People often think of compassion as being a sombre, even depressing experience, but that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact when our compassion is sorrowful, this is just a sign that we have attachments to work through. (Which is fine, by the way. This is work we all have to do.) We might be attached to the idea that suffering shouldn’t exist, or that it’s “unfair” for it to affect someone we know, or that it shouldn’t reserve its attentions for those we deem to be bad, sparing the good, or that we shouldn’t feel discomfort. But those kinds of thoughts fly in the face of reality, and simply lead to our suffering.
With practice, the development of compassion can become very joyful. In fact it’s possible to be in jhāna, which is a focused, easeful, relaxed, joyful state of mind while doing this practice.
Here’s one of the Buddha’s teachings on this.
“When this concentration [lovingkindness] is thus developed, thus well-developed by you, you should then train yourself thus: ‘Compassion, as my awareness-release, will be developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, & well-undertaken.’ That’s how you should train yourself.
“When you have developed this concentration [compassion] in this way, you should develop this concentration with directed thought & evaluation, you should develop it with no directed thought and a modicum of evaluation, you should develop it with no directed thought and no evaluation, you should develop it accompanied by rapture… not accompanied by rapture… endowed with a sense of joy; you should develop it endowed with equanimity.
For those who don’t recognize these terms, this is an abbreviated description of moving progressively deeper into the experience of jhāna. In the first level of jhāna there’s still some thinking going on, and this is accompanied by feelings of pleasure (rapture) in the body, and joy.
Later, thought dies away, and there’s simply pleasure (intensified because we’re paying more attention to the body now that we’re not thinking), joy, and compassionate intention.
Then we focus more on the feeling of joy that accompanies our compassion.
And then we simply experience compassion, accompanied by equanimity (which you can best think of as deep, refreshing peace).
So it’s clear from these traditional descriptions that it’s possible to experience deep joy alongside compassion. In fact we’re encouraged to do so.
It’s not a good idea to strive for this, however. This joy comes about from letting go and relaxing into the experience of meditating, rather than from striving.
But at the same time, don’t freak out if you feel joy while bearing people’s sufferings in mind. This isn’t a sign of callousness. In fact it’s a sign that you’re letting go more deeply, and becoming better able to be comfortable with discomfort.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.