100 Days of Lovingkindness

Guided compassion meditation (karuna bhavana)

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:

  1. Ourselves
  2. A suffering person
  3. A “neutral person”
  4. A “difficult person
  5. All sentient beings.

Enjoy!

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Compassion is not superiority (Day 42)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

It’s very easy for us to assume that the one who feels compassion is in some way superior to the one he or she feels compassion for. This is partly rooted, I presume, in the assumption that it’s weak to suffer, but that assumption in turn grows from our biological conditioning. We’re social animals, and one of the things a social animal has as part of its genetic makeup is a propensity to establish where it stands in a social hierarchy.

In Buddhist terms this is “seeking status,” which is one pair of the eight lokadhammas, which could be translated as “ways of the world,” although it’s often poetically rendered as the “eight worldly winds.” The eight ways of the world are pairs of preoccupations corresponding to four ways of seeking security in our insecure world. They are:

  1. Gain and loss (materialism).
  2. High status and low status.
  3. Approval and disapproval.
  4. Pleasure and pain (hedonism).

We tend to chase after one item in each pair, but with status our biological conditioning is usually not to seek the highest status, but to find a comfortable position in the hierarchy and to maintain it. We can be comfortable playing the victim, or feeling superior, depending on our individual inclinations. But we gain comfort from knowing where we are in a pecking order.

Of course we can never find true security within the eight ways of the world, and spiritual maturity means becoming less and less invested in the pursuit of any of these ways of being. As we mature, gain, loss, status, approval, and pleasure-seeking should become less and less meaningful to us. We see that these are all impermanent, and that we can seek status, but never hold onto it. And inherent in trying to hold on to status is a sense of fear that we’ll lose what we think we’ve gained. So what we initially pursue as a source of security turns out, in the end, to be a source of insecurity.

In all spiritual practice there’s something going on that I call “unselfing.” This takes various forms, including less selfishness and grasping, less self-preoccupation and an increased ability to empathize with others, greater kindness and compassion, an ability to mindfully and joyfully lose ourselves (although not our awareness) in the “flow” of our experience, whether that’s in meditation or elsewhere, and a “seeing through” of the concept that we actually have a thing called a self.

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In fact, from a Buddhist point of view “conceit” is regarded as thinking of oneself as higher, lower, or equal to others. So what does that leave? It means basically that we don’t think in terms of status at all. We just be, with no obsession about who we are. We just live in the moment, acting spontaneously with no thought of self or other.

The Buddha said of those who are awakened:

Not as higher, lower, nor equal
do they refer to themselves.

But this should start to happen well before awakening, even though the process isn’t complete until then. Even right now, we can have more of a sense that we’re all in it together — you suffer, I suffer — and a loss of any assumption that “I’m OK, you’re not.”

If you do start feeling that you’re “looking down” on people when you’re cultivating compassion for them, see if you can simply let go of the tightness of self-clinging, and relax into the experience. Go with the flow. Ultimately there is no you, no other. There is simply suffering and a response to suffering.

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The science of happiness and compassion (Day 41)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Compassion is becoming a “hot topic” in scientific research, and the good news is that compassion has been shown to be innate, and that it makes us happier, more popular, and healthier.

1. Compassion is wired into us

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology observed two-year-olds’ reactions to seeing an adult who needed help because he or she had dropped an object and had trouble picking it up. The children’s pupil size increased — a sign of heightened concern — when they saw the adult in distress. Their concern decreased if they were allowed to help (and 10 out of 12 children chose to do so) or if they saw a second adult come to the rescue. However their signs of concern increased if they were prevented from helping and no one else did so.

Despite popular views of evolution as favoring competition and “survival of the fittest” (a phrase Darwin never used, incidentally), we humans have clearly evolved to cooperate and to be concerned for one another. As Darwin suggested, “communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

2. Compassion is spontaneous, selfishness is calculated

In a recent paper in Nature researchers detailed a study in which people had to decide how much money to contribute to a common pool. The less time people had to think about their decision, the more generous they were — giving on average 15% more than those with more time. In a second study participants either had to make the same decision in less than ten seconds or were given more time. Again, those given longer to deliberate were stingier.

These studies strongly suggest that people have an initial impulse to behave cooperatively, and that selfishness is a more deliberate and secondary phenomenon.

3. Compassion makes you cool

Psychology researcher Kristin Layous of UC Riverside and a colleague from British Columbia asked nine to eleven-year olds either to perform three acts of kindness – like sharing their lunch or giving their mom a hug when she felt stressed – or to keep track of three enjoyable places they visited each week. Both groups of students improved in well-being over the four weeks of the study, but those students who performed kind acts experienced significantly bigger increases in peer popularity than those students who went visiting.

The authors noted that “Increasing peer acceptance is a critical goal, as it is related to a variety of important academic and social outcomes, including reduced likelihood of being bullied.”

4. Compassion makes you healthy

If compassion increases your social connectedness, then it likely also boosts your health. Research by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman suggest that our levels of social connectedness predict how long we’ll live, how quickly we’ll recover from disease, how much happiness and well-being we’ll have, and how much purpose and meaning there will be in our lives.

One major study showed that a lack of social connectedness is worse for your health than smoking. You’d expect compassion, which emotionally connects us with others, boosts our immunity against ill health. And in fact a study by Thaddeus Pace of Emory University School of Medicine, and colleagues, showed that those study participants who did most compassion meditation showed the least distress when subjected to stress tests, and a reduced level of Interleukin-6, which is a chemical linked to stress, heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, type-2 diabetes and certain cancers.

A recent study by Barbara Frederickson, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, investigated the effect of compassion meditation on “vagal tone,” which is a measure of the degree of healthy activity in the vagus nerve. The vagus regulates how efficiently our heart rate changes with our breathing. The greater the tone in the vagus, the higher our heart-rate variability and the less we’re at risk for heart disease. The vagus is also thought to play a role in regulating glucose levels our immune response.

5. Compassion makes you happy

Neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health carried out a brain-imaging study which found that the brain’s “pleasure centers” which light up when we experience pleasure or experience rewards are just as active when we’re giving money to charity compared to when we’re given money.

Another study found that those who gave were actually happier than those who received. Elizabeth Dunn, of the University of British Columbia, gave money to participants in a study. Half of the participants were asked to spend the money on themselves, while the other half were asked to spend the money on others. At the end of the study, those who had spent the money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent the money on themselves.

And again, this starts young. Another study in which Dunn was involved, along with lead author Lara Aknin, found that even before the age of two, toddlers showed greater happiness when giving treats to others than receiving treats themselves. And the more they sacrifice, the happier they become. Children who forfeit their own resources in order to benefits other kids are happier than when giving the same treat at no cost.

The bottom line

Compare the above findings to the received “wisdom” that we’re inherently selfish. Economic models are based on the assumption that we’re motivated by self-interest, and entire political ideologies are founded on that same notion. And yet clearly compassion is an inherent part of our nature, and exercising it enhances our health and enriches our emotional well-being.

What’s more the level of compassion we have is not a fixed quantity, but can be developed through practice — including meditation.

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

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Compassion, bliss, and beyond (Day 40)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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.

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Compassion can be joyful (Day 39)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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.

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Why are we so hard on ourselves? (Day 38)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

We can be very hard on ourselves, can’t we? It’s as if, sometimes, we’re watching out for any tiny hint of a mistake, and then we pounce on ourselves, getting angry, or frustrated, or ashamed.

I suspect it’s because we can be. When people are allowed or encouraged to be cruel, they often will be. There’s some inherent cruelty in all of us (to varying extents) and this is kept in check by social norms. Change the social norms so that cruelty is encouraged, and it soon emerges. The Standford Prison Experiment and other similar studies shows that that cruel streak is there and can easily be brought out to the surface.

Those social norms are reduced in the family home, which is a “private space” somewhat separated from society. You can do things there with less inhibition (pick your nose, wander around naked). One of the things you can do, free from normal social expectations, is act unkindly to family members. People are often more unkind to those they’re closest too than to anyone else.

This sometimes spills out into public behavior, so that you see parents treating children very unkindly. Listen to the way parents talk to each other and to their children in public, and compare it to how friends and strangers talk to each other. There’s little restraint — despite their actually being in public.

And inside our heads? That’s the most private space there is. We have all internalized all kinds of behaviors from others, but especially from our parents, and so that unrestrained harshness, which ricochets from generation to generation, is a part of us. And there’s no one in side our heads to remind us that there are more civilized ways to behave.

There’s the factor as well that we can hear our own thoughts, but not those of others. So when people are sitting meditating with others, they’re aware of the babble inside their own heads, but look around and see everyone else sitting in silence, and assume that they’re equally silent inside. We think we’re the odd one out. We’re worse than everyone else; especially deserving of harsh treatment. Or so we think.

Harshness is a strategy. The idea is that if we’re unkind enough in response to a particular behavior, then that behavior won’t be repeated. It’s classic “operant conditioning” — the modifying of conscious behavior through positive reinforcement and punishment. Those of us who are “perfectionists” are very used to this, although we tend to forget the “positive reinforcement” part. We take “getting it right” for granted, and instead focus on making ourselves feel bad when we haven’t performed up to our expectations. We use the stick, a lot, and forget the carrot. For many perfectionists “doing it right” is supposed to be its own reward, although as it happens this turns out, often, not to be very rewarding at all.

And this “stick only” approach to motivation can work, up to a point. Perfectionist people often do perform well. But the cost in terms of emotional pain and stress can be huge. The cost can be burnout, mental illness, depression, chronic illness — even suicide.

Fortunately we have ways to change our inner culture, and to learn to talk and act more kindly toward ourselves internally.

When we realize that there’s an alternative because we’re learning from people who are kinder to themselves, or when the stresses of giving ourselves a hard time become just too much, we can experiment with being kind to ourselves and learn that it feels amazing. I’m not talking about the “being kind” that involves days in the spa and expensive chocolates eaten by candle-light (although I won’t knock those) but the “being kind” that involves behaving with kindness internally: being forgiving, talking to ourselves in a gentle tone of voice, allowing ourselves to have breaks when we need them, meeting our needs for sleep, exercise, and food, giving ourselves a pat on the back when we’ve done something skillful, being careful about how much work we take on. All those things, when we do them, feel great, usually. And they also tend to lead to us “doing well.” The low stress mind — the one that’s stretched by a demanding task but not operating out of anxiety — is an effective mind. It’s one that functions optimally. So kindness can work better than perfectionism, often, although I don’t suggest that we be kind in order to be more effective. Be kind because it’s a better way to be. And then notice how that helps you be more effective in various aspects of your life.

So how about, as we’re talking to ourselves and responding emotionally to ourselves, we imagine that we’re talking to someone we dearly love — perhaps a child that we want to encourage. How about we notice the tone of how we talk to ourselves, and see whether what we say and how we say it hardens or softens the heart? How about we become our own audience, so that our inner communication isn’t thought of as something private and shut away, but is something that’s heard, even if only by the wiser and kinder parts of ourselves?

Maybe then we can change our inner culture, and be less hard on ourselves. And we may find that this makes it easier to be kinder to others, too.

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

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“Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help.” Rainer Maria Rilke

"Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help." Rainer Maria Rilke

“Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a friend and protégé, encouraging him to make peace with his inner demons.

It’s an interesting phrase, “inner demons.” We think of the demonic as being that which is evil, that which aims at our destruction. And yet I don’t believe in the concept of self-sabotage.

Yes, I know, you sometimes act in ways that keep you from doing what you want to do, even when what you want to do is likely to bring your happiness. And I know, you sometimes act in ways that limit you and keep you bound to suffering, even though you want to be free from suffering. But these actions are only self-sabotage from the point of view of the wiser, more aware, more conscious and thoughtful part of you. From the point of view of the more habitual and unconscious parts of you that give rise to these behaviors, these decisions are not acts of self-destruction, but of self-preservation.

One of the biggest delusions we can have about ourselves is that the self is unitary. That we are one thing. That we have one mind. In fact, each of us is a composite of many minds, resulting from the modular, hit-or-miss, cobbled-together evolution of the mind. Engineers call this form of “design” a “kludge.” A kludge is a workaround: a clumsy, inelegant, yet quick and “effective-enough” solution to a problem.

Our brains are kludges. They were not designed from the ground up. Existing, basic, designs were altered. New components were bolted on to an existing structure. Layer was added upon layer. And this happened over and over, creating a rambling, shambling mess, that more or less works, but at the cost of a lot of inner conflict.

Older parts of the brain (or mind) have primitive programming that bases their actions on selfishness: greedily grasping after benefits, hurting others when we need to, running from threats. More recently evolved parts of the brain are more considered: they are able to reflect on the consequences of our decisions, to recall the past and to draw lessons from it, to run simulations of the future and to imagine how decisions we make now might affect our future well-being, to imagine new ways of acting, to consider abandoning unhelpful habits.

And the old brain and the new brain are often in conflict. We might know that we need to change something in our lives (a job, a habit, a relationship) and yet some ancient part of the brain floods the body with chemicals that induce a sense of fear. We might know we need to say something to another person that might be taken critically, and yet we’re paralyzed with anxiety; what if we’re rejected, end up friendless, alone forever? And so we limp along the same old familiar but painful pathways of life, battling with ourselves as we do so. Our self-struggles simply add another layer of pain to our lives. And it can seem that things can never change.

But this isn’t self-sabotage. This is, from the point of view of our ancient impulses, self-preservation. This is us avoiding rejection. This is us not risking making a jump from the frying pan into the fire.

Our demons are not trying to destroy us. They’re trying to keep us safe. It just so happens that make a lousy job of doing so, but isn’t it good to realize that your demons aren’t actually destructive at all? That they simply want to find peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering — just the same as every other part of you?

These demons need our help. They are, to a certain extent, helpless. They are more than half blind. They are incapable of learning on their own. They need to be regulated and their circuits need to be reprogrammed.

And this is where practice comes in. Practice is where you train the mind. The word “training” is very traditional (it’s sikkhā in Pali or śikśā in Sanskrit), and the Buddha often compared training the mind to training a wild animal.

“Excellent are tamed mules, tamed thoroughbreds, tamed horses from Sindh. Excellent, tamed tuskers, great elephants. But even more excellent are those self-tamed. For not by these mounts could you go to the land unreached, as the tamed one goes by taming, well-taming, himself.” – The Buddha

This animal-training analogy is very appropriate, given the primitive, animal-like perspective that some parts of the brain have. So that part of us that’s most aware, that has the longest-term perspective on our lives, the most accurate perception of the connection between actions and consequences, has to help the rest of the brain have a wiser perspective on life.

First, the wiser and more recently evolved parts of us have to stand back from and become aware of the demons within, which of course aren’t really demonic, and are more like badly house-trained animals. This “standing back” is mindfulness, and it gives us more wiggle-room in which to maneuver.

Mindfulness is vital, but it’s not enough. We have to get on the cushion, and to spend some serious time training the brain. We need to strengthen our habits of mindfulness, and to develop our habits of kindness. As long as we relate to ourselves and others in terms of hatred and fear, we’ll keep feeding our wild animals, and they’ll keep directing our lives. The Buddha said that meditating was like tethering a wild animal to a stake. If it’s just a rope, with us on one end and a wild animal on the other, we’re in trouble. We’ll be mauled, or dragged along behind the animal, or caught up in an endless tug-of-war. We need to stand our ground in meditation and to have a fixed point (the object of the meditation) to which we keep returning.

We need to reflect, and to develop wisdom. We need to strengthen our habit of looking at past experience and seeing where it led us. We need to look at what we’re doing now and see where it might take us.

In doing all this, the more recently evolved parts of your brain are getting stronger. In neurological terms we’re learning to regulate our emotions. In poetic terms the wild animals within are becoming less wild, and less fearsome. They’re being tamed and trained.

And it’s strongly advised that we don’t try to do all this alone. The task of the mind training the mind is too hard for most of us to do it unaided. Associating with other self-trainers is enormously helpful. It gives us role-models. It allows us to see others facing their inner wildness. It helps us become more aware of our blind spots. It gives us a source of support and encouragement. And it gives us, ultimately, a chance to be of benefit to others as they turn toward their own terrifying things, and find that they are no more than helpless parts of themselves, helpless parts that need help.

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Compassion and causing pain (Day 36)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The other day I wrote about “Idiot Compassion,” which I described as ‘…avoiding conflict, letting people walk all over you, not giving people a harm time when actually they need to be given a hard time. It’s “being nice,” or “being good.”’

Idiot compassion, a term Chogyam Trungpa adapted from Gurdjieff, lacks both wisdom and courage. We don’t want to jeopardize being thought of as a “nice person” and so we’re unwilling to be direct with people when that’s needed. We’re afraid to say ‘no’ to our children, for example. This is the lack of courage.

And we lack the ability to see that our actions will only lead to more suffering. That’s the lack of wisdom. So when you’re naive and too quick to place trust in someone, you’re not being compassionate, you’re just making an unwise decision.

Someone on Facebook raised an interesting objection:

Compassion is central to Buddhism, and I think it’s a bit more complicated that shying away from causing pain because it will cause some people to suffer more in the future. I mean, isn’t that the type of reasoning that Buddhist monks in Burma are using to justify their attacks against Rohingya Muslims? Don’t get me wrong, I hear what you are saying, but I don’t agree that true compassion does not shy away from causing pain when necessary. I think statements like that totally miss the point of compassion in Buddhism.

The point that “Compassion [is] … a bit more complicated than [not?] shying away from causing pain because it will cause some people to suffer more in the future” is perfectly valid, but then I’d never said that that was all there was to compassion. In fact I’d made the point that even in those circumstances where you have to be compassionate and made hard decisions, a lot of self-awareness, empathy, and wisdom are required. It’s not easy to be wisely compassionate.

And the defining characteristic of compassion is that it’s about wanting people to be free from pain, and from the causes of pain, which are unskillful states of delusion, grasping, and aversion. So most of the time we aren’t going to be causing pain while acting compassionately. These are relatively rare events for most of us. Some of us may know addicts, or people who have dysfunctional lifestyles, and may often have to practice the tough compassion of saying “no.” Those of us who have children have to do that a lot. But most of our compassion is just compassion — sensing the pain of others and responding with kindness. Hopefully that’s going to be experienced on the other end as supportive, encouraging, and sympathetic, with no hint of harshness or judgement. Usually we only need to be tough when others are trying to use us to enable their own dysfunctions.

Isn’t that the type of reasoning that Buddhist monks in Burma are using to justify their attacks against Rohingya Muslims?

If you’re unaware, there are Buddhist monks in Burma who are actively persecuting the minority Muslim population. They have been stirring up hatred and encouraging violence. Sometimes they’ve been participating in violence, against every precept of Buddhism.

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But they haven’t, to the best of my knowledge, been saying that they’re acting compassionately. They are more apt to say that they are “protecting Buddhism,” which is of course nonsense since they are destroying Buddhism by violating its central tenet of nonviolence, and by bringing Buddhism into disrepute world-wide.

But even if those monks were saying that they were motivated by compassion, this would in no way be a valid interpretation of compassionate action within the Buddha’s ethical framework.

Here’s the Buddha on violence:

“Here, student, some woman or man is a killer of living beings, murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings. Due to having performed and completed such kammas, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell.”

And here he is on compassion:

“But here some woman or man, having abandoned the killing of living beings, abstains from killing living beings, lays aside the rod and lays aside the knife, is considerate and merciful and dwells compassionate for the welfare of all living beings. Due to having performed and completed such kammas, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination, in the heavenly world.”

Leaving aside the heaven and hell aspect, the Buddha consistently presents compassion and violence as diametrically opposed, and mutually exclusive.

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha makes clear the empathic reasons for abstaining from causing harm:

All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

And in the famous parable of the saw, he pointed out that if you experience anger even when sawed limb from limb by bandits, then in that moment you are not following his teachings. So it’s clear that these so-called monks are not following the Buddha’s teachings on compassion.

I hear what you are saying, but I don’t agree that true compassion does not shy away from causing pain when necessary. I think statements like that totally miss the point of compassion in Buddhism.

In the sutta I quoted from in my post the other day, the example was of a child with a sharp object lodged in its throat. What would you do? You want to help the child, but you’re going to hurt the child by removing the object. Well, obviously you go ahead and remove it, because the harm done by not acting is much greater.

Similarly, if you’re a doctor acting out of compassion you don’t shy away from inflicting pain by giving injections, resetting bones, etc. It is going to hurt people to tell them they have cancer; would a compassionate doctor shy away from causing pain in that circumstance? Of course not.

So sometimes when we’re acting compassionately, we have to accept that it’s going to cause hurt or pain. We don’t want to cause hurt or pain. That’s not our intention. But it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen.

But we do have to be careful of rationalizing — that is, of explaining away unkind actions by saying that they’re for the good of others. You do see that happening. One of the forms of rationalization that most bothers me is when adults hit children “for their own good.” I don’t think that’s ever necessary or acceptable. And when this is described as “love,” I shudder, for I sense a deep confusion about what love is. If there’s any desire to inflict pain as punishment, this isn’t love or compassion. This is power and control.

If there’s ever any mental harshness in your mind about the other person, or words calculated to hurt, then beware! You probably need to get in touch with your own vulnerability, and to recognize that you too mess up, that you too create suffering for yourself, despite your best efforts not to do so. You need to try to understand the other person’s confusion and delusion. They are seeking happiness in the things they do, although they may be very deluded and doing things that can’t possibly make them happy in the long term.

And most importantly, if there’s any trace of pleasure taken in delivering bad news, or in saying “no,” or in any way hurting people’s feelings, that’s an indication that cruelty is present. And when cruelty is present, compassion is absent.

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

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Self-compassion is not selfish (Day 35)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

In his book, Living Ethically: Advice from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, Sangharakshita has some advice for those who feel guilty about wanting to be happy. I have to confess that I’d forgotten that it was possible to feel this way…

“How can we wish for the happiness of others if we are alienated from our own desire for happiness?

“Unfortunately, many of us in the West were given to understand when we were young that it is selfish to want happiness for onself, and we therefore feel unnecessarily guilty about wanting it. As a result, we can feel guilty even about BEING happy. ‘After all,’ the perverse logic goes, ‘with all my selfish desires for my own happiness, how could I possibly deserve to be happy?’ This further produces the still more perverse belief that if we are to make spiritual progress, we will necessarily have to subject ourselves to great suffering. Such a deep-down belief that you are undeserving, even basically wicked, will inhibit your practice of the Dharma from the very beginning.”

There are lots of connections with compassion and lovingkindness here, but the main one is the simple point that our kindness and compassion should include ourselves, and so we should learn to embrace our desire for happiness, and our desire to be free from suffering. Happiness here doesn’t mean one single thing, and it’s certainly not limited to going through life with a smile on your face. It includes joy, yes, but also a sense of meaning, and fulfillment, and purpose, and peace — including the peace of accepting being unhappy. We can be happy in the face of our own unhappiness.

Learning to embrace our desire for happiness is something I suggested earlier that we can do as a conscious act as we begin a session of lovingkindness practice. And learning to embrace our innate desire to be free from suffering is likewise something we can contemplate as we begin to cultivate compassion.

When we accept the truth that we want happiness, and that happiness is rather hard to find, that we want to be free from suffering, and yet can’t avoid suffering, we’re connecting with the most vital part of our being — that deep-down drive that gives rise to every action we perform. These desires fuel everything we do.

There’s a sense of vulnerability when we reflect in this way. After all, this being human is not an easy thing. It never has been and never will be. It is hard to want happiness and freedom from suffering in a universe where happiness is elusive and suffering is almost omnipresent. Accepting vulnerability opens the heart. But there is always some part of us, when we open up to our fragility, that is willing to give us kindly support and encouragement as we go through life. And we all need such support.

And having connected with these truths, having opened the heart, having connected with the part of us that wishes us well, it’s not hard to do the same reflections for a friend, a suffering person, someone we don’t know, a person we have problems with — anyone. Any person we can think about wants to be happy, and finds happiness elusive, wants to be free from suffering and is held captive by suffering. But the miraculous thing is that there is some inherent part of us that wishes them well. There is some part that all of us come equipped with, as part of our evolutionary heritage, that resonates with the sufferings of others, and that wishes freedom, peace, and happiness for them.

It can be painful for many people to come through their resistance and to accept that happiness (whatever that may mean for them) is a worthy and right motivation and goal. There are layers of guilt that have been erected to prevent this very realization, and peeling away those layers can be agonizing. It can be hard to accept feeling vulnerable, for we can confuse being vulnerable with being weak, and so we try to hide our vulnerability from ourselves and others. But when we do so — when we pretend that we’re not suffering, that everything in our lives is sorted, our defenses become an armor that bruises and harms others. We become callous and cold and driven, and we’re unwilling to see the vulnerability of others. At our worst, we despise the fragility of others.

Accepting our own tender and fragile desires to be happy and to be free from suffering is the beginning of true compassion. And in the end there is no self-compassion or other-compassion. There is just compassion:

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
– The Buddha

Attānaṃ rakkhanto paraṃ rakkhati.
Paraṃ rakkhanto attānaṃ rakkhati.

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

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The Buddha (and his disciples) on compassion (Day 34)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

After 34 days of blogging on mindfulness and compassion I’m getting a little tired of the sound of my own voice, so I’m plucked some sayings from the Pali canon. The Pali canon is part of the oldest strata of teachings that we have available to us. It comprises of teachings that were memorized and passed down orally for several hundred years before being written down. The Pali canon was just one of many such bodies of teachings, which existed in numerous languages. Sadly, the Muslim invasions of India resulted in the destruction of the bulk of these other canons, and the Pali canon is the only complete collection available to us. It happened to survive because the Pali texts had been exported to Sri Lanka, which wasn’t subject to Muslim invasion.

I’ve indicated with each quote who the speaker is, and linked the name to the original source, so that you can see the quotes in context.

  • The Buddha’s disciple, Vangisa: “Well taught are the Four Noble Truths by the Seeing One, the Awakened One, the Kinsman of the Sun, out of compassion for living beings.”
  • The Buddha: “Rightly speaking, were it to be said of anyone: ‘A being not subject to delusion has appeared in the world for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare and happiness of gods and humans,’ it is of me indeed that rightly speaking this should be said.”
  • The Buddha: “Out of compassion for beings, I surveyed the world with the eye of an Awakened One. As I did so, I saw beings with little dust in their eyes and those with much, those with keen faculties and those with dull, those with good attributes and those with bad, those easy to teach and those hard, some of them seeing disgrace & danger in the other world. Just as in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses, some lotuses — born & growing in the water — might flourish while immersed in the water, without rising up from the water; some might stand at an even level with the water; while some might rise up from the water and stand without being smeared by the water — so too, surveying the world with the eye of an Awakened One, I saw beings with little dust in their eyes and those with much, those with keen faculties and those with dull, those with good attributes and those with bad, those easy to teach and those hard, some of them seeing disgrace & danger in the other world.”
  • The Buddha: “In five ways, young householder, the parents … show their compassion [for their children]: they restrain them from evil, they encourage them to do good, they train them for a profession, they arrange a suitable marriage at the proper time they hand over their inheritance to them. In these five ways do … parents show their compassion to their children. Thus is the East covered by them and made safe and secure.”
  • The Buddha: “In five ways, young householder, do teachers … show their compassion [for their students]: they train them in the best discipline, they see that they grasp their lessons well, they instruct them in the arts and sciences, they introduce them to their friends and associates, they provide for their safety in every quarter. “The teachers … show their compassion towards them in these five ways.”
  • The Buddha: “Friends and associates .. [of] a clansman show compassion to him in five ways: they protect him when he is heedless, they protect his property when he is heedless, they become a refuge when he is in danger, they do not forsake him in his troubles, they show consideration for his family. The friends and associates [of] a clansman show their compassion towards him in these five ways.”
  • The Buddha: “Ascetics and brahmans [i.e. homeless and householder spiritual teachers] [of] a householder show their compassion towards him in six ways: they restrain him from evil, they persuade him to do good, they love him with a kind heart, they make him hear what he has not heard, they clarify what he has already heard, they point out the path to a heavenly state. In these six ways do ascetics and brahmans show their compassion towards a householder.”
  • The Buddha: “An individual keeps pervading the first direction [East] — as well as the second direction, the third, & the fourth — with an awareness imbued with compassion. Thus he keeps pervading above, below, & all around, everywhere & in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with compassion: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will. He savors that, longs for that, finds satisfaction through that.”
  • The Buddha: “Whatever is to be done by a teacher with compassion for the welfare of students, that has been done by me out of compassion for you. Here are the roots of trees. Here are empty places. Get down and meditate. Don’t be lazy. Don’t become one who is later remorseful. This is my instruction to you.”
  • The lay-follower Dhammika, to the Buddha: “Having investigated all knowledge and being compassionate towards beings you have announced the Dhamma, a revealer of what is hidden, of comprehensive vision, stainless, you illuminate all the worlds.”
  • The Buddha: “The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, ‘I will speak out of compassion.'”
  • The Buddha: “Develop the meditation of compassion. For when you are developing the meditation of compassion, cruelty will be abandoned.”
  • King Pasenadi of Kosala, having received weight-loss instructions from the Buddha: “Indeed the Buddha has shown me compassion in two different ways: for my welfare right here and now, and also for in the future.”
  • The Buddha, to his disciple Kassapa: “Very good. It seems that you are one who practices for the happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, benefit, and happiness of beings human and divine.”
  • The Buddha: “In this community of monks there are monks who remain devoted to the development of good will: such are the monks in this community of monks. In this community of monks there are monks who remain devoted to the development of compassion: such are the monks in this community of monks. In this community of monks there are monks who remain devoted to the development of appreciation: such are the monks in this community of monks. In this community of monks there are monks who remain devoted to the development of equanimity: such are the monks in this community of monks. In this community of monks there are monks who remain devoted to the development of unattractiveness: such are the monks in this community of monks. In this community of monks there are monks who remain devoted to the development of the perception of impermanence: such are the monks in this community of monks. In this community of monks there are monks who remain devoted to mindfulness of in-&-out breathing.”
  • The Buddha: “When this concentration [of 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 in this way, you should develop this concentration with directed thought and 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 enjoyment; you should develop it endowed with equanimity.”
  • The Buddha: “The Buddhas radiate compassion on the world.”
  • The Buddha: “When one gives birth to hatred for an individual, one should develop compassion for that individual. Thus the hatred for that individual should be subdued.”
  • The Buddha: “And as for a person who is impure in his bodily behavior & verbal behavior, and who does not periodically experience mental clarity & calm, how should one subdue hatred for him? Just as when there is a sick man — in pain, seriously ill — traveling along a road, far from the next village & far from the last, unable to get the food he needs, unable to get the medicine he needs, unable to get a suitable assistant, unable to get anyone to take him to human habitation. Now suppose another person were to see him coming along the road. He would do what he could out of compassion, pity, & sympathy for the man, thinking, ‘O that this man should get the food he needs, the medicine he needs, a suitable assistant, someone to take him to human habitation. Why is that? So that he won’t fall into ruin right here.’ In the same way, when a person is impure in his bodily behavior & verbal behavior, and who does not periodically experience mental clarity & calm, one should do what one can out of compassion, pity, & sympathy for him, thinking, ‘O that this man should abandon wrong bodily conduct and develop right bodily conduct, abandon wrong verbal conduct and develop right verbal conduct, abandon wrong mental conduct and develop right mental conduct. Why is that? So that, on the break-up of the body, after death, he won’t fall into the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, purgatory.’ Thus the hatred for him should be subdued.”
  • The Buddha: “Here someone, abandoning the killing of living beings, becomes one who abstains from killing living beings; with rod and weapon laid aside, gentle and kindly, he abides compassionate to all living beings.”
  • The Buddha: A person renowned for his bounty,
    Compassionate towards all beings,
    Distributes alms gladly.
    “Give! Give!” he says.

    Like a great storm cloud
    That thunders and rains down
    Filling the levels and hollows,
    Saturating the earth with water,
    Even so is such a person.

    Having righteously gathered wealth
    Which he obtains by his own effort,
    He fully satisfies with food and drink
    Whatever beings live in need.

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

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