Category Archives: compassion

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.

Inner Exploration with Awareness and Compassion

This week in class we did an experiential exercise on compassion. After meditation practice, we sat in the resulting inner peacefulness and each explored our circular thinking around the holidays or anything else that might be causing stress right now. Meditation offers a timelessness, so that we can see in ‘slow-motion’ how the thoughts spiral from statement to associative image representing a past experience perhaps to an associative emotion to an associative sensation, etc. By creating a spacious field of awareness — not pushing anything away but making an effort not to become entangled in them either — we give ourselves truly valuable information — the best gift of the season!

After the exploration reveals something of interest, we focus on holding what has been revealed in compassionate curiosity. Developing compassion and loving-kindness is the most important aspect of any self-exploration. Without it we are like bulls in the proverbial china shop. With spaciousness and compassion we can discover the ways we activate suffering in our lives and are able to hold it gently and see it clearly, from a spacious perspective that understands the universality of whatever we notice. In this way what appears is not threatening, nor is the idea of letting it go. It is simply a natural mental phenomena that arises and falls away. Even the tightest tangles, as uncomfortable as they are and as easily as we get lost in them, are still just natural mental phenomena — in most cases leftover patterns that were created out of perceived need, but that no longer serve us, and in fact now keep tripping us up. This ability to see clearly with compassion is the greatest gift of meditation for self-exploration.

In our class discussion afterwards we explored the patterned reactions to situations, people, etc. in our lives that we noticed arising. This kind of discussion is quite different from sharing the ‘story’ — the details, the ‘he said, she said’ — that we might talk about with friends or family. Here we share the universal experience of our process of exploration and discovery rather than what can amount to gossip and too much distracting personal information. In this way we are all helped to recognize the common patterns we all experience rather than getting caught up in the personal particulars that vary from person to person, that might throw us into the pattern of wanting to offer advice to ‘solve’ a problem. We are practicing the development of a practice that brings about skillful long term insights. Solving a specific problem leads us to believe in the ‘if only’s of any situation. If only I could fix this, then I would be happy. Baloney. We are not about fixing situations. Another situation will arise that seems just as problematic. The skill we are developing is how to be in skillful relationship with all the situations that might arise in life.

No particular situation or person is the cause of our suffering. The cause is the pattern of reacting and the tangled circular thinking that create sticky cobwebs in our minds that are simply universal mental phenomena. It is for the most part fear-based reactivity developed when we were young that is no longer useful, as we now have more skillful compassion-based means to resolve challenging issues and dissolve suffering. It is not who we are, so we can look at it dispassionately, without feeling threatened, accused, or fearful of losing identity.

Here we are approaching the winter holidays that for so many of us add a whole additional layer of stress and expectation to an already busy life. One student noticed that she felt she had to give a ‘command performance.’ This resonated through the group, and perhaps it resonates with some of you as well. It prompted a whole discussion of the ways in which we demand perfection from ourselves. If this does resonate, either around the holidays or simply in life, bring to mind occasions when you have had a really great time at someone else’s home. Was it because the silverware was shiny or the guest soaps and towels perfectly aligned? Of course not. Often the best times are had in homes that feel less formally prepared. Energetically there is less tension, less special effort for us as ‘guests.’ The hosts are genuinely happy to see us, are fully present to enjoy being together, and this makes us feel more welcome than any special preparations.
We can also remember that we are always, even if we are completely unaware of it, modeling behavior for others. If we demand perfection of ourselves, are we not saying that this is the standard by which we will judge them? So letting go of this ‘command performance’ demand on ourselves releases it from others as well. Now that’s a real gift!

How do we become skillful during such periods without losing the joyful social nature of the season? This is something each of us can discover through noticing what aspects bring joy, what aspects bring anxiety, and where do we over-effort to little effect. It’s skillful to make notes about what worked and what didn’t, a message to ourselves ten months into the future. And it’s skillful to keep the conversation open and in flux about what traditions are working for our ever-changing families and other groups we may celebrate with. Tradition is heart-warming but may become oppressive, the way a cozy room can, at another time, seem suffocating. Notice what’s true for you and inquire what’s true for your loved ones!

Our meditation practice creates the space to quiet down and notice what is happening in our minds and in our lives. Once we see clearly, with infinite compassion, we are empowered to shift, enlighten and illuminate every season of our lives.

Eightfold Path: Spacious Intention

In our last exploration of the Eightfold Path two years ago, I said that Right or Wise Intention is the way we keep our spacious view from becoming spacey. But can there be such a thing as spacious intention?

Intention clarifies, takes us out of the fog or miasma of our amorphous thoughts and emotions and adds a sense of precision and presence. But does something need to be solid to be clear? No! Think of air, think of a clear pool of water. Spaciousness allows us to have clarity without rigidity. So Spacious Intention is possible because intention is the clarity of purpose that arises out of spaciousness.

To review, our intentions, wise, right or spacious, are three-fold:
• to develop a regular practice of meditation
• to stay in the present moment
• to be compassionate to ourselves and others.

If this is new information for you, I recommend rereading the post from January 2009 about Right Intention. When we talk about spacious intention, we are looking to see how spaciousness might enhance each of these intentions.

The intention to set a regular practice
The first thing we need in order to establish a practice is to claim some space in our often busy day. For some people this seems impossible. Where would they find the time? A sense of spaciousness allows us to see the day differently. We can see space between activities perhaps. With Spacious View we can look at our day and see the times when we are sensing our interconnection, expanding that sense of presence and compassion. We can see the times we are not spacious but spacey, either in repetitive circular thinking patterns that become mindless and exhausting or in succumbing to mind-numbing activities that we think of as restful, like surfing the internet, watching television, playing video games, going shopping without needing anything, etc. When we get into Spacious Action, we’ll look at these kinds of activities more closely, but for now, let’s accept that most of us have some form or another of escapist activity that doesn’t serve us very well.

Many of the things we do to ‘give ourselves a break’ are misguided attempts to connect with Spacious View. When we can see this is true, we can replace at least some of the activities with a regular practice of meditation for twenty, thirty or forty minutes a day. Even ten minutes to start will make room for the possibility of developing Spacious View. (Read more about setting up a meditation practice.)

The intention to be present
Setting the intention to be present is setting the intention to anchor our awareness in our senses, the ground of the present moment out of which the infinite field of awareness is able to keep expanding to hold whatever arises in our experience. Notice that we talk about the senses, not about the body, because the image that we hold about the body is usually finite, bounded in our skin. In truth, the body’s edges are much less defined than we imagine, as the skin is a permeable collection of cells and pores, and the breath that enters our bodies and is then released blurs the boundaries as well. But, for the purposes of navigating around in the world, we have developed a strong awareness of edges and have made them more ‘real’ than is useful for purposes of our intention to be present. For this purpose, we are better off sensing, noticing what arises in the vast field of our awareness that is free of boundaries. This field is full of energy waves that our senses perceive as sound, light, felt sensation, taste and odor. We set the intention to notice without naming, without forcing the edges onto the sound that we recognize as the chirp of a bird, for example. By letting go of the naming, we can also let go of judging. If judgment arises, we notice it, but it too is simply an amorphous arising wave of thought that is simply passing through our awareness.

Being present and noticing in this way is a practice. Part of what we might notice are feelings of frustration caused by our expectation that a lifetime of not being present will suddenly evaporate simply because we want it to. Our expectations, our wanting, and our frustration are all part of the experience, all to be noticed and given spaciousness. And because we are prone to experience such frustration and harsh judgment of ourselves, our third intention is to be compassionate.

The intention to be compassionate
Lack of compassion arises out of fear and a sense of separation. All the harsh judgments that live inside us – judgments of ourselves, family, friends, public figures, and the way of the world – come from a tight state of anxiety and defensiveness, what has been called a vestigial fear ingrained in us since the days when we had many predators and few skillful defenses. I read somewhere that after we had discovered fire, invented spears and developed a strong sense of community to defend against and ultimately decimate species that preyed upon us, that vestigial fear still remained. Once we were safe from predators, we needed to pin that fear on something, so we began seeing differences among ourselves, naming ‘other,’ defining boundaries and creating war.

Now our ability to make boundaries and see differences has become such a highly developed skill that we feel totally separate, even from our closest kin. We encourage individualism and celebrate our uniqueness, but at the same time we have, out of fear, created absolute isolation! We have dysfunctional community relations because what we think we want from each other – admiration, recognition of specialness, etc. – is not what we need from each other: a sense of connection. That feeling of isolation can cause all manner of fear-based acts of aggression. Then the fear seems reasonable, as we feel we must protect ourselves from those who, out of fear, perpetrate these acts.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all could notice the fear as it arises and have skillful means to deal with it? Then perhaps together we could release the fear. Groups that form to foster peace and understanding are trying to do just this. And so are we who meditate on a regular basis. Some Buddhists take the bodhisattva vow to be reborn again and again in this world until all beings are able to awaken together.

Developing an awareness of our vestigial fear enables us to hold it up to the light to see if it is necessary. We are developing the ability to be conscious in our thoughts, emotions and actions. But consciousness can only show us the truth. Compassion enables us to hold what we discover in a way that is beneficial to ourselves and all beings.

So we set the intention to cultivate compassion. How does spaciousness come into play with compassion? A sense of spaciousness creates room for compassion to arise within us. Compassion is a spacious generosity of being, beyond the tightness of unfounded fears and a false sense of separation.

Compassion helps us to release what is held so tight within us. A number of years ago I had an insight on a retreat and I still have it pinned to my bulletin board. It says: ‘I have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, nothing to defend and nothing to prove.’ What a breakthrough that was for me! It was like discovering the big tight knot in the core of my being – that vestigial fear, that fortress of isolation – and being able to loosen the knot a bit, to liberate myself, if only momentarily. These insights come and awaken something within us, something that once seen may begin to dissolve in the light of awareness.

Now if this statement that I have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, nothing to defend and nothing to prove sounds misguided, it’s because in a finite sense, in a world of separation and isolation, of course I could lose loved ones, material wealth, health and life; and therefore I have plenty to lose, fear and defend!

But as we discussed last week Spacious View sees the oneness of all that is. This is the great inner shift of awareness, an expansive perspective from which we see the energy waves rising and falling and the rhythm of life pulsing, and all the experiences that arise out of causes and conditions — all the pleasure and pain possible in this life — as vibrant threads in the fabric of being. And when we experience pain, if we have access to this Spacious View and this sense of compassionate awareness, then we feel sustained in a way that would not have seemed possible.

This is not to discount the emotions we experience. Grief at the loss of a loved one is still grief. But when grief is freed to be itself, alive in the moment, experienced as it is, without being blindly compounded by a sense of isolation, vestigial fear, physical tension that hangs on to all the dregs of past associative pain and all the images of a future filled with this same intensity of grief; when we are able to sense in to the spacious energy of life itself, without needing to make sense of it, without needing to justify it, without needing to make up stories around it in order to gain some sense of control, then we can rest in compassionate spaciousness and hold ourselves with tenderness.

Out of this restful spaciousness, we can bring kindness and joy into the world, providing ourselves and others with a sense of connection and well being. Spaciousness allows us to see that our way is not the only way, or that someone else’s way does not have to be our way, and that these seeming differences are just a place to hang our fears left over from the Stone Age. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to let them go! We are nostalgic for the saber tooth tiger! But spaciousness allows us to live from our deep sense of connection, a sense that cultivates compassion for ourselves and all beings.

As with most aspects of our practice, one feeds the other. So we can arrive at Spacious View through the practice of compassion. Setting our intention to be compassionate and to send metta to ourselves and to others as part of our practice, develops a way of experiencing the world that fosters our ability to sense the oneness.

So that is Spacious Intention!

Eightfold Path: Right Livelihood

For many of us, how we make our living is tightly woven into who we are. One of the first things people ask us when they meet us is “What do you do?” because how we choose to make a living offers people clues into many other aspects of our identity, including our values, skills and interests.

In inner exploration we discover that what we do is not who we are, yet the Buddha acknowledged the importance of our work life. It is the action we do all day for most of the days of our adult lives, so our work needs to be Right Action if we are to free ourselves and others from suffering. This is called Right Livelihood.

On the surface Right Livelihood seems pretty straightforward. The Buddhist sutras offer guidance on the kind of jobs that cause suffering, and if we adhere to them we should be set in this department. Check this one off our list! But as we explore this aspect of the Eightfold Path, we find that it is just as tricky and deep as Right Speech or Right Action because it has multiple aspects.

The first and most obvious aspects is to choose a job that is in keeping with our deepest values so that we are not fighting inner battles every time we go to work. I worked for a decade in advertising. The better I got at my job the more insidious it seemed. I realized that I was learning how to trade on people’s fears. In essence every ad ever written says,’ Without this wonderful product you will be less.’ Less attractive, less happy, less safe, less productive, less appreciated. Just less. A real dukkha making job!

I refused to write advertising copy for products or companies I didn’t believe in. I remember saying no way to a liposuction client. I had my limits! But even if every word I wrote was true, it didn’t feel like Right Livelihood to me. By the end of the decade I wrote an eight page harangue about how advertising was the root of all evil. I may have gotten a little carried away, but clearly it was not the profession for me.

I remember at one point saying to a co-worker, ‘I feel totally separate from myself.’ That would have been a nice clue to have heeded, instead of just laughing it off as a strange sensation. What my inner wisdom was trying to tell me was that I was being untrue to my own core set of values, as well as struggling to be the role I thought I should play.

I didn’t quit. In many ways I liked my job. It was often fun and creative, I enjoyed my coworkers, I was helping to support my family and secure our future. But finally my body spoke up. Illness as messenger. I came down with CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome). I write about this more in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, so I won’t go into it here, except to say that I hope others in a similar position won’t wait for an illness to force them to quit a job that makes them feel ‘separate’ from themselves.

So how do we determine if the work we do is harmful to ourselves or others? Fortunately we are not totally on our own to figure this out. We have the Five Precepts to guide us. As you may recall from our discussion of Right Action, they are:
Refrain from killing or harming other beings.
Take only what is freely given, refrain from stealing, exploiting or deceiving.
Refrain from misusing of our sexuality.
Speak truthfully and kindly
Maintain clarity of mind by avoiding intoxicants.

And we have the Buddhist sutras that add a few specifics: It is not Right Livelihood to deal in arms, slaves, meat, alcohol, drugs or poisons, or in making prophecies or telling fortunes.

If you do none of the above, hooray! But we need to delve a little further. If we work for a company, we need to make sure that it adheres to the precepts as well. If we work for a large corporation, this is challenging, as corporations are legally required to make as much profit as possible for their shareholders. Between what is legal and what is ethical from the point of view of the Buddhist precepts, there is a lot of wiggle room. So we need to do some research about our own company, because our job is intrinsically entwined. Now if our company is not, in our view, living up to ethical standards, we have the choice of leaving or of staying and trying to change the ethical culture. But if we want to end the suffering of ourselves and others, we don’t get to say “Just doing my job, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.” Right View, that vaster vantage point in which we sense our connection to all that is, precludes pretending that we are somehow separate in all this and therefore not culpable.

So, say you’ve chosen a profession that is Right Livelihood, your company is highly ethical – yay! Now there is the way in which we do our job to consider. Bringing all the aspects of the Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts to bear on our interactions with co-workers, clients, patients, customers, suppliers, etc. means bringing loving kindness into every interaction. As always we start that loving kindness with ourselves, so we are not beating ourselves up all day every day. Then we send metta to each person we meet, each email we send, each voice we hear on the phone.

When we act as a conduit for infinite radiant metta (loving kindness) we transform our own experience and the experience of those around us. This is powerful stuff. In fact, power as usually perceived in the workplace – who gets to boss whom, who gets the fanciest title, the corner office, the most money and best perks – that kind of power pales in comparison to the empowerment of infinite metta. Think about it: The supposed result of all that power and perks is happiness. But being a conduit of metta brings immediate, expansive and true happiness. The other is just fool’s gold. Some perk!

All right, you’ve chosen a profession that is Right Livelihood, your company is highly ethical, and you bring loving kindness into your interactions at work. So now you can check Right Livelihood off your to do list, right?

Well, not so fast! Because Right Livelihood isn’t only about how we make our living but how we, by our behavior in the marketplace, set other people up to make their livings! If we don’t make our living by killing animals but we benefit by others doing so, i.e. we eat meat, poultry or fish, then that is not Right Livelihood. We are contributing to the harm, both to the beings who are killed and to the person we are encouraging to do the killing – i.e. letting other people do our dirty work for us.

If we raise crops using chemicals that poison the environment, that is clearly not Right Livelihood. But if we knowingly purchase those crops we are also culpable, because we are helping to create a market where it is not commercially viable for a farmer to cease using those chemicals.

If we employ people at wages that leave them and their families hungry and at risk, then obviously that isn’t Right Livelihood. But if we purchase the products produced by manufacturers who treat their workers poorly, then we are also culpable.

And then once we make a purchase, we are responsible for it. If we dispose of it in a manner that harms the earth, that is not Right Livelihood either.

As an investor, Right Livelihood asks us to investigate thoroughly what exactly we are using our money to support when we buy stock.

So Right Livelihood takes into account not just how we earn a paycheck but how we interact in the marketplace. It takes into account every person whose life is touched by our interaction, and the very earth as well.

Now this is a lot of responsibility! By this time in my dharma talk my students were ready to join a monastery in order to avoid all these complicated pitfalls! Stop and notice if you are feeling in your body any sense of burden or exhaustion. Perhaps you feel Right Livelihood is impossible, given that as consumers we are not often given enough information to make wise choices, and the thought of having to do the level of research required to do so.

So what do we do? We do the best we can. That’s going to be different for each of us at different times in our lives. But keep in mind that Right Livelihood is a guidepost on the Eightfold Path that lights our way to liberation, the ending of our own suffering. When we are suffering, we can look to it and see if any of our actions are causing this suffering. We might experience this suffering as being at odds with our true selves, having developed a schism between what we believe and what we do. At that point it becomes less painful to change our actions than to continue to suffer the schism. We just want to be done with the ongoing inner battle, and come into a sense of integrity, wholeness.

When we access Right View and see our deep interconnectedness, then we really get how we harm ourselves when we harm workers on the other side of the world by supporting the industry that oppresses them — when all we thought we were doing was getting a great deal on a cute shirt!

Living in that place where our actions and our values are not aligned is uncomfortable. I know this from experience. The process is ongoing. It starts with noticing not just our actions but the excuses we make for our actions, and in the process of observing with great compassion, we may begin to observe a shift. This shift into a more connected sense of non-harming, where we take responsibility for our actions in a more joyous way and let go of the punishing, sacrificing mentality we had thought would be necessary, is a lovely gateway to liberation. But it doesn’t happen overnight. If we beat ourselves up about it we slow the process and squelch the possibility of truly coming into alignment.

Once we come into some sense of alignment, it’s important to continue to be mindful, noticing our thoughts and actions. We may become unskillful in a different way, developing a sense of purity around this, vowing that from this day forth we will live in perfect Right Livelihood, and make it our mission that others do the same. All we can expect from such action is misery in our ambition, our striving and our failures; as well as misery for those around us who will tire mighty quickly of any proselytizing we do in our new conversion.

As the Buddha did, we find the Middle Way. This is not the half-hearted way, mind you, and certainly not the half-assed way! This is the way full of mindfulness and compassion for ourselves and others. When we allow this awareness to unfold gently and with Right Effort, we create joy and ease, and, to the best of our abilities, Right Livelihood.

Earth: The Element of True Compassion

I have never read or heard anything about this, but it seems to me that each of the Four Brahmaviharas has an elemental quality. Metta (loving kindness) is like the radiant sun, shining on all without discrimination. Mudita (sympathetic joy) is like the sparkling water, dancing with reflective joy. Upekka (equilibrium) is like the sky, able to hold sunshine and storm clouds equally with great ease and spaciousness. And Karuna (compassion) is like the earth, receiving our tears, supporting us, nourishing us.

This earth-like quality, Karuna, gives effortlessly from its bounty. You never see the earth running around assessing needs, doling out its nourishment in fair proportions for each plant. The earth is just there, fully present and fully supportive.

So how does this translate for us? Can we be like the earth to someone in need? Can we relax and just be present. Can we be solid enough for them to lean on, receptive enough to receive their tears, and available for whatever they have in mind in any given moment?

This may be a real challenge for us if we are used to being in charge, if we like to direct the show, if we automatically make assumptions about the needs of others, if we have an agenda, or if we have to try to fix everything.

If we cling to the idea of ourselves as generous givers, assessing needs and filling them, it may be challenging to let that identity go, in order to tap in to a level of deep and effortless compassion. It helps to realize that a lot of what we do is based in our aversion to what is going on. In our discomfort we rush around trying to change it. We cannot bear for a loved one to be in pain, so we do everything in our power to make it stop. If we stop and be present with our own experience, we can recognize the aversion and simply accept it as part of what is in this moment. Recognizing it allows it a voice in the conversation but disengages its ability to run the show.

If there are people for whom we can’t be compassionate because of their behavior, then we are letting our judgments keep us at the surface, letting our personality get all tangled up with their personality, instead of accessing that universal quiet core of ourselves that recognizes that the very thing that makes them difficult is the burden of suffering with which they struggle. From our still center we connect with their still center for it is one and the same, and it is this awareness of oneness that allows the compassion to be infinite and ever present, regardless of circumstances.

Karuna, like all the Brahmaviharas is infinite in nature. When we feel that we have to solve other people’s problems or prove our love for them by taking on their burdens, we are operating from a shallow fear based place, and our energy will soon be depleted. What we have to give is finite and we will exhaust ourselves and the person we are trying so hard to help.

Karuna doesn’t try to change the experience of another person, or suggest that they look on the bright side, or distract them from what it is they are feeling by offering ways to ‘take their mind off their situation.’ Karuna simply sits, without anticipating anything more than the need for a tissue.

I remember the honor I felt as a witness to my father’s process of dying in the last weeks of his life. As his primary caregiver, of course I did a lot of behind the scenes activity to make sure that he had what he needed physically. But in our time together, I took on a more receptive mode, uncharacteristic of me. He was thus able to relax his natural defenses. I didn’t exhaust him by trying to commandeer his experience. He needed every bit of his limited energy for the huge transition he was making. My love made no demands on him. It was way too late to ask for anything more than he had ever been able to give me. To the degree that I was able, I let myself become like the earth, receptive, ever present to the point of not being noticed. This quiet way of being with him allowed him his own space for his experience.

The only time I felt like I totally failed him was when we were watching ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and I kept blurting out solutions before he had a chance to figure them out himself. So thoughtless! Would the earth do that? I don’t think so.

But that brings me to the first most important aspect of Karuna: having a deep compassion for ourselves. How typical it is of us to beat ourselves up over our supposed failings. Would we ever speak to another person the way we speak to ourselves on a regular basis?

The truth is we can’t offer what we don’t have. By becoming aware of the way we treat ourselves, and accessing that deep quiet stillness within, we can become the very earth under our own feet. Through our regular practice of meditation, we come to a level of deep compassion that is infinite and accessible, for ourselves, those around us and the earth itself.