Have you ever been in a situation where people were feeling sorry for you? Perhaps you had suffered a great loss, had a serious illness or experienced a big upheaval in your life. Suddenly people’s eyes seemed full of pity or sympathy. And how did you feel? Like you couldn’t get away fast enough?
Why? One possible reason is that, much as they might try, others cannot imagine exactly what we are going through with any accuracy, even if they have experienced something similar. From moment to moment our emotions are changing, so if someone claims understanding, they are projecting their own ideas of what they think we must be going through onto us. As well meant as they are, these projections just add to our challenge. They muddy up our ability to sense into our own direct experience and be present with it.
So then when someone else is going through a difficult experience, we may feel paralyzed with the fear of saying or doing something wrong ourselves. We are afraid that our heartfelt empathy will come across as pity. Yet we feel antsy in our wanting to do something. And of course anything we do is better than doing nothing, so we call or send a card or bring a casserole, but all the while we are not sure if we are truly being helpful, if we are doing enough or if our words will be misunderstood.
As discussed in previous posts, when we are operating out of the shallow hard cake of fear, the results of our efforts are distorted and fail to nourish us or those around us. And now here we are again, rooted in fear, terrified of doing the wrong thing but wanting very much to help.
Here is a moment to center in to ourselves, to focus on the breath. The fear may exist. We see it. We know it. We can feel where in our body it grips us tight. And that simple acknowledgment allows us to relax a little. Through relaxing into this present moment fully, it is possible to release our fear. We don’t push it away, overcome it, conquer it or ignore it. That is just fighting fear with fear – a battle without end.
Instead we notice the fear, notice how it feels in our body, notice all the sensations that accompany it. As we breathe into these sensations we can eventually find a quiet center within ourselves, a shift of perspective from which we can see the fear more clearly. With great tenderness, as a mother would do for her baby, we hold the fear in an open embrace until it settles down, dissapates or disappears. This open embrace is expansive – a vast and loving awareness. We become aware that we also are like a babe being lightly held in an infinite loving open embrace.
When we are able to rest in this vast and loving awareness, the compassion that arises is karuna.
The difference between mere sympathy and karuna is the difference between ‘There but for the Grace of God go I’ and ‘I am you, and you are me and we are all together’ – an awareness of the seamless oneness of being. In the first sentence there is well wishing, but there is also the relief that it is not happening to us, and the fear that it might someday. So there is a part of us that wants to run away, fearful of contamination. These added fear-based emotions communicate loud and clear to the other person.
In the second sentence above, there is no where to run away to. Karuna is rooted in the knowledge that if it is happening to anyone, it is happening to us. And instead of ‘offering sympathy’, we sit by their side or hold them in our arms, listening with our full attention when they want to talk, and resting in the deep silence when they don’t, all the while surrounding them with loving compassion in our hearts. We keep in the present moment, instead of dragging our own past experiences in to bear, or our fears for the future. In this way, we can stay along for the ride on the roller coaster of their emotions, wherever it takes them. We can let go of our desire to have an agenda or a playbook.
When needed, we may do whatever practical things we can to ease their burden, freeing them for a while to be with their own experience. We don’t pretend to know what that experience is, but we stand with them as witness to it. We ‘have their back,’ lending our strength to their present needs.
Like all the Brahmaviharas, karuna is naturally arising, most often a result of the regular practice of meditation. It is a state of being that cannot be donned like a costume and acted out. Still, it is good to be aware of it so that when it arises within us we can know it and feel gratitude for such a bountious gift in our lives.