I have never read or heard anything about this, but it seems to me that each of the Four Brahmaviharas has an elemental quality. Metta (loving kindness) is like the radiant sun, shining on all without discrimination. Mudita (sympathetic joy) is like the sparkling water, dancing with reflective joy. Upekka (equilibrium) is like the sky, able to hold sunshine and storm clouds equally with great ease and spaciousness. And Karuna (compassion) is like the earth, receiving our tears, supporting us, nourishing us.
This earth-like quality, Karuna, gives effortlessly from its bounty. You never see the earth running around assessing needs, doling out its nourishment in fair proportions for each plant. The earth is just there, fully present and fully supportive.
So how does this translate for us? Can we be like the earth to someone in need? Can we relax and just be present. Can we be solid enough for them to lean on, receptive enough to receive their tears, and available for whatever they have in mind in any given moment?
This may be a real challenge for us if we are used to being in charge, if we like to direct the show, if we automatically make assumptions about the needs of others, if we have an agenda, or if we have to try to fix everything.
If we cling to the idea of ourselves as generous givers, assessing needs and filling them, it may be challenging to let that identity go, in order to tap in to a level of deep and effortless compassion. It helps to realize that a lot of what we do is based in our aversion to what is going on. In our discomfort we rush around trying to change it. We cannot bear for a loved one to be in pain, so we do everything in our power to make it stop. If we stop and be present with our own experience, we can recognize the aversion and simply accept it as part of what is in this moment. Recognizing it allows it a voice in the conversation but disengages its ability to run the show.
If there are people for whom we can’t be compassionate because of their behavior, then we are letting our judgments keep us at the surface, letting our personality get all tangled up with their personality, instead of accessing that universal quiet core of ourselves that recognizes that the very thing that makes them difficult is the burden of suffering with which they struggle. From our still center we connect with their still center for it is one and the same, and it is this awareness of oneness that allows the compassion to be infinite and ever present, regardless of circumstances.
Karuna, like all the Brahmaviharas is infinite in nature. When we feel that we have to solve other people’s problems or prove our love for them by taking on their burdens, we are operating from a shallow fear based place, and our energy will soon be depleted. What we have to give is finite and we will exhaust ourselves and the person we are trying so hard to help.
Karuna doesn’t try to change the experience of another person, or suggest that they look on the bright side, or distract them from what it is they are feeling by offering ways to ‘take their mind off their situation.’ Karuna simply sits, without anticipating anything more than the need for a tissue.
I remember the honor I felt as a witness to my father’s process of dying in the last weeks of his life. As his primary caregiver, of course I did a lot of behind the scenes activity to make sure that he had what he needed physically. But in our time together, I took on a more receptive mode, uncharacteristic of me. He was thus able to relax his natural defenses. I didn’t exhaust him by trying to commandeer his experience. He needed every bit of his limited energy for the huge transition he was making. My love made no demands on him. It was way too late to ask for anything more than he had ever been able to give me. To the degree that I was able, I let myself become like the earth, receptive, ever present to the point of not being noticed. This quiet way of being with him allowed him his own space for his experience.
The only time I felt like I totally failed him was when we were watching ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and I kept blurting out solutions before he had a chance to figure them out himself. So thoughtless! Would the earth do that? I don’t think so.
But that brings me to the first most important aspect of Karuna: having a deep compassion for ourselves. How typical it is of us to beat ourselves up over our supposed failings. Would we ever speak to another person the way we speak to ourselves on a regular basis?
The truth is we can’t offer what we don’t have. By becoming aware of the way we treat ourselves, and accessing that deep quiet stillness within, we can become the very earth under our own feet. Through our regular practice of meditation, we come to a level of deep compassion that is infinite and accessible, for ourselves, those around us and the earth itself.