Cultivating Compassion

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?
— George Eliot in 'Middlemarch'

The word compassion derives from the Latin for “suffering-with.”  Which doesn’t necessarily sound so appealing, right?  I mean, we all have enough with our own suffering, why take on more?  And taking on the suffering of the world, that sounds overwhelming and depressing.  So we close ourselves to the suffering of others, especially those who don’t appear to be in our in-group.  This seems like a rational protection mechanism, but wisdom traditions say otherwise. 

We all have mirror neurons, and naturally feel for others.  When someone stubs their toe we flinch, it’s automatic.  It’s the foundation of community, and an integral part of being human.  We suppress or deny this natural response in order to avoid it.  But we are habitual creatures, and if we don’t allow ourselves to feel one type of feeling- especially one so prevalent- we shut down to other types of feelings.  Mark Nepo writes, “we unknowingly slip something on, some added layer of protection that keeps us from feeling the world, and often that thin covering is the beginning of a loneliness which, if not put down, diminishes our chances of joy.”

The truth is that compassion feels good.  We all crave connection.  And connecting to someone going through a tough time is both incredibly helpful to that person and rewarding to us.  Scientifically, compassion has been shown to trigger the brain’s pleasure networks.  More and more research has documented positive health outcomes for people who help others, including enhanced immune response and increased longevity.  Both receiving and offering compassion seem to diminish depression and anxiety.

So how do we begin to shift our attitude and behavior?  The teachings of Buddhism offer a guide to navigating the path of compassion.

First, we want to distinguish between empathy and compassion.  Empathy is a doorway to compassion.  But if we’re purely empathetic, then we’re just as upset as the person we are with, and not much help at all.  Instead, we want to evoke some measure of equanimity, the quality of emotional balance.  That way we can be available as a resource.

If we lose our equanimity, we will likely shut down to the other’s experience.  We may try to exert control by giving unsolicited advice or saying that everything will be fine when we don’t truly know.  Or we might find ourselves feeling righteous anger- it’s not okay that this happened to you!- and go off on our own trip.  These are defense mechanisms, blocking tenderness and open-heartedness.

To remain both sensitive and equanimous, we need to acknowledge that we can’t necessarily fix the pain of another.  Of course if we’re able to act in assistance, great.  But when that’s not available, we can do what the Zen Peacemakers call bearing witness.  We can simply acknowledge the suffering of another, and offer loving presence.  Think of a time when someone was able to just be with you at a difficult time.  Or if this hasn’t happened to you, consider a time when it would have been helpful.  This is perhaps the most amazing gift we can give, to not leave someone alone in difficulty.

As we engage, the second distinction we need to make is between sympathy and compassion.  Sympathy is condescending, like pity.  We need to imbue our presence with respect for the other person for our care to be meaningful.  Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life.  When you help, you see life as weak.  When you fix, you see life as broken.  When you serve, you see life as whole.  Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”  When we offer respect, we dissolve the boundaries between people.  We come out of isolation and into communion.  We meet in acknowledgement of the universality of suffering, and find joy in being together.  We touch the liberating experience of oneness.

The following practice is adapted from Roshi Joan Halifax:

Slowly become aware of your breath and your body.

Be present to a sense of gravity.  Let your whole body experience the strength of your stable, grounded connection with the earth.  Relax into this stability.

Now bring your awareness into your spine.  Appreciate how straight, strong, and flexible it is.  The strength of your spine allows you to uphold yourself in the midst of any condition.  You can remind yourself of this strength by silently saying, “strong back.” Feel the sense of uprightness and flexibility in your mind.

Now let your awareness go to your belly.   Let your breath be deep and strong as your belly rises and falls.  Feel your natural courage and openness as you breathe deeply into your belly.

Shifting your awareness to your chest, touch the tender, open feeling of this space.  Let yourself be present to your own suffering and to the fact that, just like you, others also suffer.  Imagine being free of suffering and helping others be free of suffering too.  Feel the strength of your resolve rising up from your belly.

Let your heart be open and permeable.  Release any tightness you feel as you allow your breath to pass through your heart.  Remind yourself of your own tenderness by saying, “soft front.”  With gratitude, remember that your life is supported by each breath.  The whole front of your body may begin to feel open, receptive, and permeable.

Through your open body, you can feel the world, which lets you feel compassion.  Through your strong spine, you can be with suffering, which gives you equanimity.  Your open heart allows you to be with your strength of mind.  Let all these qualities— of equanimity, and compassion, and strength— intermingle.  Let them inform one another.  Let them give you genuine presence.  “Strong back, soft front.”

It’s important that we cultivate compassion slowly and gently.  We may encounter fear along the way, this is natural.  When we do experience true compassion, we can take the time to acknowledge it, in order to gain confidence.

It may seem counterintuitive to turn toward suffering, but the alternative is to avoid it, and in tensing against it we carry our fear around with us.  If we instead practice opening to the suffering of ourselves and others, we allow for the possibility of kindness, connection, and deep well-being.

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson

Loving Ourselves

The point isn’t to perfect yourself, the point is to perfect your love.
— Jack Kornfield

How is your relationship with yourself?  Instead of answering intellectually, identify the felt experience.  Is there a quality of warmth and tenderness, or is it more cool and objective?  Is it immediately comfortable, or is there a disconnect- like you're not sure, or maybe a hesitation- like you don't want to go there?

Why does it matter?  It's like the air we breathe: so ever-present that we may not notice it.   But how we speak to ourselves, how we treat ourselves, colors our experience most of the time.   And since we are each our own primary relationship- and we are creatures of habit- these patterns of behavior are projected onto the people around us.  It's definitely worth putting some effort into this relationship if it doesn't feel kind.

Self-love is apparently more elusive for us than other cultures. There isn't a concept of self-hatred, or even a word for guilt, in Tibet.  The implication is that unworthiness is not built into being human, rather it's culturally specific.  The good news is that anything learned can be changed.

How does it feel to hold on to guilt for our actions?  It's heavy and paralyzing.  Under it's sway we're too busy obsessing about ourselves in a negative way to be more generous or kind to others.  If we instead practice cultivating gentle remorse, we feel lighter and happier: in this uncontracted state we tap into our innate capacity to care and to grow.  The experience is both empowering and realistic.

How does it feel when we think we are not enough?  Most of us can't meet the ridiculous societal standard of eternal youth, perfect health, and ever-increasing material accumulation.  We may get stuck in shame, and lose the energy and the confidence to flourish.  If we instead softly accept our so-called imperfections, we realize and feel that we are in this business of being human together.  We stop competing with each other to be attractive or successful, and find compassion and connection.

When environmental activist Gary Snyder was asked about what we should do about the current state of destruction of our planet, he replied, "Don't feel guilty.  If you're going to save it, save it because you love it."  He said, "You don't do it because it has to be done.  You do it because it's beautiful."

Seeing the good in ourselves is a turning point for thriving.  If we downplay our positive qualities in a misguided attempt to avoid conceit or narcissism, we may fail to cultivate our strengths and use them in the world.  I'm not suggesting self-centeredness; this has been proven to make us less happy.  I am suggesting self-respect, which will then naturally be reflected outward to value the experience of others.

The following meditation is adapted from Gil Fronsdal:

Take as much time as you like to settle into your body and relax your breathing.

Bring to mind a person you know toward whom it's easy for you to feel love and goodwill.  This feeling is satisfying, and it brings you well-being just to care for them.

Thinking about them, what is your attitude toward them that helps you to feel the goodwill?  Friendliness has an element of generosity, it looks upon the person as both worthy and valuable.

See if you can turn that attitude around and have it for yourself.  Look upon yourself with goodwill, generosity, and love.  Offer yourself respect.  See yourself as worthy of appreciation, in such a way that the attitude itself is both meaningful and satisfying.

Repeat to yourself silently, "May I be truly happy." "May I be truly happy."  Say the phrase as many times as you like.  Feel free to alter the phrase to make it more meaningful to you.

Rest in the felt sense in the body.

Try to be open-minded and open-hearted to what comes up in the practice.  Imagine how you would move through the world if you offered yourself support and understanding.  A sense of well-being would underlie your emotional state through the ups and downs of life.

Envision being a source of love, starting with yourself and overflowing into the world.  Realize that if you offer yourself love, you don't need to receive it from another to experience it.  You will, of course, receive it from others as a natural result.  Love will permeate and saturate your experience; because you are the source, it will be everywhere.

It never hurts to see the good in someone. They often act the better because of it.
— Nelson Mandela



The Secret to Life

The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.
— Henry Moore

I thought we could start small, with just the secret to life!   Adyashanti asks us to identify what we value most in life, and to orient ourselves toward this.  I feel that this is the single most helpful thing that we can do in order to live a meaningful life.  What is most important to you, is it love and connection, or is it the pursuit of truth and wisdom, or maybe it's the creation of beauty?  Let the sky be the limit, deep in your heart, what do you care about?

Whatever you decide is the most meaningful, can you commit to orient your life toward this?  What might this look like?  This could imply larger changes like your livelihood, which is always fun to ponder, but I'm even more curious about the little things.  How might this orient your day-to-day actions?  Your speech?  Your priorities?  How you spend your free time?  Who you give your attention to, and what is the quality of that attention?

The Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva vows are a call to aim high.  They take different forms, but here is my favorite from Roshi Joan Halifax's Upaya Zen Center: 'Creations are numberless, I vow to free them. Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.  Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.  The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.'  

That kind of language or orientation may or may not be meaningful to you.  But what I think is interesting to consider here is the level of commitment to something higher, by your own personal value system.  And I mean something you can't actually complete.  Why?  Because if we set our sights on something finite, and then we get there, then what?  Plus, we might get trapped into judging ourselves if we don't get there.

I'm not suggesting that we never accomplish anything; of course we will have many fulfilling experiences along the way.  I am suggesting a life direction that won't exhaust itself, and can't be used to fuel a cycle of self-contempt.  An orientation that we can believe in without the trappings of conventional success, although such success will likely ensue from our joyful dedication.  Something we can use to make moment-to-moment decisions as well as larger choices; something to feed our souls and our sense of purpose.

To help kick-start an inquiry into a meaningful life, here is a meditation adapted from Alan Wallace:

Take as long as you like to settle your body and relax your breathing.

Consider, what would make you truly happy?  How would you envision your own well-being, deep and rich fulfillment, a profoundly satisfying and meaningful life?  Let your imagination play; be bold.  Imagine realizing such joy and well-being now.

This is clearly impossible without help. What would you love to receive from the world around you- friends and loved ones, the community at large, teachers and wise ones- to realize the happiness you most deeply seek?  Imagine the kindness, compassion, and service of others rising up to meet you and aid you in your pursuit of genuine happiness.  See yourself gratefully receiving, without needing to reach out and take.  Envision all barriers dissolving, all conducive circumstances arising.

In order to realize such well-being, there must be inner transformation, a maturation in mind and behavior.  How would you love to grow as a human being?  From what qualities would you love to be free?  With what qualities would you love to be imbued, that will nurture you and support you in the quest for genuine happiness?  Envision becoming the person you would love to become, maturing and evolving day to day.

To realize the greatest possible meaning for yourself, an individual who lives in the fabric of existence in profound interdependence with others, what would you truly love to offer to the world around you: to those near and far, short-term and long-term, given your unique background, gifts and interest, such that at the end of your life you could look back with a sense of satisfaction, confident that your life was well led and you offered your best?  Imagine here and now offering your very best.

It can be so easy to focus our lives on survival and self-protection.  But when we reach the end of our lives, how will we feel about having let fear live our lives for us?  I'm not suggesting letting go of self-care, or shirking our responsibilities.  I'm talking about engaged living, in service of what feeds our hearts, in the midst of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  If we wait for circumstances and other people to provide meaning for us, we can go through some dry seasons.  But if we turn inward and manifest on a moment-to-moment basis that which we crave, then we bring the rain wherever we go.

Because this business of becoming conscious... is ultimately about asking yourself, ‘How alive am I willing to be?’
— Anne Lamott