Category Archives: karuna

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.

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.