We have been talking about metta, loving-kindness. We have been practicing sending it to ourselves, other individuals and out to all beings with phrases like May all beings be well.
Metta is the first of the Four Brahma Viharas, which in Pali (the language the Buddha spoke) means ‘heavenly abodes.’ What are these heavenly abodes? You could say they are states or qualities of being. They are also practices that help us feel those qualities.
For example, perhaps as you have been practicing metta you have noticed a shift in how you feel. Perhaps your heart has softened a bit around some situation or relationship. And if so, perhaps this has informed your view of the way things are, created some spaciousness around your previously unquestioned assumptions.
Metta practice also causes to arise the three other Brahma Viharas:
karuna — compassion;
mudita — sympathetic joy
upekkha — equanimity
There are specific practices for each of the Brahma Viharas as well.
We will look at Karuna now, and then the other two in the next two weeks.
We might think that compassion and loving-kindness are pretty much the same thing. Metta practice does bring about a sense of compassion, but they are not the same. I describe loving-kindness as being radiant like the sun, an expansive embrace that wishes every good blessing to all without exception.
Compassion is more like the earth: solid, supportive, available. The earth has no particular agenda in regard to any individual. But talk about a shoulder to lean on! The earth is ever ready to receive whatever tears we might shed.
In my December 17, 2008 post I said:
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.
All the answers in the class were very wise and pointed to different aspects of the dharma, incorporating Wise View. For example, one student said the word ‘for’ suggests that we feel separate from the individual we feel sorry for. Such a good point of distinction. Compassion is an embrace of connection, acknowledging we are all in this together, all made of the same stuff. There is no separate self if we really look closely at the nature of things. When we feel sorry for someone, we falsely believe them to be ‘other’.
Why do we do that? Why do we sometimes (or often) stand back, hold off, or shy away from making ourselves available to those who are suffering? We may want that sense of separation to sustain the belief that whatever calamity has befallen them will not likely befall us. This desire for distance from difficulty causes may cause us to turn away right at the time when loved ones most need our support. If this sounds familiar, notice the self-judgment that arises. Then send a little metta. And hold this experience of noticing with compassion.
Noticing is key. One student spoke of her growing ability to be present through meditation practice has helped her to notice that when she is bothered by the behavior of someone else, she is actually upset with herself for being angry. Through the practice, she was able to look underneath the anger and says she found sadness. She doesn’t know what that sadness is about, but is for the first time ready to be with it and let it reveal itself. Such insightful noticing! And a willingness to allow the process to happen rather than force answers. (Remember dear Rilke in his advice to a young poet — to love the questions themselves.)
Another student said for her compassion is a quality of acceptance of ourselves and others. This is not resignation. There’s a huge distinction. Acceptance opens us to all that is going on in this moment. If we accept, then we don’t turn away. We face our fears, see the suffering in that fear. Only then are able to be compassionate with ourselves, and in turn feel true compassion for others who are suffering.
We notice suffering in meditation. The harshness of our own self-talk, for example. Not just the particular words we use, but the tone of our voice even when using words that might otherwise seem neutral, like noting ‘thought’ or ‘memory’’ or ‘planning’. No wonder we want to be distracted by some external focus!
Through the regular practice of metta and karuna, we come to understand that we are human, we are not our thoughts and like all beings we deserve kindness and compassion.
Once we are able to have compassion for ourselves, we can have true compassion for a friend, a family member, and a person we see in the street. Once we understand there is no ‘other’, then instead of thinking, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’, and count ourselves lucky by comparison, we might recognize the truth: ‘There go I.’
We are all life expressing itself in a myriad of ways.
Read with fresh eyes this well-known poem by John Donne:No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
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.
The ‘Me Too’ Impulse
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.
The Sudden Stranger
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.