karuna — compassion;
mudita — sympathetic joy
upekkha — equanimity
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.”
I find this earth analogy useful in my own practice. When I try hard to be compassionate and overdo it to the discomfort of the very person I want to help, I can ask, ‘Would the earth do this? I don’t think so!’
We had an excellent discussion about compassion in class. I asked the students ‘What is the difference between compassion and ‘feeling sorry for’ or ‘having pity for’ ourselves or someone else?
Pause before going on and ask that question of yourself.
Practical Suggestions for Compassion PracticeWe may want to be of use to someone who is suffering, but we might feel at a loss to know what would be truly useful, what would be the right thing to say or do. Think back to some time when you were suffering a particular big loss — of a loved one, your job, your health, for example — and remember someone who was there for you. You might also remember someone who tried to be there for you but seemed to be struggling with their own discomfort. Then remember how it felt when someone you thought was close seemed to disappear at your time of need. This is not to judge any of them. We are all doing the best we can in any given moment. But when we are learning how to best offer help and heartfelt condolences, it’s good to have some basis of personal reference. So feel free to emulate the person who provided you with the most comfort. And when you are feeling resistance to being there for someone, remember how it felt to have someone shrink away at your time of need. We all have times we weren’t, so don’t bother feeling bad about it. Just use it as a guidepost for future behavior.
A typical response to someone who is suffering is to try to create connection by sharing some similar experience. This desire to connect is natural, but the impulse sometimes goes awry. The student in our class with the most recent experience of great loss was able to give some very useful insight. She said it was very helpful to have someone who had been through the same kind of loss say simply, ‘I understand. Yes, that’s what I experienced too.’ Their understanding helped her to recognize that what she was going through was perfectly normal, part of the experience. What is NOT helpful, she says, is to take the focus away by launching into a story about that similar experience, or someone else’s that we know, or heard about. I know this is true, yet caught myself doing just this the other evening. (Practice makes us aware, but it clearly doesn’t make ‘perfect’!) The need to create a common bond is very strong. And when we are in a conversation about loss, memories of our own losses do tend to arise. But this is something we can all keep in mind.
If you’ve ever had a serious life-threatening illness you know how it is to have people suddenly look at you differently, with pity in their eyes. Agh! I’m still me! you say. Hello! This is just an experience I am having now. Please stop looking at me that way!Can we see beyond circumstance, beyond causes and conditions, and recognize the energetic life force that connects us all? Can we allow people to be seen? Can we allow ourselves to be seen? This is compassion.
A Karuna Exercise
After you have meditated, or at least spent a few minutes quietly sensing in to physical sensation, notice whatever is arising in your experience: an ache, a tightness, an energetic quality, a difficult series of thoughts, an emotion, a judgment — whatever there is to notice in your experience at this time. Now imagine holding whatever it is cradled in your arm like a newborn baby. Maybe it’s a red-faced angry baby! But hold it in your arms and soothe it in whatever way feels natural to you. The purpose is not to change what is, but to attend it with compassion. You might wish you could set the ‘baby’ down or hand it off to someone else, but just stay with it. Just see what happens. Be the parent who is always there. Be the earth offering unqualified support. That’s karuna.
In class we did another extended metta practice. Metta uses phrases in the form of “May I be…”, ‘May you be…” and “May all beings be…”. These blessings are empowering. They are not begging for something from someone far away. (If you believe in God, don’t imagine your God as small and distant. Let God be infinite! That is the nature of God.) Metta is infinite and we quiet down enough to attune to it. In this state we are able to be both receptors of and conduits for metta. This is most definitely not a wimpy practice!
But perhaps if you feel resistance, it is not the wimpy factor but the woo-woo factor. Okay, I get that. I’m very uncomfortable with anything that seems too ‘out there’ myself. There’s this inner skeptic that just shudders. That’s good in that I don’t easily succumb to any old idea that comes down the pike, but it’s unfortunate in that even something that is valid and valuable may just be too much for me to embrace.
There are two things that can help you if you feel the same. First, Buddhism’s been around 2500 years and is a solid established set of teachings that works. Second, science is catching up! The deeper research goes into understanding the nature of energy and matter, the more it sounds like Buddhist teachings. I doubt there’s a scientific study on metta per se, but I also have no doubt there will be. Waiting around for some white-coat in a lab to tell you it’s okay is kinda wimpy. Give metta practice a try and see for yourself.
Here is a deeper look at the ones I use: