Category Archives: compassion

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.

Imagine

t-b-med(1).jpgImagine those twelve Thai boys meditating in a cave not knowing when or if they would be rescued. Now imagine what greater anguish that hungry darkness might have churned up in them without the anchor of the meditation practice taught by their coach, once a Buddhist monk. Om mani padme hum. Over and over. The distress of waiting and wondering at times no doubt gave way to simply being alive together in the dark here and now, radiating light, cradled in the warm welcoming sense of oneness with all being.

Now imagine the immigrant children in the US, ripped out of their parents arms at the border and later vanished into vans bound for distant undisclosed locations. Then imagine if in this horrendous and totally unacceptable situation, these children had at least a gentle meditative practice to hold onto: A way perhaps of feeling held by their understanding of God, by Jesus, by the Virgin, a way of entering the oneness of being, where distance does not exist and separation is not possible. Perhaps some have found a way to provide that for themselves, but most are likely in heightened states of fear, anguish, worry and distress that will impact them for the rest of their lives, and ripple out in all manner of ways to all life.

What of those whose job it is to guard them? I imagine many must feel the inherent cruelty of this dreadful task that was never what they signed up for.

And what of he who assigned them to do it? Can anyone touch his heart and awaken compassion? Can anyone find his heart? It seems buried so deep in a dark cave where likely no one held him and assured him he was okay, where no one led him in the delight of discovering the intrinsic oneness of all being. And so he is caught up in his craving for everyone to see him as the wondrous one, the miracle maker, not knowing that no amount of praise or adoration will fill his achingly empty heart.

Now imagine that Thai monk-turned-coach being invited to the White House — or, hey, why not the Dalai Lama? Someone please! — to share the open secret of joy with the man who has so little, so these children can be quickly — already too late for ‘quickly’ but still — reunited with their families, and all people can be reminded of their intrinsic place in the oneness of being.

I know, I know, I have quite an imagination.

But I’m not the only one.

 

A grain of salt, a kernel of truth

elephantThe expression ‘take what you hear with a grain of salt’ reminds me to allow for the very likely possibility that what I’m hearing is not entirely true. This is usually no fault of the person sharing. It’s just the nature of living in a complex world full of ever evolving knowledge.

Conversely, in every statement I hear, I try to notice that it has at least a kernel of truth in it. This is challenging because of the visceral reaction I feel to any idea or world view with which I strongly disagree.  But it is worth the effort, because if I can activate a sense of compassion for the person, listen carefully to what they are saying, I may be able to see the fear that is driving their statement and my reaction. In this way I can find our shared humanity. (Read more about Faulty Filters of Fear)

If truth is valued, then it’s important to take with a grain of salt even an idea we cherish and to recognize the kernel of truth even in an idea we abhor.

We would probably all prefer a solid truth to rely on, but accepting any old thing as true is obviously not the answer. In our rush to feel we know what’s what, we tend to accept things at face value if they feel true to us. But why do they feel true? Because they are familiar? We heard them repeated from parents, other family members, teachers, schoolmates, admired community leaders and news sources. Are any of those completely reliable sources? Or were they just repeating what they heard and accepted or hoped was true?

We get attached to our version of truth. We welcome anything that confirms it and feel threatened by anything that challenges it.  We incorporate these ‘truths’ into who we believe ourselves to be. We want to be right at any cost, because being wrong would dismantle our tightly held sense of self.  We likely label those who disagree with us as wrong, misguided, bullheaded or maybe even evil. We are less and less likely to reach out and engage with others outside a defined ‘safe’ circle, because from inside that circle it seems as if the world, or ‘wrong-thinking’ pockets in it, are dangerous and threatening.

Stuck in our entrenched positions, it is quite challenging to cultivate qualities of compassion and loving kindness. We may like to think we are kind, but we only extend compassion to people within circumscribed areas of agreement. Outside of that is a dangerous land of enemy thinkers we deem undeserving of our compassion.

Then we come to meditation practice and we are asked to send infinite loving-kindness to all beings. We are asked not to make an enemy of anything or anyone. This feels like an insurmountable challenge, maybe even one we don’t want to take on. What would we have to give up of ourselves to let down our guard in that way? The very idea threatens who we believe ourselves to be, and yet we believe ourselves to be good and kind. Uh oh! What a pickle!

At this point the most fearful among us make an enemy of the practice itself, saying ‘It’s not for me’ or ‘I don’t believe in that malarkey’. They go back to the bitter battle of defining their territory and needing to be right in order to feel okay.

That’s one choice. What’s the other? Do we have to hang out with people we disagree with and bite our tongues while they rant nonsense?

No. As a kindness to ourselves we can choose to respectfully steer clear of people caught up in tornadoes of fear and anger, unless we feel centered enough and called upon to help. Then we do so as conduits of infinite loving-kindness. If we’re not feeling kind even toward ourselves, it is best not to engage. Instead we focus on taking care of ourselves first because we have nothing to offer anyone else but our own fear-based opinions and depletable resources which will be of use to no one, and could make matters worse.

To not make an enemy of anyone doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. But they don’t have to agree with us for us to recognize our shared existence in this complex web of being. They are caught up in this tricky business of living just as we are. We may not wish that their goals come to fruition, but we do wish them well. (Even if in wishing them well we sneakily think, that if they were well they would not be so caught up in their wrong thinking!)

Our willingness to extend compassion to all beings, regardless of what they believe, helps us to be kinder to ourselves as well. We all have aspects of ourselves that we don’t feel particularly good about. We may have tried keeping them hidden but they pop out in all sorts of inconvenient ways. We create a fortress of Self, constructed of our preferences and our firm ideas that we defend to the end. We expend so much energy in this defensive stance that we become exhausted and none the happier for all our efforts. We just get prickly and prone to provoking fear-based emotions in others, causing misery all around.

The kinder we are to ourselves the less dependent we are on having to be right in order to be okay. But why would we want to let go of being right? Isn’t that losing something? In my experience, and in the experience of many others, giving up the need to be right is a great relief. We are not at war here. We are in a complex community of life that thrives on collaboration and communication and coexistence. The less vested we are in being right all the time, the happier we tend to be. Is that true? And if so, how do we get there?

First, let’s look at the expansive history and ongoing evolution of thought and knowledge. Consider how the facts that were accepted as true one hundred years ago don’t all hold up to the light of what further research has shown to be true. In many cases, it’s simply that we didn’t have a lens to see what was right before our eyes. Whether looking at things on a cellular level or into the cosmos, in both cases what our forebears could see with their limited tools don’t all hold up today, do they? That alone can give us pause to hold our current acceptance of what we ‘know’ to be true a little more lightly.

But still, for most of us, budging at all from our long-held opinions would be threatening. We have a need to be right, to know it all, to have things locked in.

Could we adopt a more scientific mindset? Could we inquire, observe, hypothesize, experiment and be open to being proven wrong in our hypothesis? The scientific community is trained to question everything. Non-scientists can adopt at least a degree of that same liberated mind instead of accepting any particular fact as the absolute truth.

But wait, we might say, things happened in history and some things we saw before our very eyes. Surely that is true, right? History is presented as facts, but history is written by the victors, by the dominant culture and throughout recorded history primarily by men. The filters that naturally arise from these varied perspectives present some facts and not others, either by complete omission or by highlighting certain aspects, projecting attributes upon them, and giving them whatever motivation, perspective and emphasis the person who lived to tell the tale chooses.

There seems to be a wave of research into previously untold stories to broaden and deepen our understanding of what life might have been like before our time. As important as this is, we can never recreate it exactly. We bring the zeitgeist of our current culture, our own slant laced with nostalgia or horror at past injustice. No re-creation of the past can help but be flawed. But for most of us it is far better than letting the past disappear completely and all the lessons learned lost.

Because of this interest, we now have a number of dedicated museums that are willing to look without blinders at things like the Holocaust, the African-American historical experience, etc. We even have the technology to capture in a most profoundly moving way a Holocaust survivor in a  hologram. In his own words he answers whatever question a visitor might pose in real time about his life and experiences. Along with written and oral accounts, a vital history lesson is being preserved in the hopes of never allowing such a thing to happen again.

Being open to listen and learn from people’s personal experiences is much easier if we don’t have preconceived notions that filter out what we are uncomfortable hearing. None of us want to believe that such horrors could occur, but denying that they do would seem a sure way to perpetuate them.

No one individual’s perspective will capture the whole of an experience, but by cobbling together a multiplicity of personal perspectives, we can come much closer to understanding the past. We might think that one factual account of an eyewitness would be completely reliable, but life is multifaceted. When the San Francisco Bay Area had a powerful earthquake in October 1989, those who lived through it asked each other the classic post-trauma question ‘Where were you?’ resulting in a wide variety of recountings of personal experience. So already, even in the moment, you have hundreds of thousands of versions of the facts, all of them true, but none of them telling the whole story. It’s like the blind men feeling the elephant and each coming out with a completely different description of what ‘elephant’ is, as shown in this video.

The earthquake was more than a collection of personal experiences. There are lots of facts: the date, the time, the 6.9 magnitude as recorded on the Richter scale. These facts are true, but possibly not the whole truth. Clock time itself is a cultural agreement among humans, not observed by the rest of nature, after all. And the measuring equipment will probably be considered unreliable and obsolete in fifty years. There were undeniable facts of fatalities, injuries and structural failures. But each fact is one facet of a much larger story that we don’t know. We didn’t know the victims personally and even if we did, no one knows anyone completely. Seismic engineers may be able to figure out probable cause for structural failures, but fifty years hence chances are there will be more in-depth understanding. This doesn’t make the facts untrue. It just makes them incomplete. That’s useful for us to remember when we think we know something. Can we at least acknowledge that our facts are incomplete?

On retreat at Spirit Rock a few years ago I suddenly had the knock-on-the-head recognition that ‘I don’t know!’ Looking around I could see how my mental shorthand, our communal convenient labeling of the world we live in as objects with names, left me still lacking in any real knowledge. My mental notation of ‘tree’ is just a skim the surface shorthand that’s necessary in order not to be overwhelmed by all the information being presented at every turn in this life. I don’t know and am unable to observe the goings on inside that tree or where it’s root go underground. I’ve been taught some things about the processes in general, but honestly I don’t know in this particular tree’s case what’s going on. I don’t know its history, what tree it fell from as a seedling, how it came to grow in this spot, etc. etc. And understanding how limited my knowledge was did not make me ambitious to find out more. It liberated me from feeling I had to know everything in order to feel okay. I hadn’t realized how tightly wrapped I had been in the fear-based need to believe that my shorthand version of the world is complete.

We have shorthand ways of defining people as well. We assign them categories based on gender, age, weight, height, ethnicity, profession, personality traits, clothing, possessions, etc. But what does it all add up to? Assumptions! And those assumptions cause us to judge them based on our experiences, in person or through the media, with others who we have pigeonholed in some of the same categories. Is this the way we want to be known? Of course not. Each of us wants to be seen clearly with fresh eyes, not through preconditioned filters that are blindingly inaccurate.

All the conclusions we draw are based on ephemera. And our assumptions come back to bite us in so many ways. For example, in our desire to be seen, respected, loved and admired we often compare ourselves with others. But we compare their perceived polished outsides with our more in-depth view of our own messy insides. Neither of our judgments are accurate.

We can see how clinging to our need to be right at all costs doesn’t serve us. But we may still feel we know facts when we see them. Let’s look at more examples from the 1989 earthquake.

People across the country watching film footage on television news were led to believe that the whole of San Francisco and much of the East Bay were in ruins. Why would a news report show the untouched areas? That’s not news because nothing changed. What had changed, and was therefore newsworthy, was the collapsed freeway and Bay Bridge, and the Marina district in flames. With so much going on, it’s not surprising that reporters failed to mention that the majority of the Bay Area was perfectly fine.

That’s the news biz for you! ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is the policy of the newsroom. Feeding the negativity bias of the survival mode part of our brain, is a safe bet for news shows to keep ratings up. In the newsroom, choices are constantly being made as to what to present. When my husband Will was a TV news film editor, the Black Panthers were much in the news. The reporters would tell Will what clips to include and in what order to suit their stories. It horrified him to see how they chose to include shots that showed them as militaristic and threatening, then routinely exclude footage of the community help programs run by the Panthers. So disturbed was he by this daily misrepresentation, that he saved the discarded footage on a reel in his work drawer. He should have taken it home. Eventually it was discovered and destroyed.

History is often destroyed because it doesn’t represent the skewed viewpoint of the person who is presenting the news. Today almost all of us carry around a phone that can record history in the making. This is changing our understanding of our world in wondrous and horrifying ways. We are seeing many more videos of cute and funny animals, of humans helping others of every species, of people standing way to close to tornadoes and lava flow, and we see firsthand the brutality and misuse of lethal force by those who are meant to protect us. In this way we are expanding the input possible, cobbling together a more accurate sense of things. But at the same time we are filtering out what doesn’t confirm our worldview, thus becoming more entrenched, and more likely to consider other views as ‘enemy’.

Can we recognize our own intentions and the intentions of those who are sharing their stories, each with their own hopes, dreams and agenda? In the long run, I can imagine that this explosion of sharing will offer future historians a more accurate reflection of the times we live in.         But they will have a whole lot of cat videos to wade through.

In next week’s post we will look at how to live with not knowing — and love it!

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Compassion is life loving itself

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Kwan Yin, Goddess of Mercy and Compassion

Part of mindfulness practice is cultivating compassion for ourselves. For example, when we are meditating and we get lost in thought, our habituated reaction may be to give ourselves a hard time. This just throws us into another tangle of thoughts and emotions about past ‘failures’ and/or future hopelessness. But if we cultivate compassion for ourselves, we gently shift back to here and now.

Having cultivated compassion for ourselves, we are better able to cultivate compassion for others. But it’s important to distinguish between compassion and empathy. When we encounter someone who is struggling, we may feel empathy, especially if what they are going through is similar to our own experience now or in the past. We literally feel their pain as if it is our own. Because it is painful, we may turn away as a form of self-protection. Or we may be drawn in because it is so familiar. In either case, it doesn’t help the other person, does it? And it doesn’t help us, because we either feel guilty for turning away or we feel like we’re drowning in someone else’s misery.

Compassion is recognizing suffering and responding in a way that is useful. If I see an insect stuck on the inside of a screen door, compassion sparks me to open the door to let it out. If I was just feeling empathy, I might stand there and say ‘Oh, you poor little bug! Look how you struggle. Me too! Boo hoo!’ And if I had no empathy and no compassion, I’d grab the fly swatter, seeing the bug as a potential danger or at least an annoyance, threatening my own happiness and peace of mind.

Compassion respects all life. It isn’t limited to beings we find ‘relatable’, whose experience mirrors our own. Compassion recognizes suffering but expands to hold it in an open and loving way rather than succumbing to it.

Compassion is action. When we see someone in distress and we help them in whatever way is skillful, that is compassion. Many instances of compassion we might recognize as simply being human, being neighborly or ‘doing the right thing’. Compassion comes naturally to most of us, at least in certain situations.

I am sure you have performed many acts of compassion this week. Maybe you let a car merge in front of you. Maybe in the grocery store you helped someone get something off a high shelf beyond their reach. Maybe you gave a respectful nod to someone sitting on the sidewalk. Maybe you saw or heard about a community in distress from flooding or earthquake or other disaster, and you sent a donation. Compassion is action, but it comes in all shapes and sizes: From a nod of respect to giving a majority of your waking hours to a cause you care about or a person in need. As citizens in a democracy, we cultivate compassion when we vote and make our voices heard for the benefit of our community, our nation, all beings and the earth itself.

Compassion doesn’t register within us as an identity — “I am a compassionate person” — trying to be seen as a hero, taking credit for actions, or being concerned about how we are perceived by others. Shoring up a personal identity just knocks us into seeing ourselves as separate, rather than a part of the celebration of the oneness of all being that sparks true compassion, life loving and taking care of itself.

There are many among us whose whole lives are devoted to compassionate action. And for them especially it is important to discern between compassion and empathy. Over the years I have had a number of insight meditation students who are psychologists, counselors and therapists. Some have complained about the weight of carrying their patient/clients problems into their own lives after the appointment is over. I suggest, for the benefit of their clients and for themselves, that they think of the client’s sharing as being laid out in the space between them for both to examine in a spacious way. Trying this out, my students found that they could bring all their practice and wisdom to the challenge without taking it on as their own. For their clients it helped to see their sharing as a story passing through their experience rather than an aspect of their identity. It makes sense that people who choose professions in the field of psychology are empathetic and want to be of help to those that suffer. But the empathy can become a source of misery.

It’s important to acknowledge that this misery is not just experienced by the empathetic person. When when you share your grief and your friend cries, you are unlikely to feel you can share freely. It is painful to cause suffering in another. Sharing our suffering with a person who has cultivated compassion feels safer. They receive it with loving-kindness, respect and full attention, but they don’t make it their own.

An experiment conducted by neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki comparing empathy and compassion showed that empathy training activated motion in different parts of the brain than compassion training. The outcome was that the empathy-trained group found empathy ‘uncomfortable and troublesome’ while the compassion group felt kinder and more eager to help others.

This makes sense. Taking on the suffering of others as if it is our own is not very comfortable, is it? Being so empathetic we become drained when we spend time around others, because we are taking on their suffering. We may need to get away just to allow ourselves to reconnect with our own experience. While I encourage everyone to take time for themselves, having to be alone a lot can certainly be challenging in maintaining satisfying relationships. If this is your experience, you might notice whether being overly empathetic is at play, and whether cultivating active compassion might help to channel it more skillfully.

But whether we lack empathy or are inundated in it, how do we cultivate compassion? Again, cultivating compassion begins with ourselves: compassion for our own suffering and grief, but also for our ignorance, blundering and foolishness. We do this, in part, to soften the rigid pattern of harsh self-judgment and the resulting suffering that becomes toxic and contagious. This doesn’t mean we ‘let ourselves off the hook’ when we have done something unskillful. A part of our mindfulness practice is cultivating ethical behavior, speech and livelihood (See Noble Eightfold Path). But if we enforce our behavior with cruel words or punitive actions, then we are compounding our unethical behavior.

Instead we do what we can to right any wrong, make amends, apologize, and investigate what went wrong in order to learn from our experience and not repeat the unskillful behavior. But this is only possible if we also actively cultivate compassion, because without compassion we beat ourselves up or avoid dealing with it through all manner of addictive and distracting behaviors.

Once we have cultivated more compassion for ourselves, we are better able to extend compassion to others. We see the suffering at the root of the unskillfulness of those around us. For example, driving around we may be quick to judge someone who drives too closely, too fast, changes lanes erratically, etc. At that moment we might recognize their suffering, and feel compassion. Who among us has not at times driven mindlessly? Who among us has not been lost in our own suffering, or been lost in a hormonal high that makes us feel immortal. That last one is most often the realm of the young who haven’t quite connected with the reality of the two ton metal weapon they are wildly wielding on the road. But knowing that they are not immune to suffering in this life, we can have compassion for them as well, even if at this very moment it is challenging to do so. The compassionate action that arises within us is to not react or retaliate as we drive, but to maintain mindful safe driving and actively send lovingkindness. ‘May you be well. May you be safe.’

For most of us it is easy to feel compassion for someone in a temporarily difficult situation that we can relate to. We tend to have a harder time cultivating compassion for someone who seems to have made poor life choices and is now living with the consequences. It helps to recognize that our harsh judgments function as a bypass to avoid feeling other people’s pain or recognizing our own poor choices in life. Perhaps our poor choices did not have substantial adverse effects on our lives. Do we take that good fortune as a credit to ourselves? None of us is perfect. And none of us is immune to suffering, no matter how fortunate.

Compassion does not command us to be saviors. It offers us the opportunity to live fully in the joy of being alive, and to recognize all life as deserving of respect and kindness, and a little help from a fellow being now and then.

 

Compassion (Karuna)

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
A
fter 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.

Oh, to be a Bodhisattva

(NOTE: The term Bodhisattva is from Mahayana schools of Buddhism, and I am grounded more in Theravada, the school of the elders, the one that you might say keeps the Buddha’s flame burning without additional fireworks. However, Bodhisattva has resonance for me and perhaps for you. Just hold all I am about to say lightly and then, if interested, you can explore more on your own.)

When visiting the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco we come across many images of Bodhisattva in various representations, including one with a thousand arms, called Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva who is said to hear the cries of the world and embody the compassion of the buddhas.

 
What comes up for you when you envision this thousand armed reliever of worldly pain?

I remember thinking the bodhisattva must be something like the ultimate multi-tasker, having a hand in every pot and everybody else’s business. Exhausting to consider! So it helped me to hear the interpretation that each of us, when we do something with true compassion, is an arm of the bodhisattva reaching out into the world.


When we come to the term anew and learn that a person who chooses to be a bodhisattva sacrifices their own entry into nirvana until all beings can enter as well, we might imagine a superhero or a supernatural being — certainly not something we could become. But at some point in our practice, we can revisit the idea of bodhisattva with a more spacious perspective.
In his book The Wisdom of Imperfection, British psychologist and Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher Rob Preece writes, “A Bodhisattva chooses to live within this paradox of knowing deeply the illusory nature of the world he or she inhabits while still being willing to remain within it.”
Choosing to live within the paradox — that’s what we do as Buddhist practitioners when we stop chasing bliss and choose to stay present fully with whatever arises.


The paradox we live with is that, on the one hand: This moment matters. We matter. Those around us matter. Our actions matter. Our words matter. How we make our livelihood matters. How we care for the earth matters. It all matters.


AND YET! Held with grace and a sense of equilibrium, we and all that we care about, do and feel is, in the grand scheme of things, gone in the blink of an eye. We can go further to say that all of this matter that seems to matter so much is most likely illusory. But if we’re not ready to recognize that, it’s enough for us, in moments when the mattering weighs heavily upon us, to remind ourselves that: Life is fleeting. We all die, some sooner some later, but death comes without exception. We are each of us only one of seven billion people in the world and it is not all up to us to solve all the problems on the planet. Our amazing beautiful earth is but a speck of dust in the vastness of space.
This is just putting things into practical perspective! 


When we can hold deeply and lightly these two seemingly opposite truths — that it all matters/that none of it matters — in a balanced way — not teetering, not juggling, but opening our embrace to include it all, then we are skillfully living with the paradox. 


The ability to hold this paradox in a spacious balanced way makes life rich and meaningful, gives each moment luminosity. Perhaps we came to the practice of meditation to escape from the world that seems to be an impossibly challenging source of bottomless suffering. But with the practice of being present, we find that what gives joy and meaning to our lives is not escape, but the ability to bring a heightened awareness into this moment, to be fully engaged and caring. What we learn by being present is the existence of this wondrous paradox, that through the development of spacious, present, compassionate mind, we can be whole-heartedly engaged in the world without losing the awareness of its temporal nature.


Living with the paradox: This is our practice. We can use this sense of paradox to live joyfully, or we can misuse it, as we all do from time to time. For example: We take the sweetest moment and are sad that it will not last. In a difficult moment we try to escape to a bliss state. At times perhaps we even feel put upon to be here. “I didn’t ask to be born.” At times we may feel that nothing we do matters, so why bother?


Recognizing any tendency we may have to ‘lose heart’ in this way is part of the gift of the practice. Through quieting down in meditation, we begin to hear the ways we talk to ourselves, the stories we tell, the myths we live by, the habitual patterns of thought and emotion that course through us. Through awareness we can begin to question these thoughts. Is this true? How do I know this is true?


With full attention, we can also find within us a spark of infinite loving kindness, metta, and we can use this spark to kindle compassion for ourselves and others.


When we feel a connection with all that is, we lose the fear of disappearing. How can we disappear if our being-ness is saturated into the fabric of life? We lose the need to feel solid and unique in order to exist. We can rest in the awareness that nothing is as solid as we believed it to be. The physical world becomes diaphanous, like the sheer veils of a dancer: intoxicating, delightful but ultimately of no substance. (Science tells us this as well, but our minds connect the dots and see substance in the objects around us where in fact, at the cellular level, there is primarily space.)


The bodhisattva is able to sustain his or her deep compassion and sense of engagement, while wearing all this earthly being-ness lightly. The bodhisattva knows the nature of bliss, but instead of crossing the threshold into eternal bliss state, chooses to dance with it and weave it skillfully in his or her interactions in the world.


So if we have experienced bliss — that sense of the ego falling away, of our pain and suffering disappearing into an infinite sense of joy, gratitude and acceptance — and yet we choose to live in this world fully, offering a lightness of being into all our interactions, then perhaps we are already bodhisattvas. We can let go of awed admiration for some other being’s self-sacrifice, the comparing mind and the sense of personal failure. 


The bodhisattva is a being of joy! The attributes of a bodhisattva naturally arise out of ongoing dedication to a joyful practice. These attributes are known as the Six Paramitas or perfections: Morality, generosity, patience, perseverance, meditation and wisdom.


If we strive to ‘become a Bodhisattva’ we can turn these Paramitas into distant goals and beat ourselves up with the word ‘should.’ More wisely, we can use them as gentle guiding lights to expose and explore painful areas where we suffer, and let our deepening understanding and access to inner wisdom spark the bodhisattva that lives within us all.


Many of us have stood at the door to Nirvana — perhaps a fleeting glimpse in childhood that we have since forgotten or discounted. Some of us have even stepped beyond the threshold and have recognized the eternal nature of being. All of us have the capacity to access this infinite source, if we release the fear and rest in awareness of what is true in this moment. 


Once accessed, we can choose to live inside that bliss state or, instead, allow it to live inside us, fueling us with the infinite energy of compassion. In this way we are not rejecting the gift of being alive in this world. It is no sacrifice to live from a state of full joyful appreciation whatever arises in our experience.