100 Days of Lovingkindness

Cultivating appreciative joy (Day 51)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The third of the Brahmaviharas, or “immeasurables,” after lovingkindness and compassion, is muditā. Muditā is sometimes translated as sympathetic joy, or empathetic joy, or as appreciative joy.

Our old friend, the first century text, the Path to Freedom, describes it like this:

As parents, who, on seeing the happiness of their dear and only child are glad, and say, “sadhu!” so, one develops appreciative joy for all beings. Thus should appreciative joy be known. The undisturbed dwelling of the mind in appreciative joy — this is called the practising of it. Gladness is its salient characteristic. Non-fear is its function. Destruction of dislike is its manifestation. Its benefits are equal to those of loving-kindness.

So again, this quality of appreciation, like lovingkindness and compassion, is something intrinsic to us that needs to be developed and extended, and not some amazing mystical experience that we’re striving to attain some day. We already have experience of muditā! (Sādhu, by the way, means something like “yay” or “alright!” or “great!”)

But this description of seeing happiness and being glad sounds rather like metta, or lovingkindness. Compassion is the desire that beings be free from suffering — so that, at least, is quite clearly different from appreciative joy. Mettā is the desire that beings be happy. But what’s the difference between mettā and muditā?

Upatissa, the author of the Path to Freedom, actually is a bit more specific when he explains how to cultivate appreciative joy:

When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “sadhu! sadhu! may he continue joyful for a long time!”

So in both examples — “seeing the happiness of their dear and only child” and “seeing and hearing that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others” — we have two things going on:

  1. The person is already happy. Mettā wishes that beings be happy. Muditā is our response to knowing that beings actually are experiencing happiness.
  2. Appreciative joy is not just about happiness — it’s about valuing and appreciating the good qualities people have that bring them happiness. So appreciative joy is appreciation. In fact I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t just translate muditā as “appreciation,” and I’ll probably use that term a lot. “Gladness” is a good Anglo-Saxon alternative, but perhaps a bit less precise, since there isn’t much in the word “gladness” that suggests it’s a response to the happiness or meritorious qualities of others.

So there’s more here than just recognizing happiness and being glad that people are happy. We’re recognizing ethically skillful behaviors and character traits, and the peace and joy they bring.

PS. You can see all of the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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The pursuit of happiness (Day 64)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

We all want happiness, but much joy do you experience in your life? And I mean real “heart welling up,” “spring in the step,” “full of the joys of spring joy,” “happy for no reason” joy, rather than the dull sense of pleasure that we often experience.

Most people, when they’re asked this question, will say “not much.” Many may go entire days, or even weeks, without any significant joy. Life can often seem like an endless round of chasing deadlines and striving to stay on top of an ever-growing to-do list, and so be imbued with a sense of stress.

Do we even expect to be happy? It strikes me that many of us have low expectations for how happy we will be. We don’t expect our lives to produce much joy.

How do we look for happiness? By vegging out in front of the TV, or by eating, or shopping, or Facebook, or through alcohol? But these pursuits often lead, at best, to that sense of dull pleasure I mentioned earlier, rather than genuine joy.

Maybe we think that happiness is just around the corner, but we haven’t got there yet. Or maybe it’s a ways off; perhaps we’ll be happy after we get a new job, or more pay, or once we lose some weight, or when we’re on vacation, or after we get past this busy spell.

The trouble is, that we create unhappiness for ourselves through our thoughts and attitudes, and then expect to consume our way out of unhappiness. And that just doesn’t work.

There’s a piece of “cowboy wisdom” I heard many years ago that goes, “When you find you’re in a hole, the first thing you gotta do is stop diggin’.” And I think that’s absolutely true. To live happily, we have to drop the mental habits that make us unhappy. Often that’s all we have to do — stop making ourselves unhappy, since joy is something we actively suppress. Joy is our natural way of being, but most of our “doing” cuts us off from our natural happiness.

So what are those mental habits that suppress our happiness? Basically, they are anything we do that resists the present moment. The “usual suspects” are things like responding with clinging rather than letting go, resisting rather than accepting, anger rather than kindness, complaining rather than celebrating, worrying rather than being optimistic, and trying to escape our experience rather than being mindful.

Being joyful is a skill, and most people lack skill in creating joy. Just look at people driving or walking past you; what percentage of people are actually smiling? The things we do that suppress our joy are called “unskillful” activities in Buddhism. Conversely, when we act in ways that allow joy to emerge, we’re acting skillfully.

As soon as we drop any of these unskillful, joy-suppressing activities, we feel happier. We may not go straight to a deep sense of joy the moment we drop an angry thought, but at least when we do that we’re heading in the right direction. If we keep letting go of unskillful thoughts, and refrain from unskillful words and actions, we are creating a space for joy to emerge. And if we cultivate skillful habits of thought, speech, and action, joy will emerge. It’s guaranteed.

So just watch your mind. Notice your thoughts, and notice whether they’re contributing to a sense of joy, or a sense of disharmony. And if you’re creating suffering for yourself, let go of or change those thoughts or replace them with more skillful ones. And you can do the same with your speech, as well.

You can see all the posts from 100 Days of Lovingkindness here.

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There is no one to have compassion, no one to have compassion for (Day 50)

100 Days of LovingkindnessA couple of times people have contacted me saying that self-compassion is not possible. Both times they’ve quoted dictionary definitions that present compassion as something that’s inherently directed toward others. For example:

com·pas·sion n. Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. [Emphasis added]

And the etymology of compassion — “[to be] with suffering” — has also been cited as a reason for rejecting the notion of self-compassion, because that’s taken to suggest that we be with the suffering of others.

But it can be misleading to insist that the etymology of a word defines or exhausts its present meaning. Sure, com- means with and passion means suffering. But we can be with (our own) suffering.

And in any event dictionaries are necessarily a simplification of how language is actually used, and it’s not always the case that definitions correspond to reality. Having said that, though, the Oxford English dictionary actually has an entry for self-compassion, which should lay the dictionary argument to rest:

self-compassion n. compassion for oneself.
a1634 G. Chapman Revenge for Honour (1654) ii. i. 202 Self-compassion, soothing us to faith Of what we wish should hap. [Oxford English Dictionary]

As you’ll see, the term self-compassion goes back at least to 1654. I’ve also found an example of the term from 1677, where it appears in Richard Allestree’s The Art of Contentment:

If they chance but to miſs a meal, they are ready to cry out, their knees are weak thro fasting, yet they can without regret, or any ſelf-compaſſion, macerate and cruciate themſelves with anxious cares and vexations.

The argument that’s put forward in support of the compassion being inherently directed at others seems to rest on the assumption that the self is a unified and unitary thing, that therefore cannot relate to itself. But common-sense and experience show that we do in fact relate to ourselves all the time. We can have anger toward ourselves; we can have love toward ourselves. We can have hatred toward ourselves; we can have compassion toward ourselves.

An awareness of neuroscience helps us here as well. The human mind is not a unified entity. The brain has evolved in fits and starts, and isn’t “designed” like a building that’s been planned from the ground up, but is more like an old house that’s had extensions built over the years. So the brain functions as a set of modules with different functions, and they relate to each other. They have to communicate with each other. So one part of the brain may be generating feelings of anxiety, while another may be offering reassurance and comfort. One part of us is experiencing pain; another part is experiencing compassion toward that pain.

And this brings up a deeper level of understanding of suffering and compassion: the experience of stress arises, and yet it’s not right to say that there is a self who experiences that suffering, although it’s also incorrect to say that there’s no self to experience that suffering!

Because the human brain is not a unified entity, the human mind is not a unified entity, and so there is no unified “self” to experience suffering. Suffering is experienced. That’s all. Who experiences the suffering? Well, as soon as we ask that question we have assumed that there is a “who” doing the experiencing. And the Buddha was encouraging us to drop that assumption: “Both formerly and now, it is only suffering that I describe, and the cessation of suffering.”

The Buddha also made a very interesting statement in talking about how he, as an enlightened being, didn’t think in terms of there being a thing that is experienced or a person who does the experiencing:

When cognizing what is to be cognized, he doesn’t construe a [thing that is] cognized … He doesn’t construe a cognizer.

So if we apply that to suffering, then there is an experiencing of suffering, but we should drop the notion that “I” am suffering. There’s just the experiencing, with no thought of “a self.” And in responding to suffering, there’s similarly a response, without any assumption that there is a self to do any responding, or other selves to respond to. There’s simply a perception of suffering, and a spontaneous response of compassion. Now it doesn’t matter whether this suffering is experienced “internally” or whether it’s experienced “externally.” There’s just this perception of suffering, and the spontaneous response of compassion.

So it doesn’t matter whether the suffering that we’re responding to is “our” suffering or the suffering of another. The suffering is experienced, and compassion arises. If suffering arises externally or internally, the most fitting response is compassion.

In fact, to single out “our” suffering as not capable of being responded to with compassion, or not worthy of being responded to with compassion, is an example of the very obsession with self that the Buddha was encouraging us to abandon.

The Diamond Sutra took this idea, which is implicit in the Buddha’s teachings (he really didn’t like talking about “being and non-being”) and ran with it:

“…all living beings will eventually be led by me to the final Nirvana, the final ending of the cycle of birth and death. And when this unfathomable, infinite number of living beings have all been liberated, in truth not even a single being has actually been liberated.

“Why Subhuti? Because if a disciple still clings to the arbitrary illusions of form or phenomena such as an ego, a personality, a self, a separate person, or a universal self existing eternally, then that person is not an authentic disciple.”

Ironically, it’s only through dropping the notion of self and other, through dropping the notion of “beings,” that we can be truly compassionate. When we truly realize that there is no one to have compassion, no one to have compassion for, then stable unconditioned compassion can arise.

So in a sense, there is no one to have compassion, no one to have compassion for. Yet suffering arises, and so does compassion, and when we’re awakened we’ll finally drop this troubling obsession about who is experiencing pain and who has compassion. It all simply happens, and that’s enough.

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An awareness imbued with compassion (Day 49)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

“…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.

Click here to see all the posts from our 100 Days of Lovingkindness.

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Compassion and impermanence (Day 48)

As I wrote in my book, Living as a River:

Relating to someone as a “self”—on the basis of how we see them right now—is like seeing a video reduced to a single frame, or seeing a ball hurtling through the air in a freeze-frame photograph. It’s life-denying. It’s a static way of seeing things. In taking a snapshot of a thing we lose its sense of trajectory, the sense that it’s headed somewhere. We’re disconnected from the reality of change and process. But imagine if we could consistently see a person not as a thing but as a process—if we could, at least in our imagination—see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us? That’s the challenge for us all.

I’d like to suggest an experiment to you, and I’d be delighted if you’d write a few words below about your experience of trying this. The experiment will only take two or three minutes of your time.

  • I’d like you to call to mind someone you have a conflict with. Perhaps they have an annoying habit, or have done something to hurt you. Imagine that this person is in front of you.
  • Call to mind the thing that bothers you about this person. Feel the annoyance that’s connected with that thing.
  • Now, imagine, to the left of the person you’re thinking of, a much younger version of them. Perhaps at about 10 months old, when they were a baby, able to sit up, perhaps, but not yet able to walk or talk. And realize that these are both the same person.
  • Then, on the right side of the person you’re calling to mind, see a much older version of them — perhaps in their nineties. Really old. And realize that all three forms are the same person.
  • Now, call to mind that same thing that annoyed you about this person.

So, what happened for you?

I’ve recently been asking people to try this, and almost everyone has said that they experience sadness. They move from irritation or resentment, to sadness. Very quickly. Often people mention a sense of love or compassion as well, mingled with the sadness.

100 Days of LovingkindnessI think this is a very positive thing. It’s much healthier and less destructive, on the whole, to experience sadness than it is to experience hatred.

Why might we feel sad?

For me, it’s a number of things. I feel sad that I’ve taken one thing about a person’s life that I don’t like, and related to them on the basis of that, ignoring the rest of their being. I feel sad because life is too short to waste on petty ill will. And perhaps I’m a little sad at reminding myself of the brevity of life, and the inevitability of death.

But there’s a sense of sadness, too, that’s almost esthetic. Seen as just one part of an entire life, this irritating flaw makes the whole more beautiful, like the craquelure on an old painting, the creases on an old, faded photograph, or the peeling paint and sagging timbers of an old New England barn.

The sadness is, for me at least, mingled with love and compassion. It’s freeing myself from the prison of the moment, and seeing the person not as a static thing, but as an ever-changing continuum that allows that to happen. When a person is seen as a fixed point in time and space, there is much to dislike. When a person is seen as an ever-evolving process, there is much to love.

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Dealing with resentment (Day 47)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Resentment is seductive. We assume on some level that it’s going to help us, but it doesn’t. It just causes us pain.

This is something that just about all of us need help with.

1600 years ago, a compiler of and commentator on Buddhist texts called Buddhaghosa put together an extraordinary “tool kit” of ways to deal with resentment. I was recently looking at this guidance, which is part of Buddhaghosa’s encyclopedic work on meditation, The Visuddhi Magga, or Path of Purity, and thought it was so fresh, well thought-out, and relevant that it was worth restating some of what he had to say.

Twelve techniques for getting rid of resentment

1. Lovingkindness practice

This one’s pretty obvious — if you’re a meditator at least. You can simply call to mind the person you’re resentful of, and cultivate good will toward them. We have a whole section of this site devoted to teaching the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice, so I won’t say much about that here, except that it does work! When I first started practicing meditation I had a lot of problems with resentment, and I was often surprised by how quickly my anger and resentment toward someone would just vanish.

2. Reflect that resentment is never justified

Buddhaghosa suggests that we “reflect upon the saw.”

This one needs a bit of unpacking. There’s a “Simile of the Saw” in the early Buddhist scriptures, where the Buddha says that even if bandits brutally sawed a person limb from limb, “he who entertained hate in his heart would not be one that carried out my teaching.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what the provocation is, hatred is never justified. The mind can go “but … but …” as much as it likes, but hatred remains a negative emotion that destroys our happiness, causes suffering for others, and prevents us from experiencing peace.

Pretty much all of us, though, carry around the idea that there’s such a thing as “righteous resentment.” And we assume that hatred is justified. We tell ourselves stories about how bad the other person is, and this seems to make it natural for us to hate them. What we’re not doing is taking responsibility for our ill will. It’s our interpretation of other people’s actions that makes us hate them. We cause our own hate.

Don’t take the parable of the saw literally. Of course (unless you’re an advanced practitioner of superhuman stature) you’d experience hatred toward an aggressor who was torturing you. That wouldn’t mean that you weren’t a Buddhist — but it would mean that in the moment of hatred you would not “be one that carried out [the Buddha’s] teaching.” The point of the parable is simply to undermine the idea of “righteous resentment.”

Incidentally, some Tibetan monks and nuns who have been brutally tortured by Chinese security forces have avoided developing hatred toward their tormentors by means of compassion — reflecting that their torturers are building up bad karma for themselves.

3. Winning the real battle

Hot on the heels of the advice to reflect on the parable of the saw is an admonition to reflect that in developing hatred you’re actually giving a person who hates you what they want. (This is assuming that the other person hates you, which isn’t always the case.)

What does a person who hates you want for you? Bad stuff, that’s what. Buddhaghosa points out that hatred makes you ugly, causes you pain, destroys your good fortune, causes you to lose your wealth (or not to create any, perhaps because you’re distracted), detracts from your reputation, loses you friends, and leads to a bad rebirth. This is all bad stuff.

Someone who really hated you might wish all these things on you, and here you are doing them to yourself! You’re handing your hater victory. You’re doing him or her a favor. And by getting angry at an angry person, Buddhaghosa says, you become worse than them, and “do not win the battle hard to win,” which is of course the battle with yourself, to remain happy and unruffled.

So basically, we reflect here that true victory can’t come from getting angry at an angry person. That’s defeat. Victory comes from remaining calm, loving, and equanimous.

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4. “Accentuate the positive”

Buddhaghosa suggests that we think about something positive in the other person, so that you can “remove irritation.”

This works, too. Resentment doesn’t like complexity. When you bear in mind someone’s good points — even things (dammit!) that we admire — it’s harder to keep the resentment going.

5. Develop compassion

But if you can’t think of anything positive about the other person, or if they truly don’t have any positive qualities (although that’s almost impossible) then you should develop compassion toward them. In Buddhaghosa’s world view, a person with no redeeming qualities is bound for the torments of the hell realms, and is therefore worthy of our compassion. I should stress that in Buddhism the hells are not permanent and are not punishments — they are simply places where we are reborn for a while as a result of our actions. Buddhist hells are a kind of “fat farm” where we burn off our bad karma.

6. Notice how you’re causing yourself suffering

As Ann Lamott points out, resentment hurts us. Buddhaghosa offers many reflections along those lines:

If another person has hurt us, why should we then hurt ourselves? In your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness, so why not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable? If another person has done something we disapprove of, then why do something (like getting angry) that we would also disapprove of? If someone wants you to get angry, why give them the satisfaction? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself. The thing you got angry about is impermanent and in the past. So why are you angry now?

He’s kind of unrelenting, that Buddhaghosa.

7. Reflect that all beings are the owners of their karma

This is a common reflection in Buddhism: all beings create their own actions (kamma) and inherit the consequences of those actions. The other person may have done things that are unskillful, and those actions will cause them suffering. So what’s the point of you doing exactly the same thing, by acting out of the unskillful state of resentment? It’s like picking up a hot coal to throw at the other person. You may hurt them, but you’re definitely going to hurt yourself.

The other person, if they are angry with you, is causing themselves pain. It’s like, Buddhaghosa says, them throwing a handful of dust into the wind. They may be aiming at you, but it’s their eyes that will end up smarting.

Reflecting in this way we can untangle our respective lives. The other person’s faults, real or imagined, are no longer an occasion for us to exercise our own faults.

8. Reflect on exemplars of patience

Buddhaghosa goes a bit over the top with this one, devoting almost as much time on this method of dispelling resentment as he does on all the others put together. His approach is to remind us of various past lives of the Buddha, or jataka tales, as they’re called. These are mythological stories about the Buddha’s previous lives, as he developed the qualities of compassion and wisdom that led to his awakening.

I’ve found that being in the presence of someone who is very patient causes me to let go of my resentments. I had a good friend in Scotland who I never — not once — heard say an unkind word about anyone. Sometimes I’d be bitching about someone else, and my friend would just come in with some wise and kind word about the other person’s life that would put everything in perspective and leave me feeling a bit petty about having ranted. Even now, just calling that friend to mind helps me evoke a sense of patience.

9. Reflect that all beings have been your dearest friends and relations in a previous life

I’m not big on past lives, or in belief in rebirth generally, but if you do take that kind of thing seriously, then Buddhaghosa’s advice is to remember that because of the beginninglessness of time, every being — including those you get most pissed off with — have been your mother, father, brother, sister, son, and daughter. When that person was your mother, they carried you in their womb, suckled you, wiped away your snot and shit, and generally lavished you with love. And we can reflect, Buddhaghosa says, thus: “So, it is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being one of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that rely on assuming that rebirth is a reality rather than a myth, or perhaps a metaphor, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each reborn in every moment. Each moment we die and are reborn.

Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth. In fact, each perception is a kind of birth. It’s the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each contact that we have with another being is part of this process. Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, even think or someone, a new experience arises and a new being is born. So in this way, all beings that we have contact with are our mothers. Each being we have contact with in this moment helps give birth to the being that exists in this moment. And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers.

10. Reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness

You can reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness, and how you’ll deny yourself those benefits by indulging in resentment. What are the benefits? Well, it’s worth reflecting on that through examining your own experience, but here’s Buddhaghosa’s list, which comes from the scriptures: You’ll sleep in comfort, wake in comfort, and dream no evil dreams. You’ll be dear to human beings and to non-human beings. Deities will guard you. Fire and poison and weapons won’t harm you (although that seems unlikely, to say the least). More plausibly, your mind will be easily concentrated. You’ll be reborn in a pleasant realm (or at the very least the future you that arises will have more a pleasant existence than the being that would have arisen had lovingkindness not been a part of its previous existence).

Some of these are plausible. There is scientific research showing that there are health benefits, and mental health benefits, from practicing lovingkindness meditation. Friendly people generally seem to have a more pleasant experience of the world, with less conflict and more fulfilling experience of others. You’ll deny yourself these benefits if you indulge in resentment. Resentment is the saturated fat of emotions, clogging the arteries of our happiness.

11. Break the other person into tiny pieces

Mentally (not physically!) we can dissolve the object of our resentment into various elements, asking ourselves what exactly we’re angry with. Is it the head hairs, the body hairs, the nails, the teeth, etc? Is it the solid matter making up that person, the liquid, the gas, the energy?

This might seem a little silly. In fact it seemed silly to me, right up to the moment that I tried it. There had been resistance to the idea, because I thought, “Well, of course I’m not angry with any of those things, I’m angry with them — with the person as a whole. But setting that resistance aside, and just reflecting on the bits that make up a person takes you away from the thought of them “as a whole” and you temporarily can’t be angry with them!

As Buddhaghosa says, “When he tries the resolution into elements, his anger finds no foothold, like a mustard seed on the point of a needle.”

He’s right.

12. Give a gift

This one’s delightfully straightforward and earthy. If you give the other person a gift — especially something you value — then you break the dynamic of your resentment. You shake things up within yourself. You have to think of the other person as a human being with needs. You have to think about what they might like. You stop your mind from going around and around in the same old rut of complaining. You have to let go of your damned pride. You have to take a risk. You have to make yourself vulnerable.

And giving to the other person changes the dynamic of the relationship. If there’s mutual resentment, then you may shock the other person into seeing you differently.

Buddhaghosa points out that giving naturally leads to kind speech:

Through giving gifts they do unbend
And condescend to kindly speech.

Of course you may be thinking something along the lines of, “Wait! I hate this person; why on earth would I give them something?”

But that just brings up another question. Do you want to end your resentment?

Well, do you?

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Living with a heart of tenderness (Day 46)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Yesterday I wrote about how the Buddha, when he was in agony after having been injured, kept the suffering of self-doubt at bay by lying down “with sympathy for all beings.”

The word for sympathy here is “anukampā,” which literally means “to tremble with” or “to vibrate with.” Taking the meaning of “to vibrate with” we could even understand anukampā as being “resonating” with others, or having empathy for them.

Anukampā is closely related to karunā, or compassion, although karunā is from a root meaning “to act,” and so it’s a more active and dynamic term, while anukampā is more receptive. When we have anukampā we’re receptive to the feelings of others. We’re open to resonating with them. We are moved by them.We are touched by them. A synonym of anukampā is muducittatā, or tender-heartedness. So anukampā, or sympathy, has this very receptive quality to it. It’s that in us which is touched by the joys and sorrows of others.

And it’s this ability to resonate with others that lead to our actively wishing beings well, and to our acting to relieve their sufferings, where it’s possible for us to do that.

So the Buddha told his first five followers, all of whom he had recently guided to Awakening, to go forth out of anukampā for the world, and when he said that he taught out of compassion, anukampā was the word he used. Many Buddhists, perhaps even most of them, have never heard the word anukampā, and yet it was the entire basis of the Buddha’s life and his mission to teach and help beings liberate themselves from suffering.

Anukampā is a natural feeling of sympathy. It’s a sense of solidarity with others, recognizing that we all suffer. In fact the receptive nature of anukampā leads to us sharing the suffering of others. Paradoxically, this does not increase our suffering, but reduces it. It’s a lack of sympathy that leads to us causing suffering to others and thus causes strife and conflict in our lives, and it’s a lack of sympathy with others that leads us to think that our own suffering is unique and that we’re worse off than others (a most painful state to be in).

Anukampā, in modern terms, would result from our “mirror neurons,” which allow us to create internal models of the thoughts and feelings of others, so that we can have empathy for them. The Buddha expressed this quite simply as the basis for ethics:

‘A person with evil wishes and dominated by evil wishes is displeasing and disagreeable to me. If I were to have evil wishes and be dominated by evil wishes, I would be displeasing to others.’ A bhikkhu who knows this should arouse his mind thus: ‘I shall not have evil wishes and be dominated by evil wishes.’

So I’m going to suggest a very simple practice: for the next few days, be aware of anukampā, “trembling with” or “sympathy for” others. Let go of your utilitarian thoughts and judgements about people — “she’s attractive,” “he’s unpleasant” — and just notice the fact that you feel when you are aware of another person. The feelings may be subtle or they may be obvious.

Stay in touch with your tender-heartedness, and allow yourself to notice how the heart resonates with others. Notice what mental attitudes suppress your natural sympathy, and which allow it to be noticed. And notice how your sympathy for others leads to the desire to help them be free from suffering.

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Compassion as an antidote for our own suffering (Day 45)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’ve often written about how experiencing compassion for ourselves can naturally spill over to experiencing compassion for other people. When someone says something that you find hurtful, that hurt is a form of suffering. Often what we do is try to become angry, ultimately in an effort to rid of the “cause” of the suffering (the other person) and thus remove the hurt. This is a kind of double aversion, because not only are we experiencing aversion to the person whose words gave rise to the feeling of hurt, but we’re turning away from the hurt itself.

A compassionate approach to dealing with hurt, on the other hand, is to drop both these forms of aversion: let go of the thoughts of anger the moment we become aware of their presence, and turn toward the hurt, with compassion. We train ourselves to “drop down” below the level of emotion and thought, down to the level of raw feeling — that ache, that bruise, that sense of having been “punched in the gut.” When we embrace our own hurt with a mind of compassion — when we wish it well, as we would with a dear friend who was in pain — there is no need for anger. Our anger becomes redundant, because its purpose is to deal with our hurt, and our hurt is now being dealt with much more effectively. And having empathized with our own pain, we can then feel empathy for the other person and have compassion for them. From turning toward our pain in this way to experiencing compassion for the other person often takes seconds.

But it works the other way around as well. Having compassion for others helps us to be more compassionate toward our own pain, to drop our aversion toward it, and to accept its presence with an even mind.

There’s a great illustration of this that comes from the Buddha’s life. There was a time when the Buddha was injured by a falling rock. Tradition has it that the rock was pushed down a hillside by the Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, who desired to take control of the Sangha. The rock missed the Buddha, but a splinter flew off it and injured his foot severely, causing great pain. (I have to say, though, that the symbolism of Devadatta taking something whole and creating a splinter [group?] that hurt the Buddha seems too good to be true.)

So the Buddha, injured, and in agony, is lying down in a hut, mindful and alert, when he receives a visitor in the form of Māra, the Buddhist personification of doubt. And Māra taunts the Buddha about how he’s lying there in a stupor, unable to do anything, unable to fulfill his goals of teaching beings to liberate themselves, lying there as if he were a dreamer.

So you can imagine anyone, injured and in pain, unable to do what they loved, having this kind of doubt.

The appearance of Māra is interesting. As the personification of doubt, his presence implies that the Buddha was not entirely immune to those inner voices that taunt us that we’re not good enough. Those voices still arise for him, but he’s able to face them and send them packing. And that’s what happens in this case.

And the Buddha says something very interesting. He says, amongst other things: “I lie down with sympathy for all beings.”

And Māra realizes he’s defeated, and vanishes. The Buddha’s self-doubt vanishes. Doubt arise for the Buddha, but they can’t “infect” his mind. His clarity and mindfulness act as a psychological immune system.

So what about “I lie down with sympathy for all beings” makes it an effective immune response to protect the Buddha against suffering and doubt?

Well, when we’re in pain — when we’re lonely or sick, for example — we tend to assume that there’s something special about it, and about us. We’ve been singled out: “Why me?” We’ve been afflicted with an especially severe form of suffering: “This is terrible! I can’t bear it!” And these thoughts intensify our suffering.

But when we consider others’ sufferings — when we “lie down with sympathy for all beings” — we realize that we’re all in it together, and that many other people have it worse than we do. You have a cold? Someone else has just been diagnosed with cancer. You have cancer? Someone else has just learned that their child has cancer. When we recognize the commonness of suffering, and have sympathy and compassion for others’ pain, we can (once again) let go of our stories — let go of our thoughts and emotions — and drop down to the level of raw feeling, and have compassion for that pain too.

So having compassion for ourselves frees us up to have compassion for others, but having compassion for others can also free us up to have compassion for ourselves, and to bear with our suffering mindfully, and without aversion.

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Seeing with the eyes of compassion (Day 44)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

We can see beings with the eyes of compassion, or with the eyes of utility. We almost literally live in different worlds depending on which eyes we use to see with.

When we see with the eyes of utility we gauge beings by their usefulness to us.

If the checkout clerk performs smoothly we’ll remain neutral, maybe even friendly, but if he or she has trouble looking up the code for an item, or — heaven forbid — has to call in a supervisor for help, we’ll quickly become irritable. This person has become an obstacle to the smooth functioning of our life.

When the child is slow getting ready for bed, succumbing to a seemingly endless stream of distractions, we yell, because the child being awake is an impediment to us getting on with our next activity.

If there’s a insect buzzing around in the house, this is an impediment to our living in a relatively annoyance-free zone, and offends our sensibilities, since bugs are dirty. The bug’s very existence is an impediment to our well-being and so we’re quick to reach for a newspaper or can of fly-spray.

The lambs in the field are cute, but we like the taste of meat. The lamb dead is of more utility to us than the lamb being alive.

Seeing with the eyes of compassion changes everything.

With the eyes of compassion, we only see one thing. We see that others’ happiness and suffering are as real to them as our own are to us. We see that others want and seek happiness, but don’t find it as often as they would like. We see that others want to be free from suffering, and yet keep suffering.

We feel for the checkout clerk because, for all we know, they are just learning the job, or are under-trained, or the systems have been changed, or they’re having to deal with someone else’s errors, or they have personal problems that are making it hard to stay focused. We don’t know that any of these things is the case, but we’re open to the possibilities. We may feel the frustration of being in a slow-moving queue, but we don’t just jump to blaming the clerk. He or she is a human being.

When we see, with the eyes of compassion, the child getting distracted while getting ready for bed, we may recall that self-control is one of the first cognitive abilities to go when we’re tired. So the child is literally unable at that point to control him or her self. What, then, is the point of getting mad? More kindly directing is needed.

The fly turns out to be just a fly. Sure, it has a dubious sense of hygiene and likes to walk over our food, and it makes an annoying sound, but it’s another living thing. Many an insect has been given safe passage to our front porch with the help of a glass and an envelope.

And the lambs? I’d rather have tempeh or tofu. After 31 years of vegetarianism I can no longer think of animals as food, any more than I can think of people as food.

With the eyes of compassion we see the most essential thing about any being: their deepest drives for life and wholeness and safety. With the eyes of utility we see only our own need. We don’t really see anything beyond ourselves. With the eyes of compassion we see beyond ourselves and are open to the magical and mysterious reality that is another life.

When we see with the eyes of compassion, recognizing that others’ happiness and suffering are as real to them as our own are to us, we don’t want to do anything to obstruct their happiness or to cause them harm. It just doesn’t happen.

And when we see in this way, and connect in this way, and respect in this way, every connection becomes a source of joy, for self-preoccupation imprisons and limits us like a birdcage, while leaving behind self-preoccupation is like flying free. It’s more than flying free, it’s like soaring with others.

Of course we can’t just switch from seeing with the eyes of utility to seeing with the eyes of compassion all at once. We’ll bounce from one perspective to another, perhaps many times in a day. Perhaps we’ll only see through compassion’s eyes for a few minutes or a few seconds, before we start to see the world in utilitarian terms once again. But it’s a training. It’s a practice.

Just keep coming gently back to the thought: “This person suffers just as I suffer. This person, just like me, doesn’t want to suffer.”

And if we keep gently reminding ourselves to see with the eyes of compassion in this way, that perspective will more and more become part of who we are.

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Bearing compassion in mind (Day 43)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’d like to suggest a simple practice for you.

For the next hour or so, let the first thought you have when seeing someone or meeting them face-to-face be: “This person suffers just as I suffer. This person, just like me, doesn’t want to suffer.”

“Seeing someone” can include seeing their photograph or seeing them on TV, as well as seeing them in person, or seeing them passing by.

You can try this for a longer period, of course, but I thought it would be good to try it for a very short spell initially, so that you don’t feel you’re taking on a task that’s too big.

I’d advise keeping these two phrases going prophylactically, so to speak; if you just have them running around your head whenever your mind would otherwise go off wandering, then it’ll be easier to call them to mind.

So as you’re driving, you can see cars in front or behind, going in the same direction as you or in other directions, and say to yourself, “This person suffers just as I suffer. This person, just like me, doesn’t want to suffer.”

You can do this as you’re walking along the street or cruising the aisles of a supermarket. You can do it in your office. You can do it when you’re in a meeting.

But it’s particularly to do this when you’re actually talking to someone.

Just try it and see what effect it has.

One person who tried this said it had helped “ground” him and stopped him from escalating tricky situations. Someone else who did this on the bus found that it lead to a loosening of their sense of having a “contracted self” and that they had a feeling of common experience with the other people.

Someone else said, “I felt a connection with the person … even a deep kindness. Think I could have perhaps even went over and gave them a cuddle so we could cry together.”

And yet another person tried this on public transport: “This practice just helped me keep it “chill” during a long, cross-town bus ride during which a baby was crying the whole time. Other riders were getting very bent out of shape, but thanks to this mindfulness practice I just went with the flow with kindly thoughts for everyone on the bus.”

One of the things I found happening today as I was bearing these phrases in mind toward passers-by was that I felt a strong sense of curiosity about them. It wasn’t like I had any specific questions in mind, like “I wonder what his name is,” but that I had a strong sense of an entire life being right there in front of me, just waiting to be explored.

I certainly feel much happier doing this practice. My usual thoughts — which sometimes reinforce unskillful mental states like anxiety and ill will — are displaced, and the new thoughts — “This person suffers just as I suffer; this person, just like me, doesn’t want to suffer,” lead to a sense of well-being, connectedness, and peace.

And this is a practice that you can keep “rebooting” during the day. Try it for an hour, and then another hour, and then another. What happens, I wonder, if this becomes second nature and we don’t even have to think about it? What happens when this ceases to be a practice, and just becomes part of who we are.

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