May 20, 2013
Compassion can be joyful (Day 39)
For most of the 25 days in which we focused on Metta Bhavana, I felt like I was swimming in joy. About two thirds or three quarters of my meditations were positively blissful, and in my daily life I felt cocooned by lovingkindness, as if I was inside a bubble of joy that stress was unable to penetrate.
Then, on day 26, I switched to the karuna bhavana (developing compassion) and that all ground to a halt. I didn’t find the practice actually depressing, but it did feel sober. There was a feeling of having a weight in the heart.
But after just over a week of karuna bhavana I started finding the joy starting to return to my meditations. I’m not the only one. One of the participants in 100 Days of Lovingkindness wrote about experiencing a rush of blissful energy (pīti) as he cultivated compassion for a “neutral person”:
What’s startlingly odd about this is that it was only a few days ago that in the same step merely looking at others’ lingering hurt utterly flattened me, filling me with a deep, yawning sorrow. Yet, this morning I was witnessing the arising of pīti when looking at the same thing.
He was rather perplexed by this, and concerned that it might be the result of decreased compassion. After all, why feel pleasurable sensations when contemplating someone’s suffering?
But as I said to him at the time, “Interesting things happen when you turn toward your fears.” When you find you can’t contemplate others’ suffering without feeling sorrow (which an early Buddhist commentator called “failed compassion“) but keep on looking, then the fear and aversion can drop away. And this can be experienced as liberating — even blissfully liberating — and the tension that’s released in the body can be experienced as pleasurable energy.
In fact there can be many joyful experiences that arise while cultivating compassion. It can feel both serious and light at the same time. Last night I chose to focus on someone I know who has terminal cancer, and to wish her well, in the sense of wanting her, in her final months, to experience mindfulness and evenmindedness, and to know that she is loved and that her life has been meaningful. And there was a feeling of warmth and joy. I was aware of her condition and the physical and mental suffering she must be going through, but my sense of love for her was enough to be able to balance up the sober feelings that were arising in the heart.
And I had no sense that I needed to “fix” anything. I can’t make her better. I can’t save her. There’s no point thinking that she “shouldn’t” have cancer or that life is “unfair,” or that suffering shouldn’t exist. These things just happen. People get sick. People die. The important thing, it seemed, was just to see myself as a compassionate and supportive presence for her. With an acceptance of impermanence and no attachment to the idea of her getting better (although that would be welcome!) there was no sorrow.
In fact it’s possible to experience joyful, even blissful, states of jhāna in the karuna bhavana practice. The Buddha discussed this often, and that’s something I’ll write about tomorrow. So rest assured that if you find experiencing compassion to be pleasurable, this doesn’t mean something’s wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re lacking in compassion or empathy. So don’t try to block or suppress pleasure or joy. These experiences are perfectly normal; compassion can joyful.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.