Here’s a recording of a guided meditation that I led in a Google+ Hangout, for people who are part of Wildmind’s Google+ community. The meditation is the Karuna Bhavana (Cultivating Compassion) in five stages, where we cultivate compassion for:
- A suffering person
- A “neutral person”
- A “difficult person
- All sentient beings.
There are many ways to develop metta (kindness, or lovingkindness), which is the desire that beings, ourselves included, be happy. Kindness arises from a basic realization that all beings want to be happy, and that their happiness and suffering are as real to them as our own happiness and suffering are to us. Recognizing those facts, and knowing that we ourselves want to be happy, we naturally wish happiness for others.
Kindness is inherent in us all, and in the meditation practice we’re strengthening what’s already there, not bringing something entirely new into being.
The most well-known way to cultivate metta is drop phrases into the mind that strengthen and develop our kindness. When I was taught the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) meditation practice, the phrases I was given were: “May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings be free from suffering.” (In the first four stages “all beings” is replaced with “I” or “you.”)
These are excellent phrases, although not everyone finds that they resonate and there’s no need to stick to those exact words. I’ve often encouraged people to experiment and to find phrases that are effective in evoking a sense of kindness and love. I’ve still tended, on the whole, to stick with those particular words, though. They’re deeply embedded in my mind, since I was taught them over 30 years ago and have repeated them probably hundreds of thousands of times.
But in recent years I’ve seen that there’s a good reason to change the phrases I use, and nowadays I tend to use, and teach, the metta phrases like this: “May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings find peace.”
The reason I stopped using “May all beings be free from suffering” and started using “May all beings find peace” is because I’ve been doing more exploration of a practice related to the metta bhavana: the karuna bhavana. Karuna is compassion, and the karuna bhavana is the meditation practice in which we cultivate compassion.
Metta (kindness) is the desire that beings be happy; karuna (compassion) is the desire that beings be free from suffering. The relationship between the two is simply that when we want beings to be happy and are aware that they suffer, we want their suffering to be removed. Kindness naturally turns into compassion whenever we become aware of suffering.
Now the problem with using the phrase “May all beings be free from suffering” in the metta bhavana practice is that it’s inherently a phrase that evokes compassion rather than kindness. Metta, strictly speaking, is about wishing happiness rather than removing suffering. When we use the phrase “May all beings be free from suffering” in the metta practice we’re actually cultivating both metta and compassion at the same time. This isn’t a huge problem, but it does muddy the distinction between metta and karuna. So purely from the standpoint of wanting to be clear in my teaching I prefer to avoid talking about wanting beings to be free from suffering as part of the metta practice.
Making this change to the phrases, when you start practicing the karuna bhavana practice you feel more of a shift in what you’re doing. It’s clearer that metta is kindness — wanting beings to be happy — and that compassion is another — wanting beings to be free from suffering so that they can be happy. In the karuna bhavana I use phrases like: “May all beings be free from suffering; May all beings have joy and ease.”
It’s a small shift, to reserve “May all beings be free from suffering” for the compassion meditation, but it’s one that I’ve find brings more of a sense of clarity to the practice.
Now as I’ve said, this isn’t a huge deal. Compassion is inherent in kindness. If we’re developing the desire that beings be well and happy then it’s natural to wish them freedom from suffering. And sometimes when you’re cultivating metta you’re going to be aware of someone’s suffering and compassion will naturally arise, since compassion is simply kindness meeting an awareness of suffering. I’m certainly not suggesting that you shouldn’t experience compassion during the metta bhavana practice! But there is a difference between metta and karuna, and I think it’s useful — without being too strict about it — to respect that difference.”
“May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings find peace.”
“…an individual keeps pervading the first direction — as well as the second direction, the third, and the fourth — with an awareness imbued with compassion. Thus he keeps pervading above, below, and all around, everywhere and in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with compassion: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.”
I want to focus on the phrase, of the Buddha’s, “an awareness imbued with compassion,” because I think it’s rather important.
Here’s something you can try in your meditation. When I’m teaching, often at the beginning of a period of practice I’ll suggest that people become aware of the light, and space, and sound around them. It’s the space that’s particularly important to notice. I encourage them to feel the space in front, behind, to the sides — even above and below.
We have this sense of space as one of our senses, although we tend to neglect it in favor of the big five. If the room you’re in was plunged into darkness so that you couldn’t see anything at all, you could still point to the door. You would still have a sense of how far it was to each of the walls around you.
It can feel like your mind is filling the space around you. Our awareness seems expansive.
And then I ask people to become aware — in addition — to the inner space of their experience, noticing the sensations that are arising in the body, noticing thoughts and feelings.
There can be a tendency at this point for our awareness to move completely inwards. We drop our awareness of the outer world, and focus exclusively on what’s inside. But interesting things happen when you remain aware of outer experience and inner experience simultaneously.
Usually this spacious, open awareness brings about a sense of quiet in the mind. Our thoughts slow down, and may stop altogether. There will inevitably be a tendency for the mind to move either outward into the world, or inward into our physical or mental experience, but if we can find a point of balance where we are equally aware of the other and inner poles of our experience, then the mind remains very still.
This state is very restful. There’s no need to go looking for our experience; it’s just coming to us. We can realize that our experience of the inner and outer worlds is there all the time, and that it’s “looking for our experience” that cuts us of from the totality of our experience. As soon as you focus on one thing, you exclude a thousand others. So we just rest, not focusing on anything in particular, letting our experience come to us. So this is deeply restful.
And if we can maintain that point of balance, then the sense of there being an inside and outside to our experience can begin to dissolve and, eventually, vanish altogether. On some level, there’s no self or other, but simply an expansive field of undivided awareness.
So this is something I often encourage people to do at the beginning of meditation, but this is also very useful to do when we’re moving into the final stage of the metta bhavana or karuna bhavana. Because at this point, when we imbue our mind with compassion, we’re also imbuing our world with compassion.
Basically, at this point, any being you happen to meet is going to be met with a compassionate awareness. You might “meet” these beings by hearing their voices, or their car engines, or even by hearing the sound of the airplanes they’re in. You might meet them just by knowing that they’re present, in the way that you know when your partner is in the next room even if they’re silent, or know that there are neighbors in the house next door. Or you may meet them in your mind. You might think of the people who have been in the practice; you’re simply receiving an awareness of them into your compassionate mind. Or you might think of people in some far-away country. And of course you are meeting yourself all the time, since both the inner is in your awareness as well as the outer; remember we just have one unified field of awareness. And all of these beings that you come across are met with compassion; you are aware of them as beings who want to be happy and to be free from suffering, and as beings who nevertheless suffer, and you wish that they be free from suffering.
So we have “an awareness imbued with compassion … abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.” There are no boundaries to the mind.
You can try this exercise of being aware of the inner and outer worlds simultaneously anytime. I’m doing it right now as I type this post. I do it as I’m walking or driving. In fact some of the Buddha’s instructions on walking meditation include an awareness of space: “Percipient of what is behind and in front, you should determine on walking back and forth.”
This expansive, open, non-self-focused awareness is very accessible. And then all we have to do is to imbue our awareness with compassion, and every being we encounter will be met with kindness and with a desire that they be free from suffering.
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 p?ti 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.
So far I’ve just been advising people to do the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice while bearing in mind the sufferings of others, but karuna bhavana (the development of compassion) is a practice in its own right. I thought I’d take an opportunity to geek out by looking at an early source of instruction on this practice.
The “Path of Liberation” (Vimuttimagga) by Upatissa is the oldest meditation manual that I know about. It was probably written in the 1st century, several hundred years after the Buddha’s death. It’s from India, but the text has only survived in Chinese translation.
The scriptures of the Pali canon, which contain records of the Buddha’s teachings, were written down a few hundred years earlier, but they don’t contain any coherent and structured guides to this meditation practice. The Buddha is recorded in those earlier scriptures as saying, for example, that we should cultivate lovingkindness and compassion, but there’s little detail as to how. For those of us familiar with the various stages (self, friend, neutral person, etc.) into which lovingkindness and compassion meditations are divided, there’s none of that to be found in the Buddha’s teachings.
That doesn’t mean that the forms we’ve learned are wrong. Maybe what we do was taught or practiced in the Buddha’s day, but wasn’t written down (or memorized in a formal way) for some reason. Or perhaps the techniques evolved and were improved upon, as generations of meditators continued to explore these practices. No one knows.
But I thought it would be interesting to show how the Upatissa presented the development of compassion, and to offer a little commentary.
Based on the Vimuttimagga, the Karuna Bhavana practice is as follows:
- We cultivate lovingkindness (or compassion) for ourselves.
- We cultivate compassion for someone we think of as suffering.
- We cultivate compassion for a neutral person.
- We cultivate compassion for a person we have difficulty with.
- We extend our compassion to all beings.
So there are five stages here. Now let’s look at what the Vimuttimagga says about developing compassion.
THE IMMEASURABLE THOUGHT OF COMPASSION
So the title is “The Immeasurable Thought of Compassion.” The four practices of which compassion is a part are collectively called the “immeasurables,” because the mind imbued with these qualities embraces all beings. It’s not that we literally feel love for each individual being, but that the mind itself is completely filled with lovingkindness, compassion, etc., and that any being we encounter or think of is met with kindness and compassion.
I don’t know what’s being translated as “thought” in the title above, but compassion is much more than a thought, although reflection is used to help us contact and develop our compassion. Compassion is more a volition or intention than either a thought or an emotion.
Q. What is compassion? What is the practising of it? What are its salient characteristic, function and manifestation? What are its benefits? What is the procedure?
A. As parents who on seeing the suffering of their dear and only child, compassionate it, saying, ” O, how it suffers!”, so one compassionates all beings. This is compassion. One dwells undisturbed in compassion — this is called the practising of it. The non-manifestation of non-advantage is its salient characteristic. Happiness is its function. Harmlessness is its manifestation. Its benefits are equal to those of loving-kindness.
This is a typical commentarial device — breaking a subject area down into manageable units in order to provide a comprehensive definition from various angles.
The definition of compassion is very interesting: “As parents who on seeing the suffering of their dear and only child, compassionate it, saying, ” O, how it suffers!”, so one compassionates all beings. This is compassion.” This is reminiscent of the teaching in the Buddha’s Metta Sutta:
Just as with her own life
A mother shields from hurt
Her own son, her only child,
Let all-embracing thoughts
For all beings be yours.
“Compassionate” here is an archaic verb meaning simply “to have compassion for.”
The illustration suggests that compassion is something very natural. We already have compassion for children and others close to us, and so what we need to do is to extend that to others.
“One dwells undisturbed in compassion — this is called the practising of it.” We just need to practice! It’s just like any other form of exercise — you develop the faculty by “dwelling” in it. By connecting with our innate wish that beings be free from suffering, and by dwelling upon that volition, it becomes a stronger part of our character. We can cultivate compassion in everyday life, of course, but our efforts will always be interrupted. In meditation our exercising of compassion is relatively “undisturbed,” giving us time to really “work out” our “compassion muscles.”
“The non-manifestation of non-advantage is its salient characteristic.” I think “non-manifestation simply means “not doing” and “non-advantage” means “hindering” or “blocking.” So the salient characteristic of compassion is that we don’t make life hard for others, which is what we tend to do a lot of the time, don’t we?
“Happiness is its function.” I rarely find the karuna bhavana practice, unlike metta bhavana, to be joyful! Perhaps what’s meant here is that we help others to be happy? Or maybe “happiness” is a poor translation of “non-suffering”? I’m really not sure. The “function” given in the Vimuttimagga for lovingkindness is “the thought of lovingkindness,” which isn’t terribly helpful. “Non-fear” is the function of mudita, or appreciative joy. I find it hard to see a pattern here. Buddhaghosa, five hundred years later, has “Its [i.e. compassion’s] function resides in not bearing others’ suffering.” By this he means that we don’t ignore other’s suffering. We don’t just go, “Suffering? Meh!” We are actually concerned to relieve suffering. Maybe something got lost in translation from Pali (or maybe it was Sanskrit — we don’t know the original language) to Chinese to English.
“Harmlessness is its manifestation.” This is much clearer. Harmlessness is more often called “non-harm” (ahimsa). When we’re compassionate we don’t intentionally cause harm, or even act in ways that obstruct others’ happiness.
What is the procedure ? The new yogin [meditator] enters into a place of solitude and sits down with mind collected and undisturbed. If he sees or hears of a person stricken with disease, or a person affected by decay, or a person who is full of greed, he considers thus: “That person is stricken with suffering. How will he escape suffering?”.
Now we get onto the details of practice.
You may notice that there’s no “self-compassion” stage! There’s not even a self-metta stage. We just plunge straight in. Or so it would seem. But Upatissa has just explained the lovingkindness practice, which is very detailed, and says at the end of the guidelines for practicing compassion that “the rest is as was fully taught above,” so I’m assuming he was just giving brief instructions here, and that self-metta (or self-compassion) is meant to be cultivated.
So when he says that the meditator sits “with mind collected and undisturbed,” I take it that this is a reference back to the lovingkindness instructions, where he presents a long list of things that the meditator should wish for at the start of the metta bhavana practice, including,
One should wish to be endowed with tranquillity, to be free from hatred, to be endowed with all merits and to gain good advantages. One should wish to gain a good reward, a good name, to gain confidence, to gain happiness, to be endowed with virtue, knowledge, liberality and wisdom. One should wish for happy sleep and happy awaking. One should wish to have no evil dreams.
So this is a very extended and detailed form of “May I be well; may I be happy” etc. Basically it’s self-metta, or even self-compassion.
Upatissa skips the “dear friend” stage, and this time I don’t think it’s because the practice instructions are abbreviated. My sense of Upatissa’s thinking in skipping the “friend” stage is that in the metta bhavana practice we have the friend as the person for whom we (should) naturally have metta, while the suffering person is someone for whom we (should) naturally feel compassion.
And again, if he sees or hears of a person of perverted mind and bound with the defilements, or a person entering into ignorance, or one, who, having done merit in the past does not now train himself, he considers thus: “That person is stricken with suffering; he will fare ill. How will he escape suffering?”.
Then we have the “suffering person” stage, where we call to mind someone who is obviously suffering, physically or mentally, and develop the thought for them: “That person is stricken with suffering. How will he escape suffering?”
So we’re wishing that this person be free from suffering. This includes all kinds of suffering, not just the more obvious things like sickness, bereavement, etc.
And again, if he sees or hears of a person who follows demeritorious doctrines and does not follow meritorious doctrines, or of a person who follows undesirable doctrines and does not follow desirable doctrines, he considers thus: “That person is stricken with suffering; he will fare ill. How will he escape suffering?”.
Wishing for the welfare of those who follow demeritorious doctrines would have been important for a monk, since by the time Upatissa was writing, Buddhism had splintered into many competing sects. And although Buddhists are (ahem!) not supposed to have ill will for those with differing views, it’s inevitable that this is going to happen.
Our equivalent would be those with different political views. It’s natural that we will feel threatened or angered by people having differing views, but we can combat this by contemplating how those views might lead to suffering. And if they don’t lead to suffering, why are we so bothered about them?
That yogin by these means and through these activities develops the thought of compassion for these persons and repeats it. Having by these means and through these activities developed the thought of compassion and repeated it, he makes his mind pliant, and capable of bearing the object. Thereafter he gradually develops (compassion) for an indifferent person and an enemy. The rest is as was fully taught above. Thus he fills the four directions.
So this is rather interesting. It’s by cultivating the volition of compassion for the four people who have been in the practice that we get to the point where the mind is “capable of bearing the object.” So the object is “all beings.” We’ve been practicing cultivating compassion for beings who are suffering and for whom we naturally would feel compassion, for those whose suffering we’d normally ignore, and for those whose suffering we might normally wish for! This gives the mind “pliancy” and allows us to meet any individual with a mind imbued with compassion.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.
Talking about cultivating or developing compassion can have the unfortunate side-effect of giving us the idea that compassion is something we don’t have, and need to create. Actually, the words cultivate and develop are meant to imply that we already have compassion as a natural attribute, and that what we need to do is to connect with this innate compassion and make it stronger. Really, karuna bhavana is “strengthening compassion.”
Compassion is part of our genetically inherited mental tool-kit. Other animals show compassion: primatologist Frans de Waal (one of my personal heroes) points out that chimpanzees take care of the sick and elderly, for example by bringing water to older females who are crippled by arthritis. The much less brainy capuchin monkey also shows empathy, and will help others when they have nothing directly to gain themselves. Even mice show the capacity for empathy.
Compassion is part of our evolutionary heritage. We may think of moral emotions as being handed down from on high (on a mountain-top, engraved on stone tablets) but actually they are to a large extent handed up from below, inscribed in our DNA.
We often take our compassion for granted, or ignore its whisperings. But it’s there all the time, even if we’re not aware of it.
Certainly, we often act in ways that are uncompassionate — even unkind or cruel (that harsh word, the judgmental thought, the unkind glare, cutting someone off in traffic) — but our uncompassionate instincts and our more compassionate ones coexist. The brain, and hence the self, is not unitary, but modular. The brain has not been designed from scratch as a smoothly functioning system, but has evolved piecemeal and is full of cooperating, competing, and antagonistic modules.
We therefore find ourselves morally divided. One part of us believes that showing dominance or anger is a valid means to find happiness or peace; if we’re aggressive, we hope, the troublesome object of our aggression will stay away from us and trouble us no more. But another part of us recognizes that conflict is painful and that compassion and kindness are more likely to lead to peace within our minds and in our world. In our everyday behavior we swing from one set of motivations to another.
So we need, sometimes, to let go of a whole layer of behavior and assumptions about how the world works, and how happiness is brought about in our lives, in order to connect with our innate compassion.
As with lovingkindness meditation, I have some simple reflections that help me reconnect with my innate ability to feel compassion.
As I’m beginning the practice of cultivating compassion, I recognize the truth of the following:
- I don’t want to suffer.
- But suffering is hard to avoid.
I drop these thoughts into the mind, and give them time to sink in. I give myself time to respond to the truth of these statements. I don’t have to make a response happen. I don’t have to think about these concepts — and in fact thinking about the concepts will get in the way os acknowledging their essential truthfulness. The response, like compassion itself, will come up from below.
These thoughts are deceptively simple. As you’re reading them, your eyes skimming the marks on this page, they may have no perceptible effect. The left brain understands the concepts, but perhaps isn’t touched by them. It’s just data. But let them sink in and the right brain can relate. These words reflect a fundamental reality of your life — something deep, primal, and moving. Be still, and let the words ripple through the space of the mind and see what happens. Listen.
Often the response is in the form of a mild heart ache, a tenderness in the center of the chest. This feeling of tender vulnerability is not something to avoid; it’s something to accept. It’s the stirring of compassion within the heart.
When I reflect in this way I recognize something I often overlook because it’s so obvious. Life is a difficult thing to do. We want happiness but keep stumbling into suffering instead. This being human is a hard thing.
And having let these thoughts drop into the heart, and having felt the heart’s response, I let the part of me that wishes me well speak. I strengthen the innate compassion that’s been revealed by dropping phrases into the mind, just as I do in lovingkindness practice.
There are other traditional phrases that you can use, like
- May I be free from hostility
- May I be free from affliction
- May I be free from suffering
- May I live happily.
The exactly wording of the phrases doesn’t matter too much, but they have to be meaningful for you, short enough to remember, and said with sincerity.
You can just use phrases like “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering.” At the same time you are aware of the fact that you suffer. You don’t have to think about this or dwell upon it. You just have an awareness of this fact in the back of your mind. It’s like if you’re talking to a friend and you know they’re going away for a few weeks and this is the last time you’re going to see them for a while; you don’t need to keep saying to yourself “My friend is going away. My friend is going away.” Instead, you just get on with your conversation, and in the back of your mind you know the truth of the situation. And that truth affects everything you say. Similarly, having established that you don’t want to suffer, and yet to, everything you say to yourself is touched by that awareness. You get on with having a conversation with yourself — a conversation that turns the heart to kindness and compassion.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.
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.
It’s hard to always show compassion — even to the people we love, but Robert Thurman asks that we develop compassion for our enemies. He prescribes a seven-step meditation exercise to extend compassion beyond our inner circle.
Transcript: I want to open by quoting Einstein’s wonderful statement, just so people will feel at ease that the great scientist of the 20th century also agrees with us, and also calls us to this action. He said, “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, the ‘universe,’ — a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion, to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
This insight of Einstein’s is uncannily close to that of Buddhist psychology, wherein compassion — “karuna,” it is called — is defined as, “the sensitivity to another’s suffering and the corresponding will to free the other from that suffering.” It pairs closely with love, which is the will for the other to be happy, which requires, of course, that one feels some happiness oneself and wishes to share it. This is perfect in that it clearly opposes self-centeredness and selfishness to compassion, the concern for others, and, further, it indicates that those caught in the cycle of self-concern suffer helplessly, while the compassionate are more free and, implicitly, more happy.
The Dalai Lama often states that compassion is his best friend. It helps him when he is overwhelmed with grief and despair. Compassion helps him turn away from the feeling of his suffering as the most absolute, most terrible suffering anyone has ever had and broadens his awareness of the sufferings of others, even of the perpetrators of his misery and the whole mass of beings. In fact, suffering is so huge and enormous, his own becomes less and less monumental. And he begins to move beyond his self-concern into the broader concern for others. And this immediately cheers him up, as his courage is stimulated to rise to the occasion. Thus, he uses his own suffering as a doorway to widening his circle of compassion. He is a very good colleague of Einstein’s, we must say.
Now, I want to tell a story, which is a very famous story in the Indian and Buddhist tradition, of the great Saint Asanga who was a contemporary of Augustine in the West and was sort of like the Buddhist Augustine. And Asanga lived 800 years after the Buddha’s time. And he was discontented with the state of people’s practice of the Buddhist religion in India at that time.
And so he said, “I’m sick of all this. Nobody’s really living the doctrine. They’re talking about love and compassion and wisdom and enlightenment, but they are acting selfish and pathetic. So, Buddha’s teaching has lost its momentum. I know the next Buddha will come a few thousand years from now, but exists currently in a certain heaven” — that’s Maitreya — “so, I’m going to go on a retreat and I’m going to meditate and pray until the Buddha Maitreya reveals himself to me, and gives me a teaching or something to revive the practice of compassion in the world today.”
So he went on this retreat. And he meditated for three years and he did not see the future Buddha Maitreya. And he left in disgust. And as he was leaving, he saw a man — a funny little man sitting sort of part way down the mountain. And he had a lump of iron. And he was rubbing it with a cloth. And he became interested in that. He said, “Well what are you doing?” And the man said, “I’m making a needle.” And he said, “That’s ridiculous. You can’t make a needle by rubbing a lump of iron with a cloth.” And the man said, “Really?” And he showed him a dish full of needles. So he said, “Okay, I get the point.” He went back to his cave. He meditated again.
Another three years, no vision. He leaves again. This time, he comes down. And as he’s leaving, he sees a bird making a nest on a cliff ledge. And where it’s landing to bring the twigs to the cliff, its feathers brushes the rock — and it had cut the rock six to eight inches in. There was a cleft in the rock by the brushing of the feathers of generations of the birds. So he said, “All right. I get the point.” He went back.
Another three years. Again, no vision of Maitreya after nine years. And he again leaves, and this time: water dripping, making a giant bowl in the rock where it drips in a stream. And so, again, he goes back. And after 12 years there is still no vision. And he’s freaked out. And he won’t even look left or right to see any encouraging vision.
And he comes to the town. He’s a broken person. And there, in the town, he’s approached by a dog who comes like this — one of these terrible dogs you can see in some poor countries, even in America, I think, in some areas — and he’s looking just terrible. And he becomes interested in this dog because it’s so pathetic, and it’s trying to attract his attention. And he sits down looking at the dog. And the dog’s whole hindquarters are a complete open sore. Some of it is like gangrenous, and there are maggots in the flesh. And it’s terrible. He thinks, “What can I do to fix up this dog? Well, at least I can clean this wound and wash it.”
So, he takes it to some water. He’s about to clean, but then his awareness focuses on the maggots. And he sees the maggots, and the maggots are kind of looking a little cute. And they’re maggoting happily in the dog’s hindquarters there. “Well, if I clean the dog, I’ll kill the maggots. So how can that be? That’s it. I’m a useless person and there’s no Buddha, no Maitreya, and everything is all hopeless. And now I’m going to kill the maggots?”
So, he had a brilliant idea. And he took a shard of something, and cut a piece of flesh from his thigh, and he placed it on ground. He was not really thinking too carefully about the ASPCA. He was just immediately caught with the situation. So he thought, “I will take the maggots and put them on this piece of flesh, then clean the dog’s wounds, and then I’ll figure out what to do with the maggots.”
So he starts to do that. He can’t grab the maggots. Apparently they wriggle around. They’re kind of hard to grab, these maggots. So he says, “Well, I’ll put my tongue on the dog’s flesh. And then the maggots will jump on my warmer tongue” — the dog is kind of used up — “and then I’ll spit them one by one down on the thing.” So he goes down, and he’s sticking his tongue out like this. And he had to close his eyes, it’s so disgusting, and the smell and everything.
And then, suddenly, there’s a pfft, a noise like that. He jumps back and there, of course, is the future Buddha Maitreya in a beautiful vision — rainbow lights, golden, jeweled, a plasma body, an exquisite mystic vision — that he sees. And he says, “Oh.” He bows. But, being human, he’s immediately thinking of his next complaint.
So as he comes up from his first bow he says, “My Lord, I’m so happy to see you, but where have you been for 12 years? What is this?”
And Maitreya says, “I was with you. Who do you think was making needles and making nests and dripping on rocks for you, mister dense?” (Laughter) “Looking for the Buddha in person,” he said. And he said, “You didn’t have, until this moment, real compassion. And, until you have real compassion, you cannot recognize love.” “Maitreya” means love, “the loving one,” in Sanskrit.
And so he looked very dubious, Asanga did. And he said, “If you don’t believe me, just take me with you.” And so he took the Maitreya — it shrunk into a globe, a ball — took him on his shoulder. And he ran into town in the marketplace, and he said, “Rejoice! Rejoice! The future Buddha has come ahead of all predictions. Here he is.” And then pretty soon they started throwing rocks and stones at him — it wasn’t Chautauqua, it was some other town — because they saw a demented looking, scrawny looking yogi man, like some kind of hippie, with a bleeding leg and a rotten dog on his shoulder, shouting that the future Buddha had come.
So, naturally, they chased him out of town. But on the edge of town, one elderly lady, a charwoman in the charnel ground, saw a jeweled foot on a jeweled lotus on his shoulder and then the dog, but she saw the jewel foot of the Maitreya, and she offered a flower. So that encouraged him, and he went with Maitreya.
Maitreya then took him to a certain heaven, which is the typical way a Buddhist myth unfolds. And Maitreya then kept him in heaven for five years, dictating to him five complicated tomes of the methodology of how you cultivate compassion.
And then I thought I would share with you what that method is, or one of them. A famous one, it’s called the “Sevenfold Causal Method of Developing Compassion.” And it begins first by one meditating and visualizing that all beings are with one — even animals too, but everyone is in human form. The animals are in one of their human lives. The humans are human. And then, among them, you think of your friends and loved ones, the circle at the table. And you think of your enemies, and you think of the neutral ones. And then you try to say, “Well, the loved ones I love. But, you know, after all, they’re nice to me. I had fights with them. Sometimes they were unfriendly. I got mad. Brothers can fight. Parents and children can fight. So, in a way, I like them so much because they’re nice to me. While the neutral ones I don’t know. They could all be just fine. And then the enemies I don’t like because they’re mean to me. But they are nice to somebody. I could be them.”
And then the Buddhists, of course, think that, because we’ve all had infinite previous lives, we’ve all been each other’s relatives, actually. Therefore all of you, in the Buddhist view, in some previous life, although you don’t remember it and neither do I, have been my mother — for which I do apologize for the trouble I caused you. And also, actually, I’ve been your mother. I’ve been female, and I’ve been every single one of yours’ mother in a previous life, the way the Buddhists reflect. So, my mother in this life is really great. But all of you in a way are part of the eternal mother. You gave me that expression; “the eternal mama,” you said. That’s wonderful. So, that’s the way the Buddhists do it. A theist Christian can think that all beings, even my enemies, are God’s children. So, in that sense, we’re related.
So, they first create this foundation of equality. So, we sort of reduce a little of the clinging to the ones we love — just in the meditation — and we open our mind to those we don’t know. And we definitely reduce the hostility and the “I don’t want to be compassionate to them” to the ones we think of as the bad guys, the ones we hate and we don’t like. And we don’t hate anyone, therefore. So we equalize. That’s very important.
And then the next thing we do is what is called “mother recognition.” And that is, we think of every being as familiar, as family. We expand. We take the feeling about remembering a mama, and we defuse that to all beings in this meditation. And we see the mother in every being. We see that look that the mother has on her face, looking at this child that is a miracle that she has produced from her own body, being a mammal, where she has true compassion, truly is the other, and identifies completely. Often the life of that other will be more important to her than her own life. And that’s why it’s the most powerful form of altruism. The mother is the model of all altruism for human beings, in spiritual traditions. And so, we reflect until we can sort of see that motherly expression in all beings.
People laugh at me because, you know, I used to say that I used to meditate on mama Cheney as my mom, when, of course, I was annoyed with him about all of his evil doings in Iraq. I used to meditate on George Bush. He’s quite a cute mom in a female form. He has his little ears and he smiles and he rocks you in his arms. And you think of him as nursing you. And then Saddam Hussein’s serious mustache is a problem, but you think of him as a mom.
And this is the way you do it. You take any being who looks weird to you, and you see how they could be familiar to you. And you do that for a while, until you really feel that. You can feel the familiarity of all beings. Nobody seems alien. They’re not “other.” You reduce the feeling of otherness about beings. Then you move from there to remembering the kindness of mothers in general, if you can remember the kindness of your own mother, if you can remember the kindness of your spouse, or, if you are a mother yourself, how you were with your children. And you begin to get very sentimental; you cultivate sentimentality intensely. You will even weep, perhaps, with gratitude and kindness. And then you connect that with your feeling that everyone has that motherly possibility. Every being, even the most mean looking ones, can be motherly.
And then, third, you step from there to what is called “a feeling of gratitude.” You want to repay that kindness that all beings have shown to you. And then the fourth step, you go to what is called “lovely love.” In each one of these you can take some weeks, or months, or days depending on how you do it, or you can do them in a run, this meditation. And then you think of how lovely beings are when they are happy, when they are satisfied. And every being looks beautiful when they are internally feeling a happiness. Their face doesn’t look like this. When they’re angry, they look ugly, every being, but when they’re happy they look beautiful. And so you see beings in their potential happiness. And you feel a love toward them and you want them to be happy, even the enemy.
We think Jesus is being unrealistic when he says, “Love thine enemy.” He does say that, and we think he’s being unrealistic and sort of spiritual and highfalutin. “Nice for him to say it, but I can’t do that.” But, actually, that’s practical. If you love your enemy that means you want your enemy to be happy. If your enemy was really happy, why would they bother to be your enemy? How boring to run around chasing you. They would be relaxing somewhere having a good time. So it makes sense to want your enemy to be happy, because they’ll stop being your enemy because that’s too much trouble.
But anyway, that’s the “lovely love. ” And then finally, the fifth step is compassion, “universal compassion.” And that is where you then look at the reality of all the beings you can think of. And you look at them, and you see how they are. And you realize how unhappy they are actually, mostly, most of the time. You see that furrowed brow in people. And then you realize they don’t even have compassion on themselves. They’re driven by this duty and this obligation. “I have to get that. I need more. I’m not worthy. And I should do something.” And they’re rushing around all stressed out. And they think of it as somehow macho, hard discipline on themselves. But actually they are cruel to themselves. And, of course, they are cruel and ruthless toward others. And they, then, never get any positive feedback. And the more they succeed and the more power they have, the more unhappy they are. And this is where you feel real compassion for them.
And you then feel you must act. And the choice of the action, of course, hopefully will be more practical than poor Asanga, who was fixing the maggots on the dog because he had that motivation, and whoever was in front of him, he wanted to help. But, of course, that is impractical. He should have founded the ASPCA in the town and gotten some scientific help for dogs and maggots. And I’m sure he did that later. (Laughter) But that just indicates the state of mind, you know.
And so the next step — the sixth step beyond “universal compassion” — is this thing where you’re linked with the needs of others in a true way, and you have compassion for yourself also, and it isn’t sentimental only. You might be in fear of something. Some bad guy is making himself more and more unhappy being more and more mean to other people and getting punished in the future for it in various ways. And in Buddhism, they catch it in the future life. Of course in theistic religion they’re punished by God or whatever. And materialism, they think they get out of it just by not existing, by dying, but they don’t. And so they get reborn as whatever, you know.
Never mind. I won’t get into that. But the next step is called “universal responsibility.” And that is very important — the Charter of Compassion must lead us to develop through true compassion, what is called “universal responsibility.” In the great teaching of his Holiness the Dalai Lama that he always teaches everywhere, he says that that is the common religion of humanity: kindness. But “kindness” means “universal responsibility.” And that means whatever happens to other beings is happening to us: we are responsible for that, and we should take it and do whatever we can at whatever little level and small level that we can do it. We absolutely must do that. There is no way not to do it.
And then, finally, that leads to a new orientation in life where we live equally for ourselves and for others and we are joyful and happy. One thing we mustn’t think is that compassion makes you miserable. Compassion makes you happy. The first person who is happy when you get great compassion is yourself, even if you haven’t done anything yet for anybody else. Although, the change in your mind already does something for other beings: they can sense this new quality in yourself, and it helps them already, and gives them an example.
And that uncompassionate clock has just showed me that it’s all over.
So, practice compassion, read the charter, disseminate it and develop it within yourself. Don’t just think, “Well, I’m compassionate,” or “I’m not compassionate,” and sort of think you’re stuck there. You can develop this. You can diminish the non-compassion, the cruelty, the callousness, the neglect of others, and take universal responsibility for them. And then, not only will God smile and the eternal mama will smile, but Karen Armstrong will smile.
Thank you very much.
Tenzin Robert Thurman became a Tibetan monk at age 24. He’s a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, and co-founder of Tibet House US, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Tibetan civilization.
Thurman’s focus is on the balance between inner insight and cultural harmony. In interpreting the teachings of Buddha, he argues that happiness can be reliable and satisfying in an enduring way without depriving others.
He has translated many Buddhist Sutras, or teachings, and written many books, recently taking on the topic of Anger for the recent Oxford series on the seven deadly sins. He maintains a podcast on Buddhist topics. And yes, he is Uma’s dad.
The Dalai Lama: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
While it’s quite clear that others may benefit from our compassionate activity, the second part of His Holiness’s observation flies in the face of an assumption that is, for most of us, extremely deep-rooted: that is, the assumption that my individual welfare is best served if I primarily focus on my interests.
But recent scientific research on happiness and brain function suggests that we do help ourselves — by becoming happier — when we help others.
Time magazine recently named Professor Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as one of the world’s 100 most influential thinkers. For years Davidson has been researching happiness, sometimes studying Buddhist monks in his lab, the Brain Imaging Laboratory, to examine how feelings of wellbeing correlate with activity in the brain.
In experiments run by Davidson and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers studied the brain functions of experienced meditators. Each of the practitioners – six were Buddhist monks and two were lay people – had completed over 10,000 (and up to 50,000) hours of meditation, which is about the same amount of time it takes to become expert in a musical instrument.
These experienced meditators were compared with a group of 10 students who had undertaken a week of meditative training involving 45 minutes of practice a day.
Davidson’s principal tool for examining the meditators was functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which reveal in real time which parts of the brain are most active. In earlier experiments Davidson had shown that fMRI can image where different emotional states take place in the brain. When people experience negative states such as anxiety or depression, brain areas that are most active are the amygdala and the right prefrontal cortex. When people experience positive emotions — happiness, love, confidence, etc — activity in the left prefrontal cortex is heightened. So remember: left is positive, right is negative.
In the more recent study, brain activity was studied both when the meditators’ brains were in a neutral state and while they cultivated unconditional loving-kindness (metta) and compassion. For the beginners there were only minor changes in brain activity between the neutral state and the meditation on lovingkindness, but for the experienced meditators there were massive changes — the degree of change being correlated with the number of hours of meditation each individual had done.
When the experienced meditators generated strong feelings of compassion there was a strong increase in activity in the left (or positive) side of the prefrontal cortex and a decrease in activity on the right (or negative) side. Developing compassion, then, results in the same kinds of brain activity that are shown when someone is in an particularly strong state of wellbeing and happiness. Meditators of course have long known experientially that feelings of love and compassion are accompanied by feelings of happiness, wellbeing, and even of bliss, but in scientific circles these subjective observations have to be backed up by measurements before they can be trusted as reliable data.
But why does compassion make us happy?
Three reasons spring to mind: diversion, perspective, and connectedness.
First is “diversion.” As His Holiness wrote in Ethics for the New Millennium, “When we worry less about ourselves, the experience of our own suffering is less intense.” Taking our focus away from what’s wrong in our lives helps us to be less self-obsessed. Compassion therefore diverts our attention away from problems which, when focused upon, loom large in our minds. Compassion in effect displaces negative emotions from the mind because we can only focus on one primary emotional state at a time.
Second, concern for others reminds us that we are not alone with our problems, and that others have even greater difficulties. From time to time in our lives we’ll be struggling with our normal quotient of suffering — worrying about paying bills, bickering over some disagreement, for example — when we encounter real suffering, such as bereavement or a serious accident. At such times we realize that we’ve been giving undue attention to problems that are, in reality, not such a big deal. So compassion helps us to put our own difficulties into perspective.
But third, the very act of connecting with others in a compassionate way enhances our lives in a very positive way. We are at heart social beings, and we cannot be truly happy unless we establish positive connections with others. Compassion and love give our lives a sense of meaning and fulfillment, and compassion is inherently pleasurable and rewarding. When we are caught up in our own anxieties and longings we are not fully able to connect with others and so our experience is impoverished. Compassion is therefore enriching.
This doesn’t of course mean that we should neglect ourselves and be concerned only with others. Compassion for others is ideally an extension of a healthy self-cherishing attitude in which we take our own needs seriously. In Buddhist practice compassion is developed for all beings, including ourselves, and in fact in meditations such as the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) and karuna bhavana (development of compassion) we begin by cultivating love towards ourselves. Ultimately, however, the best hope we have for attaining happiness ourselves is to pay more attention to the wellbeing of others.
Finally, for anyone daunted by the thought of 10,000 hours of meditation (that’s three hours a day for nine years, in case you’re wondering) remember that even those who had been meditating for 45 minutes a day for only a week showed greater happiness and even improved immune function. That’s a big reward for a modest effort.
Bodhipaksa is the founder of Wildmind.
This page was set up in response to the commencement of hostilities in Afghanistan, in order to help people keep a sense of balanced humanity and compassion towards all of the people involved in the conflict. The meditation is not specific to that conflict, however, and can be used as a reflection on any war.
This meditation has been set up to help us maintain a sense of compassion during these times of conflict. The meditation is called the “Karuna Bhavana”. Karuna is the Buddhist word for compassion, and Bhavana means development or cultivation. So the Karuna Bhavana is the practice of development of compassion. Compassion is what we experience when love meets suffering. And it’s appropriate in time of war to cultivate this emotion so that we do not shirk facing up to the consequences of what is happening around us and in particular what’s happening in our name in foreign lands.
Karuna is based on a love and respect for others, irrespective of their beliefs, gender, race, religion, or nationality. We can feel compassion for others even if we disagree profoundly with their beliefs or actions. In fact we can recognize strongly that their beliefs contribute to their own and others’ suffering and feel compassion all the more strongly.
Compassion is simply a recognition and a loving response to the perception of suffering, and we certainly don’t need even to like someone to feel compassion for them. Nor is it necessary that we see ourselves as superior in order to feel compassion for others. In fact, feeling superior to others blocks the development of compassion. This is how compassion differs from pity.
The meditation is recorded in RealAudio format, Windows Media format, and MP3. The free RealOne program can be downloaded for free from the RealNetworks web site (look for the Free RealOne Player link). The Windows media player is pre-installed on every modern PC running Windows.
You can play an MP3 version by clicking on the player below:
Also an audio CD containing three guided meditations led by Bodhipaksa, including the Development of Lovingkindness, is available in our bookstore.
Versions of this meditation
- Download the Adobe PDF version
- Streaming RealAudio version (15 minutes)
- Download this RealAudio meditation for repeated listening (2.1 Mb)
- Streaming Windows Media Player version
- Download a zipped version of the Windows Media Player file
With metta (lovingkindness),