Monthly Archives: April 2019

What’s the difference between empathy and compassion?

(Following up on a comment on the last post.)
Empathy is inherent to brain development. From a very young age most of us are able to pick up on the emotional states of others. This ability is a benefit to the development of relationships, but it can also be problematic if a child is surrounded by significant distress.


Image by James Chan from Pixabay

With empathy we can relate to another’s experience, but empathy alone doesn’t activate the desire to help. In fact empathy can be used to manipulate people. As an example, in my long-ago advertising career, the more empathetic I became to the ‘target audience’, the people who might use my clients’ products, the more able I was to create ads that addressed their concerns. The ‘better’ I did, the worse I felt! I wrote an eight-page treatise on the evils of advertising, and then I quit.

It’s easy to see how unscrupulous politicians use empathy to shape their rallying cries to fuel the fears of their followers. It doesn’t matter whether the fear is based in reality to be effective.

Empathy is relatively neutral but endows great power. Buddhism is concerned with what we do with that power. It is not enough to understand how someone feels. What do you do with that understanding? Do you manipulate their minds to your own greedy ends? Or might you cultivate compassion for the benefit of all life?

In order to cultivate compassion, we can’t begin with other people’s feelings. We have to begin with our own. This may sound selfish, but we are refining our ability to give. Without compassion for ourselves, our intentions will be unwise and our actions unskillful. The regular practice of mindfulness helps us see the fear that sparks the unskillfulness. Self-compassion doesn’t offer an excuse for bad behavior. Instead, it heals us by reminding us of our intrinsic belonging to the family of beings, so that our intentions are loving and our actions are wise.

Compassion stems from the practice of infinite lovingkindness. We say blessings like: May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I be happy.

When we feel loving kindness for ourselves and understand that it is infinite in nature, then we can share it out of the undepletable fullness of lovingkindness. So we extend our blessings to include family, friends, community members, people we have difficulty with, and ultimately all beings. As we allow it to fill us, it overflows. We become conduits for it and can send it out in all directions, without exceptions, shining its radiant light into even the darkest places. How empowering is that! Instead of giving ourselves away, the metta fills and supports us, so that we are able to be loving and compassionate.

Without compassion, the empathetic person is often uncomfortable because they are reminded of painful experience of their own. And in order to make themselves more comfortable they either tell their story or spout platitudes that help them get past their own discomfort. A good place for skillful empathy is in a support group with the specific purpose of being with others who are going through similar experiences, are ready to discuss and feel the permission to face their emotions fully.

Compassion does not rely on having a shared experience. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t walked in your shoes or know firsthand what you are going through. We are both living beings, deeply connected in ways beyond measure.

My husband can attest that I have spent lots of time carefully ushering spiders safely outside, and more recently I have been experimenting with syncing my mind with flies saying, “If you go by the door right now I will let you out (to save you from the guy with the flyswatter)” and often the fly will go by the door and wait, then fly out when I open the door. Wow!

To my knowledge I have never been a spider or a fly. I do not know what that experience is like. But I don’t want them to suffer. I want for them what I want for all beings: a joyful life.

Now as I tell this story on myself, I can also think of all the ways that my compassion is stunted, limited, blinded. It is fairly simple to usher an insect out into the world, and it is in perfect harmony with my wish to not have them inside the house creating cobwebs and multiplying.

But let’s talk about the man on the street corner with a cardboard sign that says ‘Anything helps. God bless.’ Dealing purely with empathy, one might react generously or look away out of discomfort.

There is no easy answer to the ‘right’ thing to do. The quandary of anyone being in that situation in a world of so many resources is a stumbling block for me. But my lovingkindness practice kicks in and enables me to at least look at him and mentally send him every good blessing. May you be well.

The man on the corner might say, ‘Well, now isn’t that nice, but you can’t eat blessings. How about a $20? That would go a lot further.’ And it’s true that $20 would mean a lot more to him than it means to me at this point in my life. Yet I can still remember the anguish of a lost $20 fifty years ago. I still remember the exact spot I lost it, outside the veterinarian’s office in Fairfax. So there’s that bit of empathy kicking in. But, hey, don’t underestimate the power of lovingkindness to provide something palpable: Perhaps an energetic emotional shift from a sense of being seen.

When I ponder how to have a practical beneficial impact on this person’s life, I am inclined to give money to one of the many excellent services that might help him build a sustainable life, find healthcare, housing and maybe even happiness. I may give a dollar here and there, for the pleasure of giving, but I don’t pretend it’s making a difference in someone’s life. Unless in that exchange, I also offer respect, acknowledging their perfect right to be here on the planet just as they are with all they are going through.

People can become a bit addicted to finding empathetic connections and building relationships on them. People bond over shared experiences all the time, often with very positive results; and sometimes the reverse, as when people bond over and reinforce detrimental behaviors. Compassion is not actively looking for connections and seeking cues. It is being fully receptive, providing a safe space for the other person to say whatever they feel. The sense of connection is preexisting in compassion, the understanding that all life is deeply connected.

While there may be some comfort in being with other people who are  experiencing something similar to what we are experiencing, it becomes clear quickly that their experience is not our experience, and the way they process experience is different from ours, each based on personalities, tendencies, and all the other situations in our lives and our feelings about them that come into play.

One of my students coined a phrase on the spot in class this week: ‘arrogant empathy’ — assuming that similar experiences bring accurate understanding of what another person is going through. Since she immediately used the new term to beat herself up for her own perceived ‘arrogant empathy’, we’ll let that phrase, however accurate, go. Who needs more ways to beat ourselves up? Still, pretty clever.

Empathy is situational while compassion is universal, making no assumptions.
Compassion understands that all beings suffer in some way. Being alive is a challenge for every creature, whether it’s a butterfly that flies thousands of mile, a polar bear in search of prey, or being prey for a bear. None of us floats through life in a state of pure bliss. If we do, we are likely in a state of delusion. This motley experience full of joy and sorrow is the nature of being incarnate!

With all those joys and sorrows, empathy can help in certain identifiable situations, but in other it can’t get a foothold. Compassion holds the whole world in an open loving embrace.

Empathy sees divisions, compassion sees the whole of being.
Studies show that people of all backgrounds and ethnicity have a harder time feeling empathy for someone with different skin color or features, speaks differently or has a different cultural background. Again, compassion makes no such distinctions. It is the deep understanding of the interconnection of all life, how there is no ‘other’.

WIth compassion for ourselves and all beings, we can hold the challenges of others in a loving way without losing ourselves in them. We don’t have to bring out every miserable moment of our own lives to be all matchy-matchy. Instead we tap into the deepest resource we have and offer it up in whatever way is of benefit in that moment. That’s compassion.

The earth teaches us true compassion

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The earth provides us with everything we need to live. It’s a model of compassion. How different is the earth’s compassion from the way we fashion our own?

First, consider that the earth is there for all beings. It doesn’t pick and choose who is worthy to walk on it. And you never see the earth running around assessing needs, trying to be all things to all people. The earth is just there — here — fully present and supportive.

Can we be compassionate like the earth? Can we relax and simply be present for those around us? Can we be solid enough for them to lean on, receptive enough to listen to what they have to say, to accept their tears, without trying to be two steps ahead, figuring out what to do for them? Compassion definitely isn’t about telling people what they should do, is it? But that’s how it comes across when instead of listening, our thoughts leap ahead to how we will save the day with our oh-so-clever solutions. Oh stop! Relax. Let the earth support you and model good behavior.

This may be a real challenge for us if we are used to being in charge, putting our agenda first, thinking we can fix everything. It may be hard to let go of that identity of hero-savior-problemsolver, in order to tap into deeper, more effortless compassion. It helps to realize that our urgent need to help is often rooted in aversion. Except in emergency situations, it’s usually our discomfort with how things are that makes us rush around to implement changes. We cannot bear for a loved one, or maybe for anyone, to be unhappy, so we do everything in our power to alter the situation. How can this not be a good thing?

If we pause to be present with our own experience, we may be able to notice aversion there. Recognizing it allows it a voice in the conversation but not a dictatorial role in what words and actions we choose. It’s just an unpleasant feeling that wants to change the channel ASAP.

True compassion doesn’t try to change the experience of another person. It definitely doesn’t say Look on the bright side. It doesn’t try to take their mind off what they are experiencing. Can we pause to recognize that the impulse to impose that on them is just our own discomfort trying to make the unpleasant experience go away? True compassion is patient, allowing for what is arising to exist without commentary or re-configuring.

True compassion is infinite in nature. It has nothing to prove to anyone. It doesn’t have a to do list. It isn’t trying to gain points or likes on social media. When we feel compelled to solve other people’s problems or prove our love for them by taking on their burdens, we are likely to be operating from a shallow fear-based place, and our energy will soon be depleted. We will exhaust ourselves and the person we are trying so hard to help.

The caregivers among you know full well how challenging it is when another person’s needs dominate your life. How does this sense of earthy infinite compassion help parents of small children and family members of those who are unable to take care of themselves? As a young mother and later a primary caregiver for both my father and brother in their passing, I have experienced the stress of losing myself in trying so hard to do all that was required. But, thanks to my regular practice of meditation, I also found precious moments of being fully present with them. I noticed with my father how the more I relaxed into a receptive mode, letting him have his experience, the more he relaxed his natural defenses. I reminded myself not to exhaust him by making ‘helpful’ suggestions or trying to direct or commandeer what he was going through. He needed every bit of his limited energy for the huge transition he was making.

For perhaps the first time, 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. For this time together, I let myself become like the earth, receptive, ever present, available to meet his needs, to let him set the tone and decide whether to have a conversation at all. This quiet way of being with him allowed him his own space for his experience. Behind the scenes I was making sure he had everything he needed to take care of him, but our time together was restful.

While my father’s care was relatively easy and I could provide all that was needed without disrupting his life, my brother’s care was much more intense. It took a whole assembled family team, and visiting hospice professionals, to meet his many needs. And he had needs that could not be met, which was painful for us all. He didn’t like us rushing around, tending to the requirements of the noisy equipment that kept him alive. He wanted us to sit and just be with him. As much as we could, we each found sweet moments of just being there. Giving that kind of compassion also feels like a gift to ourselves.

And that’s an important thing to remember: Cultivating earthy compassion, that sense of just being a supportive receptive presence, also gives us the ability to provide that same compassion for ourselves. When we can support ourselves in this way, we are able to provide for others. When we beat ourselves up over the many ways we have not ‘measured up’, who benefits? No one. Ever.

We can’t offer what we don’t have to give. By becoming aware of the way we treat ourselves, and accessing that deep stillness within, we can become the very earth under our own feet. Through our regular practice of meditation and living mindfully, we come to a level of deep compassion that is infinite and accessible.

And while we are embodying the earth’s compassion, can we develop deep compassion for the earth? Can we stop poking, prodding, fracking, paving, stealing, degrading and destroying this wondrous compassionate place we call home before we render it uninhabitable?

Happy Earth Day! Today and every day.

What gets in the way of loving-kindness?

When we see how loving-kindness (metta in the Pali language) makes all the difference in our lives and in our relationships, why is it sometimes so difficult to muster?

Believing that metta is finite
When we practice sending metta we are activating our natural sense of generosity. This generosity comes in part from understanding the nature of impermanence. We see that all we ‘own’ is temporal, not ours to begin with, and not the source of our happiness in any case, so there is only suffering in clinging to it. This frees us to be open-hearted and generous. We still use common sense in managing our affairs, but we can do it with a different attitude. There’s a great Sufi expression: ‘Trust in Allah but tie your camel.’ We can find a balance between sensing the oneness of all that is and being responsible for the physical well being of ourselves and our dependents. The art of doing so is addressed within the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.

Because in our lives we manage finite resources, making hopefully intelligent fiscal choices, we may approach sending out loving-kindness in the same way, as if it is a finite resource we need to manage. When we think loving-kindness is finite, we mete it out in careful doses, perhaps only to those whom we care deeply about, those we see as having the greatest need or those we deem the most deserving.

It’s so important to realize that metta is not a limited resource. This took me a long time to realize. Insight came one day when I was riding in our car going over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and I was wrapping our car in loving light as I often did since long before I began studying Buddhism. Then I recognized that just wrapping our car — just sending metta to us — was not very loving or kind. So I extended it out to the vehicles around us, and then beyond to the whole bridge, then the whole highway of vehicles coming and going in both directions.

Then I came to another mental obstruction. I thought, ‘We can’t all be accident-free. Somebody’s got to crash. It’s beyond statistical probability that we could all be well.’

Aha! Here was a belief I could question! Is that true? Must someone be sacrificed to the gods of probability? A phrase came up that reminded me that it was not necessarily true. It’s not a Buddhist phrase but the wording found at the bottom of any financial investment brochure: “Past performance does not guarantee future results.”

That’s true! In the case of all of us driving along the freeway, it might be a statistical probability that some percentage would crash based on what has happened in the past, but that is all subject to causes and conditions. What if a fundamental condition changed? For instance, what if it became more common than not for us all to be fully conscious, fully present while driving? Statistics show that 80% of all accidents are caused by distracted drivers. So if everyone were paying attention, the likelihood of a crash would be greatly reduced, right?

Then consider what would happen if everyone felt a palpable sense of connection with all other beings? What if we didn’t think of ‘that jerk in the other car putting everyone in danger’ or ‘that slow-poke keeping us from getting where we want to go on time?’ What if, instead, we felt compassion for them, a compassion that comes from a sense of connection, maybe simply from knowing what it is like to be reckless or overly cautious ourselves at times. Then the probability would increase that there would be neither jerks nor slow-pokes. Instead we would move together like starlings in a murmuration, capable of phenomenal flights in dense airborn communities, flying as one.

Okay, you may say that this is unlikely to happen. But the realization that it is possible gave me the freedom to let go of that locked in belief that somebody has to be sacrificed to the statistical probability of accidents. So I was free to be more generous with sending metta to all.

Feeling metta is uncool
I had one meditation teacher who was apologetic about leading metta practice. She was a young woman, a brilliant explainer of concepts, but she was uncomfortable with surrendering to such an open-hearted practice. She would tell people she knew metta wasn’t ‘cool’ and might feel too treacly sweet a practice. It was something she was struggling with. She preferred the more intellectual aspects of Buddhism. Metta is by definition all heart.

We don’t all come to any aspect of practice with the same attitudes. If sending loving-kindness seems beyond your ability, then notice that, investigate your assumptions if it feels right to do so. You don’t have to justify your feelings and certainly you don’t want to force yourself to change. But you might consider the possibility that a practice that is awkward because it doesn’t come naturally, might be the very one to bring balance into your life. Just a thought.

Thinking that sending metta to yourself first is selfish
Traditional metta practice always has us begin with ourselves first. People often have a problem with this instruction. They feel it is selfish. But is it? Well, it might be selfish if it were a finite resource. If we cooked, sat down and fed ourselves first before offering any of it to others at the table, that would certainly seem selfish not to mention rude.

But consider: What if we served a meal on dishes that hadn’t been washed? That would be beyond rude. It would render the meal unpleasant if not inedible. We could think of sending metta to ourselves first as part of the preparations of a meal, cleansing the vessel through which we offer the loving-kindness to others. Or we could think of it as tasting it first, as cooks do, to assure that the metta we are offering is indeed infinite loving kindness, not full of the hard to swallow and digest fear-based tightness that congeals our hearts. That said, I encourage you to not just ‘taste’ the metta, but to receive it fully.

Another analogy that is often used is the airline instruction to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before putting it on the child in your care. Why? Because if you pass out you will be unable to be helpful. Likewise, if you are cut off from a sense of connection with loving-kindness, then how can you possibly offer it? Sending metta to someone else first is not sending true metta at all. It’s just being nice and is kind but usually comes with caveats. It hasn’t been fully received so it doesn’t come from that infinite source. How can we be a conduit for something we haven’t opened to fully?

Resistance to giving metta to ourselves first may come from a belief that we are not worthy of being loved. If this is your challenge, you might picture yourself as the small child you once were. If that is difficult, get out a baby picture to remind you of how truly lovable you are. Allow yourself to look beyond the judgments you carry and simply focus on that child. This is still you. You are still the lovable being you have always been.

If you say sure, cute kid, but look at what a mess I made of my life; remind yourself that errors in judgment made before you were thirty were made by a not-fully-formed brain! You’re off the hook. A little forgiveness please! Errors made later may not have that excuse, but certainly you can find ways to learn from them to live a more balanced, loving and ethical life from this moment forward, rather than beating yourself up again and and again.

If sending yourself metta is still too difficult, skip that step for now. Send it to someone you care about without exception, for whom you have wholehearted affection. Then pause and notice how that feels in your body and mind. See if you can activate that feeling for yourself as well.

If not, then go on and send metta to all beings, and if you can be wholehearted there, remind yourself that you are one of those beings. You are an intrinsic part of all that is. It also helps to remind ourselves that throughout the world at any given moment, someone is sending metta out to all beings, including us.

After we send ourselves metta with phrases like May I be well. may I be happy. may I be at ease. may I be peaceful, we may send it to someone who comes to mind who is in particular need of lovingkindness right now. To them we say words like May you be well. may you be happy. may you be at ease. may you be peaceful. And, because the nature of metta is infinite, it grows and glows, expanding out to shine its radiant loving light into even the darkest places. It encircles the earth in its loving embrace and continues to grow without ever dissipating. Extended traditional practices of metta may include a ‘neutral’ person and a ‘difficult’ person as well. It’s important to notice when sending metta to different people feels different. We may notice the physical sensations shifting, maybe tightening or numbing out, as we move into sending metta to someone for whom we have mixed feelings or no particular feelings. This noticing of how our thoughts and emotions affect physical sensation is a vital part of our practice. In general we just observe this, but in the case of sending metta we can actively dip back into the softened more spacious body sensations we had when sending metta to our ‘easy person.’ We are not forcing ourselves to feel what we don’t feel, just noticing and allowing ourselves to acknowledge that we have the capacity to be that spacious and open-hearted.

Seeing metta as reward
What makes that shift from being soft and open to tight is at least in part this belief that metta is finite, but also that not everyone deserves it. This belief becomes even more pronounced when we come to the next step in sending metta to someone very close to us with whom we struggle, a political figure or a criminal for whom we have strong negative emotions and perhaps lots of judgment. This is where many people bristle. Why in the world would we want to send loving kindness to someone so undeserving? Someone we may see as an enemy or a monster.

It helps to think of metta as the sun that shines light on everything in its path. The sun is not picking and choosing who is worthy of sunlight! The sun cleanses all it touches. So does this infinite loving-kindness.

We, being human, with our complex collections of experiences, patterns and emotions, carry the weight of our beliefs. Metta practice can soften our brittleness. Mindfulness practice can give us the clarity to see and disentangle some of the mindless and perhaps heartless patterns.

Metta is not a reward. We do not have to earn it. We have no agenda or specific goal in mind in doing this, other than being open conduits of loving energy.

Our own sense of compassion may rise up out of understanding that there are many people in the world who have never sensed this loving-kindness, who have always been constricted in fear, whose energy is compressed and therefore volatile, ready to explode. We may judge their resulting actions and resonate with that negativity, and so we react by trying to block their access to this universal kindness. But if we sense into our body and feel the tightening and constricting, we know immediately that this is not the answer. The answer is always to access metta and allow it to inform our actions.

Once we have found a way to send metta to ‘difficult people’ then the way is clear to send it to all beings. May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace.

Through sharing metta we feel our connection to all life on our little blue planet. We perhaps feel a tenderness for all beings — not just for the cute and cuddly ones, but for the ones who may be hard to look at because they are so beaten down, and also for those who, in their state of such extreme disconnection, do the beating.

When we do metta practice we enhance our capacity to access awareness of infinite loving-kindness, acknowledged by all the world’s spiritual traditions in various names. In this way we can hold the world in an open embrace, deeply understanding the transient nature of all matter, coming together and falling apart.  We can actively participate in the rich play of impermanence, using our ability to conduct infinite energy to activate peace, joy and gratitude.

Awakening to Choice

In the previous post we looked at finding magical moments of mindfulness in the middle of everything. I offered examples of how to come fully into whatever moment you’re in and the joys to be found there.

But there’s even more magic in being fully present. In each moment of mindfulness we can recognize that this is a pivotal point in our lives. This puts us in a position of personal power because we can see that we have a choice. We are not stuck in a rut or being dragged along by the currents of life. We are here and now, awake, alive, aware.

Not all our choices are beneficial. In each moment we can, for example:

  • let craving drive us in a habitual direction of unskillfulness that promises happiness but causes misery
  • let aversion judge ourselves or others harshly so that we feel angry and beaten down and cause others to feel the same

OR

See that pivot point there, that >>>>>OR<<<<< ?

It’s the little word of wisdom that offers us options to our habituated and often destructive behavior. It reminds us that we can choose to be fully present in this moment just as it is and greet the arising of the next moment with wise intention.

The first time I noticed that ‘or’ I was trodding a well-worn path to my refrigerator, that altar of delights for my taste buds and solace for whatever was ailing me. I was on a mindless habituated trek when I heard the word ‘or’. My inner wisdom was offering me an option to this pattern of mindlessness and self-destructive behavior. It said, ‘Or…I could take a walk in the garden.’ ‘Or…I could call a friend.’ ‘Or…’

You get the idea. There were so many choices that I could make if I paused to notice that I wasn’t hungry, just bored or sad or who knows what in that moment. My go-to answer was to follow a craving. In that moment I was suddenly present.  Being present, a world of choices opened to me.

Where in your life do you typically go mindless and end up following the lure of a craving or being caught up in aversion, stewing over something or someone? Are there any instances when you suddenly saw that you had other options?

We are all mindless at times. As we practice being more present in the moment, we discover how easy it is to slip into mindlessness again. The opportunities are all there: the cravings, the emotions, the judgments. But as we stay present we can see there are other opportunities offering themselves to us: to notice and follow our wisest intention to be present, aware and filled with compassion for ourselves and all beings. Living fully in this moment, our wise intention will naturally carry us to the next moment.

Each moment of awareness is a pivotal moment, but that doesn’t mean that we are constantly standing at a crossroads, wondering which way our future lies. That would cause us to fall out of mindfulness. There are times when considering the future is valuable, like preparing ourselves and our families to handle potentially volatile conditions. But most of the time future leaning causes imbalance in our lives, leaves us unavailable to see or hear what is happening right now. And that mindlessness will likely lead us to a future we never wanted, because we won’t have been present and engaged with life, so we become increasingly isolated and unskillful.

The power is here in the present, fully experienced with all the senses, as we learn again and again how to grow in awareness and compassion, right where we are in this moment, just as it is.