Three Things We Fear Most.” Tricycle.