Category Archives: compassion

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.

Karuna, Accessing Deep Rooted Compassion

Have you ever been in a situation where people were feeling sorry for you? Perhaps you had suffered a great loss, had a serious illness or experienced a big upheaval in your life. Suddenly people’s eyes seemed full of pity or sympathy. And how did you feel? Like you couldn’t get away fast enough?

Why? One possible reason is that, much as they might try, others cannot imagine exactly what we are going through with any accuracy, even if they have experienced something similar. From moment to moment our emotions are changing, so if someone claims understanding, they are projecting their own ideas of what they think we must be going through onto us. As well meant as they are, these projections just add to our challenge. They muddy up our ability to sense into our own direct experience and be present with it.

So then when someone else is going through a difficult experience, we may feel paralyzed with the fear of saying or doing something wrong ourselves. We are afraid that our heartfelt empathy will come across as pity. Yet we feel antsy in our wanting to do something. And of course anything we do is better than doing nothing, so we call or send a card or bring a casserole, but all the while we are not sure if we are truly being helpful, if we are doing enough or if our words will be misunderstood.

As discussed in previous posts, when we are operating out of the shallow hard cake of fear, the results of our efforts are distorted and fail to nourish us or those around us. And now here we are again, rooted in fear, terrified of doing the wrong thing but wanting very much to help.

Here is a moment to center in to ourselves, to focus on the breath. The fear may exist. We see it. We know it. We can feel where in our body it grips us tight. And that simple acknowledgment allows us to relax a little. Through relaxing into this present moment fully, it is possible to release our fear. We don’t push it away, overcome it, conquer it or ignore it. That is just fighting fear with fear – a battle without end.

Instead we notice the fear, notice how it feels in our body, notice all the sensations that accompany it. As we breathe into these sensations we can eventually find a quiet center within ourselves, a shift of perspective from which we can see the fear more clearly. With great tenderness, as a mother would do for her baby, we hold the fear in an open embrace until it settles down, dissapates or disappears. This open embrace is expansive – a vast and loving awareness. We become aware that we also are like a babe being lightly held in an infinite loving open embrace.

When we are able to rest in this vast and loving awareness, the compassion that arises is karuna.

The difference between mere sympathy and karuna is the difference between ‘There but for the Grace of God go I’ and ‘I am you, and you are me and we are all together’ – an awareness of the seamless oneness of being. In the first sentence there is well wishing, but there is also the relief that it is not happening to us, and the fear that it might someday. So there is a part of us that wants to run away, fearful of contamination. These added fear-based emotions communicate loud and clear to the other person.

In the second sentence above, there is no where to run away to. Karuna is rooted in the knowledge that if it is happening to anyone, it is happening to us. And instead of ‘offering sympathy’, we sit by their side or hold them in our arms, listening with our full attention when they want to talk, and resting in the deep silence when they don’t, all the while surrounding them with loving compassion in our hearts. We keep in the present moment, instead of dragging our own past experiences in to bear, or our fears for the future. In this way, we can stay along for the ride on the roller coaster of their emotions, wherever it takes them. We can let go of our desire to have an agenda or a playbook.

When needed, we may do whatever practical things we can to ease their burden, freeing them for a while to be with their own experience. We don’t pretend to know what that experience is, but we stand with them as witness to it. We ‘have their back,’ lending our strength to their present needs.

Like all the Brahmaviharas, karuna is naturally arising, most often a result of the regular practice of meditation. It is a state of being that cannot be donned like a costume and acted out. Still, it is good to be aware of it so that when it arises within us we can know it and feel gratitude for such a bountious gift in our lives.

Meditation & The Four Brahmaviharas

In the last post I talked about gratitude and how the gratitude we have for temporal things – possessions, relationships, situations – is rooted in fear. This fear I suggested is like a hard cakey soil that isn’t able to offer any nourishment. Whatever is planted there grows distorted and has a tortured look about it. Fortunately, this hard cake of fear is just a shallow crust on the surface. Just below it is a deep nourishing rich soil we can access through regular meditation. When our gratitude is more deeply rooted in that richer soil, we are able to grow strong, resilient, and authentic.

But what is this rich soil below the surface? Well, if in this analogy the shallow layer is fear, then the rich soil is love: A spacious love without boundaries. A rich soil nourishes all roots. It doesn’t favor one plant over another. And this love is the same. This love is infinite.

In Buddhism, this infinite love is called metta. We focused on metta in August, and you can read more about it in the archive.

Metta is the first among equals in the Four Brahmaviharas. Bramavihara is a Pali word meaning heavenly abode. An abode is a dwelling place, in this case a dwelling place for our consciousness, or a state of being.

The Four Bramaviharas are ‘heavenly’ because they are states of well being, in which we are able to see beyond the illusionary boundaries that seem to divide us, and we can feel ourselves held in the infinite embrace of loving awareness.

The Four Brahmaviharas are: Metta/lovingkindness, Karuna/ compassion, Mudita/sympathetic joy and Upekkha/equilibrium.

Each of these states of being are the fruits of the practice of meditation. As you practice you may begin to notice your heart softening so that it is easy to feel loving kindness towards people you previously found difficult to tolerate. You may find yourself letting down your defenses and accessing a level of compassion that you had not dreamed possible. You may surprise yourself that you feel truly happy for someone else, even when they obtain a prize you had sought. And you may find that your practice has brought more balance into your life, so that you can be more skillful in stressful situations and not be so tormented when life seems to throw you a curve.

These states are not something we can achieve through will power or determination. They are not something we can force upon ourselves or scold ourselves into. When we attempt to do so, our efforts are shallowly rooted in that hard cake soil of fear: Fear that we are not good enough as we are, fear that people won’t like us if we don’t exhibit these traits. Anything rooted in that shallow hard cake soil of fear will be distorted and won’t nourish us or anyone around us. When we let go of our striving to attain these states, and simply stay with our intention to maintain a regular practice of meditation, we are more likely to begin to experience them – at first in brief glimpses, then small but more regular doses, until we find ourselves in them more often than not, and finally, the Buddha says, our suffering ceases and we can dwell in these heavenly abodes as our normal condition.

Notice that, like deep gratitude, these states all are infinite in nature.

METTA – loving kindness
This infinite source is radiant like the sun, shining on all. When we access its infinite we are free to be generous with our loving kindness, rather than meting it out to those who we think most deserve it as if from a small precious reserve. In this sweet web of life, where would we draw the line? Why would we withhold our own capacity to nourish and heal from any being?

KARUNA – compassion
From this infinite source compassion wells up within us. Knowing that pain and suffering is a part of the human experience, we do not turn away from it but anchor ourselves in the infinite source and extend our compassion in a fearless open loving embrace.

MUDITA – sympathetic joy
From this infinite source we rejoice in the good fortune of others, for we deeply know that all is one, and joy is contagious and bountiful. From this perspective we can see more clearly that no person’s good fortune is stolen at our expense, and that no human being has a life devoid of pain, no matter how perfect their life may seem to us.

UPEKKA – equanimity
From this infinite source we find ourselves rooted so deeply no storm can knock us down. We find our awareness is so spacious that we can hold great sorrow and great joy in the same moment. We are able to be fully present for whatever arises and see it as it is.

So as we explore these individually in the coming weeks, keep in mind that they are not goals but gifts. Let them rest lightly in your awareness as you rededicate your intention to maintain a regular meditation practice.