Cultivating compassion (Day 26)
There are four related dimensions of lovingkindness, together called the “divine abodes,” or Brahmaviharas. These four are (1) lovingkindness itself, (2) compassion, (3) appreciation, and (4) even-minded love. I devoted the first quarter of our 100 Days to lovingkindness, and I’m going to write about compassion, the second of these practices, for the second quarter.
The meditation of cultivating compassion is called karuna bhavana. Karuna is compassion, and bhavana means “development” or “cultivation.”
Metta, or lovingkindness, is the desire of bringing that which is welfare and good to oneself and others. Compassion is the desire to remove suffering, especially from others.
The Vimuttimagga, a very early meditation manual dating from just a few centuries after the Buddha’s death, says:
As parents who on seeing the suffering of their dear and only child, feel compassion for it, saying, ” O, how it suffers!”, so one feels compassion for all beings. This is compassion.
The example of a suffering child is very down-to-earth, and it reminds us that compassion is a fundamental capacity that we have as human beings. We’d benefit from having more of it, so it’s to be cultivated.
The word “karuna” comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to make or do” and so it has an active quality. You don’t just see your kid being sick and experience an emotion. You do something about it. Karuna has been termed “holy action.”
If you’ve done lovingkindness meditation then you’ll almost certainly have slipped into cultivating compassion as well, so this meditation won’t be particularly foreign to you. Compassion is simply what arises when a mind imbued with lovingkindness meets suffering. We want others to be happy; they are suffering; therefore we want them to be free from suffering, and to relieve their suffering if we can. And I’m sure it will have occurred to you, while you were cultivating lovingkindness, that a person you had in mind was suffering. Therefore, you’re already familiar with cultivating compassion.
In fact the phrases I was taught to use for cultivating lovingkindness were “May I (or you, or all beings) be well … happy … free from suffering.” These days I try to keep a bit more separation between the two practices, so I’m more inclined to say “May I (or you, or all beings) be well … happy … at ease.” But it’s not a big deal if the karuna bhavana and the metta bhavana melt into each other a little.
Compassion shouldn’t be a depressing experience. When it does seem depressing, it’s likely that what we’re doing is responding to suffering in an unhelpful way. The Visudhimagga, a meditation manual a few centuries more recent than the Vimuttimagga (I know, the similar names are confusing!), talks about compassion having a “near enemy.” The near enemy is a quality that can be confused with the genuine article. By way of comparison, if you’re selling Gucci purses your real competition is not purses sold in Target, but fake Gucci purses that devalue your brand. So the danger is that we cultivate the near enemy, thinking it’s compassion, when actually it isn’t. This near enemy is often described as “pity,” but the Visudhimagga has it as “grief.” Specifically it’s the grief that comes from “the household life.”
What does this mean? The Visuddhimagga makes it clear that the “grief of the household life” doesn’t have anything literally to do with households at all. What it refers to is the grief, or suffering, of not having what you want. How I interpret this is that we are aware of others’ suffering, and we do want that suffering to end, but the reason we want it to end is because it’s uncomfortable for us, not because it’s uncomfortable for them. You turn on the TV news, and there are scenes of disaster from around the globe. And it feels bad. Maybe you’ll give some money to the Red Cross to help, or maybe you’ll just feel bad. Maybe you’ll change the channel to avoid feeling bad. But this isn’t genuine compassion because you’re not really feeling for the other people. You’re attached to your normal range of mental states, and now you’ve lost those, because of these poor people. You’re feeling the loss of your own happiness and wellbeing. This can feel rather heavy, especially if you get into feeling guilty or despairing.
I used to see this a lot when I trained as a veterinary surgeon. People would come in with a beloved pet dog that had been in a car accident and needed an amputation. Now a dog can get around perfectly well on three legs, and often the dog would be standing there, just after its accident, with a mangled, bloodied leg and its tail wagging. Even then, having just experienced trauma, the animal was very resilient. But the owners would be so overcome by the trauma of having a mangled dog — their own trauma — that they’d insist on having it put down. They’d say they were putting the dog out of its misery, but actually they were putting the dog out of their own misery.
Compassion actually recognizes that others are suffering. I’m not saying it can’t be heavy, just that it’s not an response that makes you feel crushed and helpless. But as the Visuddhimagga says, compassion “fails when it produces sorrow.” Compassion may lead to an ache in the heart, but it’s not sorrowful.
The “far enemy” of compassion is cruelty, and I think cruelty is often a way of keeping “grief” at bay. If you deride those who are suffering, then you don’t have to admit to your own vulnerability.
In future posts I’ll say more about the practice specifically, but for now, just see if, in your lovingkindness practice, you can be a bit more aware of your own and others’ suffering.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.