100 Days of Lovingkindness

How not to practice “idiot compassion” (Day 33)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Chogyam Trungpa borrowed from Gurdjieff the very useful notion of “idiot compassion.” Gurdjieff, a rather fascinating spiritual teacher of the early to mid-20th century, had said that we are all idiots of one kind or another, and his extensive lists of the various types of idiots included “the compassionate idiot.”

Compassion is wishing that beings be free from suffering. Idiot compassion is avoiding conflict, letting people walk all over you, not giving people a hard time when actually they need to be given a hard time. It’s “being nice,” or “being good.”

It’s not compassion at all. It ends up causing us pain, and it ends up causing others pain.

The more someone self-consciously thinks of themselves as compassionate, the more likely it is that they’re a compassionate idiot.

Idiot compassion lacks both courage and intelligence.

Idiot compassion lacks courage because “being nice” and “being good” are held to be the most important qualities we can manifest, and so we’re afraid to do anything that might make us unpopular. It’s not uncommon to see a related phenomenon, “idiot kindness,” in parents’ interactions with their children. Some parents want to be their children’s best friends, and don’t want to be unpopular. And so they indulge their children, giving them what they want and never disciplining them, or using very inconsistent discipline. But it’s not a parent’s job to be a BFF for their children. It’s their job to help bring their children up to be responsible adults.

Idiot compassion lacks intelligence, because it doesn’t lead to happiness or to freedom from suffering. If someone cheats you, and you immediately decide to trust them again, you’re not helping either them or you. The person who cheats you is unlikely to have a sudden conversion to being conscientious. Any easy promise they make to change their ways is likely to be just another form of cheating. And so by letting them off the hook you don’t help them. In fact you become an enabler of their dysfunctional behavior, and thus you’re helping them to suffer more in the future, when their unskillful behavior catches up with them. And you end up suffering as well. At some point either resentment against the cheat, or against themselves, is going to kick in.

True compassion does not shy away from causing pain when necessary. Causing pain is not the same as causing harm, by the way. The Buddha talked about this in relation to speech, in an interesting dialogue with a prince named Abhaya.

Abhaya was the follower of a rival teacher, and he was sent to try to entrap the Buddha. He was to ask whether the Buddha would say words that were disagreeable to others. If the Buddha were to say he would say things that were disagreeable, then he would be accused of acting just like ordinary, unenlightened people. If he were to say he wouldn’t, then it would be pointed out that his words had in fact caused others to be upset. This was described as a “two-pronged question.” “When Gotama the contemplative is asked this two-pronged question by you,” Abhaya is told, “he won’t be able to swallow it down or spit it up.”

Of course the Buddha has no difficulty in avoiding this trap, and he turns the “two-pronged” metaphor to his advantage.

Now at that time a baby boy was lying face-up on the prince’s lap. So the Blessed One said to the prince, “What do you think, prince: If this young boy, through your own negligence or that of the nurse, were to take a stick or a piece of gravel into its mouth, what would you do?”

“I would take it out, lord. If I couldn’t get it out right away, then holding its head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have sympathy for the young boy.”

So the Buddha leads Abhaya to recognize that it’s acceptable to cause pain in the short term if you want to save someone from long-yerm harm. And he goes on to say that:

In the case of words that the Tathagata [i.e. the Buddha] knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

And those are the only circumstances under which the Buddha would say something that he knew to be disagreeable.

So this is quite a tough order. What you say has to be true — not just your opinion, but actually true. This requires a great deal of mental clarity. What you say has to be beneficial — which implies that you have a good understanding of psychology and of the spiritual path, otherwise how can you know what it helpful? And you have to have an awareness of what’s the right time to say what needs to be said. This requires some empathy.

I don’t think it’s wise to say, though, that honest but critical communication should be avoided until we’ve attained some kind of near-superhuman state of wisdom. How do we learn when it’s beneficial and timely to tell the truth? How do we clarify whether we’re actually in possession of the truth? We learn by speaking, with as much courage, honesty, kindness, and wisdom as we can muster, and by reflecting on the consequences.

So ask yourself, “Am I avoiding conflict and calling it compassion? Am I afraid to be honest because I might end up being disliked? Am I letting people off the hook too easily? Am I setting myself up for resentment?” And if any of these is the case, muster your courage, and speak up, even if you make mistakes. The spiritual path is, as I like to say, the fine art of making mistakes.

Eventually this all becomes spontaneous. And in fact when the Buddha has done explaining the circumstances under which it’s skillful to say something disagreeable, he goes on to talk about the spontaneous nature of his communication. Those who are most genuinely compassionate don’t think in terms of “being compassionate.” Expressing themselves honestly and with empathy is just what they do.

So be wary of trying to be compassionate in a self-conscious way. The more you do this, the more likely it is that you’re being a compassionate idiot.

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

Read More

Developing compassion: instructions from an ancient source, plus commentary (Day 32)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

So far I’ve just been advising people to do the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice while bearing in mind the sufferings of others, but karuna bhavana (the development of compassion) is a practice in its own right. I thought I’d take an opportunity to geek out by looking at an early source of instruction on this practice.

The “Path of Liberation” (Vimuttimagga) by Upatissa is the oldest meditation manual that I know about. It was probably written in the 1st century, several hundred years after the Buddha’s death. It’s from India, but the text has only survived in Chinese translation.

The scriptures of the Pali canon, which contain records of the Buddha’s teachings, were written down a few hundred years earlier, but they don’t contain any coherent and structured guides to this meditation practice. The Buddha is recorded in those earlier scriptures as saying, for example, that we should cultivate lovingkindness and compassion, but there’s little detail as to how. For those of us familiar with the various stages (self, friend, neutral person, etc.) into which lovingkindness and compassion meditations are divided, there’s none of that to be found in the Buddha’s teachings.

That doesn’t mean that the forms we’ve learned are wrong. Maybe what we do was taught or practiced in the Buddha’s day, but wasn’t written down (or memorized in a formal way) for some reason. Or perhaps the techniques evolved and were improved upon, as generations of meditators continued to explore these practices. No one knows.

But I thought it would be interesting to show how the Upatissa presented the development of compassion, and to offer a little commentary.

Based on the Vimuttimagga, the Karuna Bhavana practice is as follows:

  1. We cultivate lovingkindness (or compassion) for ourselves.
  2. We cultivate compassion for someone we think of as suffering.
  3. We cultivate compassion for a neutral person.
  4. We cultivate compassion for a person we have difficulty with.
  5. We extend our compassion to all beings.

So there are five stages here. Now let’s look at what the Vimuttimagga says about developing compassion.


So the title is “The Immeasurable Thought of Compassion.” The four practices of which compassion is a part are collectively called the “immeasurables,” because the mind imbued with these qualities embraces all beings. It’s not that we literally feel love for each individual being, but that the mind itself is completely filled with lovingkindness, compassion, etc., and that any being we encounter or think of is met with kindness and compassion.

I don’t know what’s being translated as “thought” in the title above, but compassion is much more than a thought, although reflection is used to help us contact and develop our compassion. Compassion is more a volition or intention than either a thought or an emotion.

Q. What is compassion? What is the practising of it? What are its salient characteristic, function and manifestation? What are its benefits? What is the procedure?

A. As parents who on seeing the suffering of their dear and only child, compassionate it, saying, ” O, how it suffers!”, so one compassionates all beings. This is compassion. One dwells undisturbed in compassion — this is called the practising of it. The non-manifestation of non-advantage is its salient characteristic. Happiness is its function. Harmlessness is its manifestation. Its benefits are equal to those of loving-kindness.

This is a typical commentarial device — breaking a subject area down into manageable units in order to provide a comprehensive definition from various angles.

The definition of compassion is very interesting: “As parents who on seeing the suffering of their dear and only child, compassionate it, saying, ” O, how it suffers!”, so one compassionates all beings. This is compassion.” This is reminiscent of the teaching in the Buddha’s Metta Sutta:

Just as with her own life
A mother shields from hurt
Her own son, her only child,
Let all-embracing thoughts
For all beings be yours.

“Compassionate” here is an archaic verb meaning simply “to have compassion for.”

The illustration suggests that compassion is something very natural. We already have compassion for children and others close to us, and so what we need to do is to extend that to others.

“One dwells undisturbed in compassion — this is called the practising of it.” We just need to practice! It’s just like any other form of exercise — you develop the faculty by “dwelling” in it. By connecting with our innate wish that beings be free from suffering, and by dwelling upon that volition, it becomes a stronger part of our character. We can cultivate compassion in everyday life, of course, but our efforts will always be interrupted. In meditation our exercising of compassion is relatively “undisturbed,” giving us time to really “work out” our “compassion muscles.”

“The non-manifestation of non-advantage is its salient characteristic.” I think “non-manifestation simply means “not doing” and “non-advantage” means “hindering” or “blocking.” So the salient characteristic of compassion is that we don’t make life hard for others, which is what we tend to do a lot of the time, don’t we?

“Happiness is its function.” I rarely find the karuna bhavana practice, unlike metta bhavana, to be joyful! Perhaps what’s meant here is that we help others to be happy? Or maybe “happiness” is a poor translation of “non-suffering”? I’m really not sure. The “function” given in the Vimuttimagga for lovingkindness is “the thought of lovingkindness,” which isn’t terribly helpful. “Non-fear” is the function of mudita, or appreciative joy. I find it hard to see a pattern here. Buddhaghosa, five hundred years later, has “Its [i.e. compassion’s] function resides in not bearing others’ suffering.” By this he means that we don’t ignore other’s suffering. We don’t just go, “Suffering? Meh!” We are actually concerned to relieve suffering. Maybe something got lost in translation from Pali (or maybe it was Sanskrit — we don’t know the original language) to Chinese to English.

“Harmlessness is its manifestation.” This is much clearer. Harmlessness is more often called “non-harm” (ahimsa). When we’re compassionate we don’t intentionally cause harm, or even act in ways that obstruct others’ happiness.

What is the procedure ? The new yogin [meditator] enters into a place of solitude and sits down with mind collected and undisturbed. If he sees or hears of a person stricken with disease, or a person affected by decay, or a person who is full of greed, he considers thus: “That person is stricken with suffering. How will he escape suffering?”.

Now we get onto the details of practice.

You may notice that there’s no “self-compassion” stage! There’s not even a self-metta stage. We just plunge straight in. Or so it would seem. But Upatissa has just explained the lovingkindness practice, which is very detailed, and says at the end of the guidelines for practicing compassion that “the rest is as was fully taught above,” so I’m assuming he was just giving brief instructions here, and that self-metta (or self-compassion) is meant to be cultivated.

So when he says that the meditator sits “with mind collected and undisturbed,” I take it that this is a reference back to the lovingkindness instructions, where he presents a long list of things that the meditator should wish for at the start of the metta bhavana practice, including,

One should wish to be endowed with tranquillity, to be free from hatred, to be endowed with all merits and to gain good advantages. One should wish to gain a good reward, a good name, to gain confidence, to gain happiness, to be endowed with virtue, knowledge, liberality and wisdom. One should wish for happy sleep and happy awaking. One should wish to have no evil dreams.

So this is a very extended and detailed form of “May I be well; may I be happy” etc. Basically it’s self-metta, or even self-compassion.

Upatissa skips the “dear friend” stage, and this time I don’t think it’s because the practice instructions are abbreviated. My sense of Upatissa’s thinking in skipping the “friend” stage is that in the metta bhavana practice we have the friend as the person for whom we (should) naturally have metta, while the suffering person is someone for whom we (should) naturally feel compassion.

And again, if he sees or hears of a person of perverted mind and bound with the defilements, or a person entering into ignorance, or one, who, having done merit in the past does not now train himself, he considers thus: “That person is stricken with suffering; he will fare ill. How will he escape suffering?”.

Then we have the “suffering person” stage, where we call to mind someone who is obviously suffering, physically or mentally, and develop the thought for them: “That person is stricken with suffering. How will he escape suffering?”

So we’re wishing that this person be free from suffering. This includes all kinds of suffering, not just the more obvious things like sickness, bereavement, etc.

And again, if he sees or hears of a person who follows demeritorious doctrines and does not follow meritorious doctrines, or of a person who follows undesirable doctrines and does not follow desirable doctrines, he considers thus: “That person is stricken with suffering; he will fare ill. How will he escape suffering?”.

Wishing for the welfare of those who follow demeritorious doctrines would have been important for a monk, since by the time Upatissa was writing, Buddhism had splintered into many competing sects. And although Buddhists are (ahem!) not supposed to have ill will for those with differing views, it’s inevitable that this is going to happen.

Our equivalent would be those with different political views. It’s natural that we will feel threatened or angered by people having differing views, but we can combat this by contemplating how those views might lead to suffering. And if they don’t lead to suffering, why are we so bothered about them?

That yogin by these means and through these activities develops the thought of compassion for these persons and repeats it. Having by these means and through these activities developed the thought of compassion and repeated it, he makes his mind pliant, and capable of bearing the object. Thereafter he gradually develops (compassion) for an indifferent person and an enemy. The rest is as was fully taught above. Thus he fills the four directions.

So this is rather interesting. It’s by cultivating the volition of compassion for the four people who have been in the practice that we get to the point where the mind is “capable of bearing the object.” So the object is “all beings.” We’ve been practicing cultivating compassion for beings who are suffering and for whom we naturally would feel compassion, for those whose suffering we’d normally ignore, and for those whose suffering we might normally wish for! This gives the mind “pliancy” and allows us to meet any individual with a mind imbued with compassion.

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

Read More

What is suffering? (Day 31)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

In cultivating compassion we’re responding, with kindness, to the suffering we encounter in life — especially others’ suffering. And the essence of compassion is wishing that beings be free from suffering.

But what do we mean by suffering?

There’s an unfortunate tendency for us to think of suffering in grand terms: the person with terminal cancer or a broken leg, the refugee, the starving child in a third world country. So suffering seems to be a special event. But actually, all beings suffer. We all suffer, every day.

  • When you’re worrying what people think about you, you’re suffering.
  • When you feel resentful, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re impatient, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re embarrassed, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re irritated, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re feeling sad, you’re suffering.
  • When you have regrets, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re jealous, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re bored, you’re suffering.

If you look closely at your mental states over the course of any given day, you’ll probably notice that you spend a lot of time dipping in and out of suffering of one sort of another.

And if you look around you at the people you see, it’s a fair bet that at that moment half of them are suffering right at that moment. How many of them are showing signs of being happy?

We tend to ignore our own suffering, and often don’t recognize it in others either. But why? One reason might be that we take our suffering for granted, and another might be that we get caught up in the stories we tell ourselves. When you’re working on your computer and the machine is running more slowly than you want, you probably feel frustrated. You probably don’t say “I’m suffering, let me have compassion for myself.” You’re probably to busy saying “This computer’s too damn slow!” So you’re caught up in the plot-line of this all being the fault of the computer, and you just take for granted that it’s the computer that’s making you feel bad. You might not assume that you could feel any other way.

When someone else is suffering, we often get caught up in the story lines there as well. When you’re with someone who’s in a bad mood, how often you think, “Ah, this person’s suffering. What can I do to ease her pain?” You probably think something more like, “Jeez, she got out of bed on the wrong side this morning! I’d better steer clear.” We’ll often think of this person’s situation purely in terms of how it affects us. We probably don’t even think of this person as suffering, most times. We might be brusque or obstructive with them, and end up adding to their suffering.

So I’d suggest, as you observe your own experience and notice what’s going on with others around you, that you become more mindful of all the small ways in which we suffer pain.

And if you can keep your awareness in your heart, keep the lovingkindness phrases running through your mind, drop the stories, and see if you can respond to this widespread suffering with compassion.

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

Read More

Avoiding cruelty, the “far enemy” of compassion (Day 30)

Cute sheep looking directly into the camera. Who would want to eat this lovely person?

Yesterday I wrote about the complexities of the “near enemy” of compassion, which is the grief that arises from attachment. So we might feel bad when we see someone suffering, but not actually have any empathy for them. That’s not compassion. It’s “grief” at having our normal experience disrupted by someone who’s inconsiderate enough to suffer. Or we may spiral into despair and sorrow (which is called “failed compassion”) because we’re unable to bear the discomfort of knowing someone is suffering. This is all rather tricky for people to get hold of, sometimes, and it’s potentially undermining because we can end up doubting, in an unhelpful, self-hating kind of a way, whether our compassion is real. (Don’t worry. Just keep on going with the practice and things will sort themselves out.)

Cruelty, the opposite or “far enemy” of compassion, might seem to be more straightforward. But I’m not sure it always is!

The straightforward side of cruelty is deliberately causing physical pain to others. Now of course when we’re children we often just don’t understand that small creatures you’re tormenting are actually experiencing pain. We just see the worm writhing and think it’s funny. And we may need to be taught that what seems like fun for us isn’t fun for the other; that the other creature’s pain is as real to it as ours is to us. And with that leap, empathy is born.

There are a few places in the early Buddhist teachings where the Buddha helps children to become aware of their cruelty. One time he came across a crowd of boys who were fishing, and he simply asked them “Boys, do you fear pain? Do you dislike pain?” Of course the boys did. And the Buddha points out, in the Dhammapada, the empathic basis of non-cruelty: “All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”

So this brings up the question of vegetarianism. If you eat meat you’re either killing or you cause another to kill. An animal has to die. So you might not think it’s cruel to eat meat, but a lot of cruelty has gone into bringing the meat to your lips. The Buddha didn’t force his monks and nuns to be vegetarian, but remember that the monks and nuns lived by seeking offerings of food as they went door to door. And although we think of India now as being largely a vegetarian country, it certainly wasn’t at that time; there are plenty of references in the Buddhist scriptures to butchers, and to cows being slaughtered (cows that Hindus now consider sacred). So imagine living by begging from door to door, accepting what’s put in your bowl, and remaining vegetarian. It wouldn’t be easy. And as confirmation of this, the early Buddhists saw vegetarianism as an ascetic practice, along with wearing cast-off rags and sleeping under trees. To be a vegetarian monk would have meant risking malnutrition and illness.

But I presume you’re not a monk and don’t live by begging from door to door. You do have a choice about what you eat, and you can choose to eat food that involves less cruelty. In fact I’ve been a vegan (again!) for the last four months, because there’s a lot of killing and pain involved in the dairy and egg industries, and I’d like to contribute less to that.

People get very attached to eating meat, and this attachment makes them indifferent to suffering.

But there’s a lot of cruelty involved in our lives in subtler ways. Not all cruelty is to do with causing physical pain or taking life. Cruelty is, fundamentally, the desire to make others feel pain (even emotional pain) or to deny them happiness.

So there’s a simple question you can ask yourself in your interactions with others, or when you’re thinking about them: am I trying to block another’s happiness or to make them feel bad?

Listen to your thoughts and words, and see how often you blame others for things that have gone wrong. We often want to make people feel bad.

Listen to the jokes and put-downs you make at others’ expense, or even at your own expense. (We can be cruel to ourselves, too).

How often do we rain on someone’s parade when they’re really excited about something?

How often does our ego prompt us to be obstructive: someone at work has an idea, and we immediately switch to fault-finding and obstructionism. It can be laziness or being unwilling to change on our part that leads to us acting in this way, or it may be that we don’t want the other person to get any credit, but we can take positive pleasure in stopping people from seeking happiness and satisfaction.

How often do we “blame the victim” or feel judgmental when someone’s suffering and their own actions contributed to their pain?

We tend to believe that punishment — the infliction of suffering in order to modify behavior — is a necessary part of everyday life, especially when it comes to children. Many people still hit their children, which I find incredible. And yet the most effective trainers of animals show us that punishment is totally counter-productive to getting the behavior you desire. Rewards work much better — and rewards can just be a “good job” or a “Thank you, I appreciate what you just did.”

So watch out for how you think and talk and behave. You can always backtrack, apologize, try again with more kindness. You can make cruelty less likely to arise by keeping the metta phrases (“May you be well; may you be happy”) running through your mind during the day. You can keep bringing your awareness to your heart as you go about your life and especially as you encounter people. And make sure that you’re not unkind to yourself as you become more aware of the small cruelties embedded in the way you behave, speak, and think. Be compassionate to yourself, for the most common target of our cruelty may well be ourselves.

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

Read More

Cultivating self-compassion (Day 29)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The other week I was walking to work after it had rained hard all night. The sidewalks and roads were covered with worms, who like to migrate when the weather is wet (no, it’s not because they would drown in their tunnels).

Now, almost exactly twenty years ago I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t walk past a worm without moving it to safety. Why? Well, I just don’t like the way I feel when I ignore another’s suffering, even if the other is a slimy invertebrate. And the sun was out, the sidewalks were starting to dry out, and it was obvious that many of these worms were going to die.

So every few feet I would stoop, scoop up a worm with a dried grass stalk, and move it to a grassy area. (I don’t generally use my fingers because I keep thinking how painfully hot and dry I must feel to a worm.)

There were so many worms out that as I carried one a few feet to safety I’d pass several more. And so I’d go back and rescue them as well.

It was fun at first, although after a while I started to feel a bit antsy. This was all taking a long time: stoop, scoop, move, return; stoop, scoop, move, return. My bit of dried grass kept breaking and I’d have to get a new one. Then it was back stoop, scoop, move, return. I had a lot of work to do, and I really wanted to get to the office. What to do?

Well, I could have decided to just bail, but I’d made a promise — never walk past a stranded worm without rescuing it. So what I did was this: I became aware of my restlessness and my anxiety to get to work, and I thought, “OK, you’re suffering too, just like they’re suffering.” And I embraced my suffering with a compassionate awareness, and kept on picking up worms and ferrying them to safety: stoop, scoop, move, return.

  • I felt my suffering as a knot in the belly.
  • I recognized that it was suffering — often we’re so caught up in the thoughts (things like “I”m late, I have to get to work”) that we lose sight of the fact that we’re actually in pain.
  • I turned a “kindly gaze” toward my suffering.
  • I accepted that it’s OK to suffer (often we react to our suffering and try to push it away).
  • I wished my suffering well, sending it love in much the same way I would comfort a sick child.

I spell this out (my approach to self-compassion, rather than the specifics of worm-rescue) in case it might be useful to you as you’re developing compassion. When we consider another’s suffering, it induces a sense of discomfort in us. It may be an ache in the heart, or some uncomfortable feeling in the belly. And often we’ll react to this by assuming that something’s wrong. There’s no need to do that. It’s OK to feel discomfort.

So feel your discomfort. Recognize that this is suffering. Give the suffering your love.

Don’t wallow! Wallowing is when the mind creates more suffering by telling stories about how awful this is, how inadequate we are, how we can’t bear these feelings, etc. Let go of all of that thinking, over and over, whenever it arises. Just keep coming back to an awareness of the suffering being, accept your own heart-ache, and embrace both sets of suffering with love and kindness.

In my “worm walk” I sensed the arising of wallowing thoughts. I realized that the number of worms I encountered would vary depending on my path to work. I was coming across many dozens of worms, but I was missing many others. The whole town was covered with worms! Maybe I should try to recue all the worms! And realizing that this was impossible, the thought “I should give up” briefly crossed my mind.

But these thoughts just skirted the fringes of my consciousness, and I let go of them before they could take root. Focusing on rescuing the worms, and having compassion for my suffering, were enough to keep this kind of unhelpful thinking at bay. I can’t save all the worms, or all the anybody. I can’t be superhuman. But I can be in the moment, mindfully and compassionately, and do some good.

Interestingly, the early Buddhist tradition doesn’t say much, if anything, about self-compassion. The Buddha did say that we should protect our own minds (against unskillful mental states) and that in doing do we protect others. And we protect the mind both through mindfulness, and through imbuing our awareness in lovingkindness and compassion.

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.

The Buddha also made the point that we shouldn’t think in terms of there being a “me” to suffer. All he says is, “there is suffering.” So this implies that we should treat “our” suffering (which we shouldn’t, ultimately, think of as ours at all) in the same way as we would treat the suffering of others; we respond with kindness and compassion.

Sometimes you’ll find that you have to spend a long time dealing with your own suffering, and embracing it in a kindly and compassionate awareness. That’s OK, and that can just be how things are. But try not to get stuck on this. It’s perfectly possible to recognize that you’re suffering, and that another person is suffering, and to embrace this joint suffering compassionately. And in fact the recognition that just as you suffer, so do others can help you put your own discomfort into perspective, and perhaps you’ll realize it’s not such a big deal after all.

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

Read More

Sorrow is failed compassion (Day 28)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’ve had more people asking me about the “near enemy” of compassion. So here goes…

The “near enemy” is, by definition, something you might confuse with compassion. You might think you were cultivating compassion but were actually cultivating something else, in the same way that you might water and care for a weed, thinking it’s a useful plant. The “far enemy” is quite straightforward. It’s cruelty, or indifference to suffering, which is just the direct opposite of compassion. That’s easy to understand. But what is compassion’s “near enemy”?

People often use the word “pity” to describe the near enemy, but the traditional commentaries use the word “grief.” Compassion is also said to fail when it becomes sorrow, and that also seems related to the notion of the near enemy, since grief and sorrow and virtual synonyms. I’m going to point to three things that I think can be the near enemies of compassion.

But first, as a reminder:

Metta, or lovingkindness, is the desire of bringing that which is welfare and good to oneself and others. Compassion is the desire to remove suffering, especially from others.

1. Your suffering’s making me feel bad, dammit!
Now, grief is a sense of loss. We can be attached to our own “normal” state of mind and find it unpleasant to have that interrupted by seeing someone suffering. We experience the “grief” of losing our normal sense of ourselves — even our normal ego-centric sense of ourselves — taken away from us.

So we see someone suffering, and it’s unpleasant. Now we’re suffering too! Now we may just turn away, or we may want their suffering to stop and in doing so think that we’re being compassionate. But we want the other person’s suffering to stop because we want to stop our own suffering. We really just want to remove an obstacle to our own happiness! There’s no real empathy. No real recognition of the other’s suffering. There’s just our own pain, which we want to get rid of. So this is very self-focused and it’s essentially egotistical pseudo-compassion.

We can’t empathize with others unless we empathize with our own suffering, so we need to connect with our own vulnerability, which is something I’ve talked about in relation to compassion, and with lovingkindness. I wouldn’t recommend going into compassion meditation “cold.” We should always start by acknowledging that we suffer.

Another form of this may be when we feel the heart-ache of considering another person’s suffering. This heart-ache is completely normal. It’s just a deep-rooted response to pain in another person. But it’s uncomfortable, and we may not be very good at dealing with discomfort. You know what it’s like when you have a cold or some other minor ailment, and you find yourself wallowing, telling yourself (and anyone who’ll listen) about how awful it all is? And it ends up that 95% of your suffering is actually caused by your reaction to the cold, not to the cold itself? Well, that can happen with developing compassion as well. We move from the heart-ache of being aware of someone’s suffering, to going on about how awful everything is.

We can’t empathize with others unless we empathize with our own suffering, but we also can’t empathize with others’ suffering if we’re not able to accept our own. We need to learn to become comfortable with discomfort, otherwise the heart-ache of compassion turns into a wallow-fest that’s all about me, me, me.

2. Stop samsara, I want to get off!
Another way attachment can get in the way of compassion is when we get despondent (i.e. we experience sorrow, which is failed compassion). So we might be aware of someone’s suffering, and we get overwhelmed. Maybe we try to cultivate compassion for a friend who has terminal cancer, and we feel dreadful because we’d like to help but can’t. There’s attachment to the idea that we should be able to make things OK. We can’t accept that there are things we can’t fix.

Or the mind takes this one step further, and we start thinking not just about our friend, but about all the other people who have cancer, and maybe other terminal diseases as well. Now we get despondent because there’s so much suffering in the world, and we can’t fix it! So we feel terrible. But compassion isn’t about saving the world, because none of us can do that. We can and should act where we can, but it’s just going to make us suffer if we’re attached to being a “savior” and think that we should be able to help everyone.

As they say, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There’s grief and sorrow when we don’t know the difference.

This very much connects with the Buddha’s teaching about the “two arrows” of suffering:

Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.”

The first arrow here is simply the heart-ache of sensing someone’s suffering. Sure, it’s uncomfortable to consider someone’s suffering. But how do we deal with the discomfort of compassion? The second arrow is the reactions I’ve described above, where we “sorrow, grieve, and lament” about the fact that we or others suffer.

The Buddha called wallowing a “bottomless pit” of pain, because we generate pain in response to pain. It’s bottomless because there’s no end to that. But this wallowing is not necessary. “When a well-taught noble disciple is afflicted by painful bodily feelings,” the Buddha says, “she will not worry nor grieve and lament, she will not beat her breast and weep, nor will she be distraught.” And thus she becomes one “who can withstand the bottomless pit and has gained a foothold in it.”

We can learn to bear suffering mindfully, without reacting. We can practice being aware of suffering, and beaing aware of — and letting go of — our thoughts and reactions to suffering. We just let the suffering be there. It’s OK to feel discomfort. Over time we become better at experiencing the first arrow without adding a second.

3. Poor you!
And maybe related to this is a sense of superiority, where we’re feeling good about ourselves in relation to all these “poor souls” out there that aren’t as “sorted” as we are. So that is “pity” in that we feel superior. But here the grief is hidden, because we’re probably having a blast thinking of ourselves as being so wonderful and benevolent. The grief comes later, when the people we’re so “benevolently” helping tell us how arrogant and out-of-touch we are, for example. This is what the Buddha called the “suffering of reversal.”

The cure again here is acknowledging our own vulnerability. You want to be happy. You don’t want to suffer. And yet over and over again you encounter suffering when you hadn’t expected it. Suffering sideswipes you. So you’re not in control. You’re not “sorted.” You’re struggling, like everyone else. Compassion doesn’t make us superior. Bearing this in mind helps keep us real.

Doubt is deadly! People are always looking for excuses to think that they might, secretly, be doing a meditation practice wrong. So I feel compassionate, but maybe it’s not real! Just keep going. If you feel despairing, then that’s probably a sign you’ve tipped over into “grief” or “sorrow.” If you just have an ache in the heart then that’s probably just the “first arrow,” which is an unavoidable part of the practice.

All of the above are simply things we have to work through, so don’t beat yourself up or despair. But maybe if we learn about these unhelpful patterns we can recognize them a bit earlier.

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

Read More

Compassion is inherent to us all (Day 27)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Talking about cultivating or developing compassion can have the unfortunate side-effect of giving us the idea that compassion is something we don’t have, and need to create. Actually, the words cultivate and develop are meant to imply that we already have compassion as a natural attribute, and that what we need to do is to connect with this innate compassion and make it stronger. Really, karuna bhavana is “strengthening compassion.”

Compassion is part of our genetically inherited mental tool-kit. Other animals show compassion: primatologist Frans de Waal (one of my personal heroes) points out that chimpanzees take care of the sick and elderly, for example by bringing water to older females who are crippled by arthritis. The much less brainy capuchin monkey also shows empathy, and will help others when they have nothing directly to gain themselves. Even mice show the capacity for empathy.

Compassion is part of our evolutionary heritage. We may think of moral emotions as being handed down from on high (on a mountain-top, engraved on stone tablets) but actually they are to a large extent handed up from below, inscribed in our DNA.

We often take our compassion for granted, or ignore its whisperings. But it’s there all the time, even if we’re not aware of it.

Certainly, we often act in ways that are uncompassionate — even unkind or cruel (that harsh word, the judgmental thought, the unkind glare, cutting someone off in traffic) — but our uncompassionate instincts and our more compassionate ones coexist. The brain, and hence the self, is not unitary, but modular. The brain has not been designed from scratch as a smoothly functioning system, but has evolved piecemeal and is full of cooperating, competing, and antagonistic modules.

We therefore find ourselves morally divided. One part of us believes that showing dominance or anger is a valid means to find happiness or peace; if we’re aggressive, we hope, the troublesome object of our aggression will stay away from us and trouble us no more. But another part of us recognizes that conflict is painful and that compassion and kindness are more likely to lead to peace within our minds and in our world. In our everyday behavior we swing from one set of motivations to another.

So we need, sometimes, to let go of a whole layer of behavior and assumptions about how the world works, and how happiness is brought about in our lives, in order to connect with our innate compassion.

As with lovingkindness meditation, I have some simple reflections that help me reconnect with my innate ability to feel compassion.

As I’m beginning the practice of cultivating compassion, I recognize the truth of the following:

  1. I don’t want to suffer.
  2. But suffering is hard to avoid.

I drop these thoughts into the mind, and give them time to sink in. I give myself time to respond to the truth of these statements. I don’t have to make a response happen. I don’t have to think about these concepts — and in fact thinking about the concepts will get in the way os acknowledging their essential truthfulness. The response, like compassion itself, will come up from below.

These thoughts are deceptively simple. As you’re reading them, your eyes skimming the marks on this page, they may have no perceptible effect. The left brain understands the concepts, but perhaps isn’t touched by them. It’s just data. But let them sink in and the right brain can relate. These words reflect a fundamental reality of your life — something deep, primal, and moving. Be still, and let the words ripple through the space of the mind and see what happens. Listen.

Often the response is in the form of a mild heart ache, a tenderness in the center of the chest. This feeling of tender vulnerability is not something to avoid; it’s something to accept. It’s the stirring of compassion within the heart.

Wildmind is a community-supported meditation initiative

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Click here to find out about the many benefits of being a sponsor.

When I reflect in this way I recognize something I often overlook because it’s so obvious. Life is a difficult thing to do. We want happiness but keep stumbling into suffering instead. This being human is a hard thing.

And having let these thoughts drop into the heart, and having felt the heart’s response, I let the part of me that wishes me well speak. I strengthen the innate compassion that’s been revealed by dropping phrases into the mind, just as I do in lovingkindness practice.

There are other traditional phrases that you can use, like

  • May I be free from hostility
  • May I be free from affliction
  • May I be free from suffering
  • May I live happily.

The exactly wording of the phrases doesn’t matter too much, but they have to be meaningful for you, short enough to remember, and said with sincerity.

You can just use phrases like “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering.” At the same time you are aware of the fact that you suffer. You don’t have to think about this or dwell upon it. You just have an awareness of this fact in the back of your mind. It’s like if you’re talking to a friend and you know they’re going away for a few weeks and this is the last time you’re going to see them for a while; you don’t need to keep saying to yourself “My friend is going away. My friend is going away.” Instead, you just get on with your conversation, and in the back of your mind you know the truth of the situation. And that truth affects everything you say. Similarly, having established that you don’t want to suffer, and yet to, everything you say to yourself is touched by that awareness. You get on with having a conversation with yourself — a conversation that turns the heart to kindness and compassion.

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

Read More

Cultivating compassion (Day 26)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

There are four related dimensions of lovingkindness, together called the “divine abidings,” or Brahmaviharas. These four are (1) lovingkindness itself, (2) compassion, (3) appreciation, and (4) even-minded love. I devoted the first quarter of our 100 Days to lovingkindness, and I’m going to write about compassion, the second of these practices, for the second quarter.

The meditation of cultivating compassion is called karuna bhavana. Karuna is compassion, and bhavana means “development” or “cultivation.”

Metta, or lovingkindness, is the desire of bringing that which is welfare and good to oneself and others. Compassion is the desire to remove suffering, especially from others.

The Vimuttimagga, a very early meditation manual dating from just a few centuries after the Buddha’s death, says:

As parents who on seeing the suffering of their dear and only child, feel compassion for it, saying, ” O, how it suffers!”, so one feels compassion for all beings. This is compassion.

The example of a suffering child is very down-to-earth, and it reminds us that compassion is a fundamental capacity that we have as human beings. We’d benefit from having more of it, so it’s to be cultivated.

The word “karuna” comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to make or do” and so it has an active quality. You don’t just see your kid being sick and experience an emotion. You do something about it. Karuna has been termed “holy action.”

If you’ve done lovingkindness meditation then you’ll almost certainly have slipped into cultivating compassion as well, so this meditation won’t be particularly foreign to you. Compassion is simply what arises when a mind imbued with lovingkindness meets suffering. We want others to be happy; they are suffering; therefore we want them to be free from suffering, and to relieve their suffering if we can. And I’m sure it will have occurred to you, while you were cultivating lovingkindness, that a person you had in mind was suffering. Therefore, you’re already familiar with cultivating compassion.

In fact the phrases I was taught to use for cultivating lovingkindness were “May I (or you, or all beings) be well … happy … free from suffering.” These days I try to keep a bit more separation between the two practices, so I’m more inclined to say “May I (or you, or all beings) be well … happy … at ease.” But it’s not a big deal if the karuna bhavana and the metta bhavana melt into each other a little.

Compassion shouldn’t be a depressing experience. When it does seem depressing, it’s likely that what we’re doing is responding to suffering in an unhelpful way. The Visudhimagga, a meditation manual a few centuries more recent than the Vimuttimagga (I know, the similar names are confusing!), talks about compassion having a “near enemy.” The near enemy is a quality that can be confused with the genuine article. By way of comparison, if you’re selling Gucci purses your real competition is not purses sold in Target, but fake Gucci purses that devalue your brand. So the danger is that we cultivate the near enemy, thinking it’s compassion, when actually it isn’t. This near enemy is often described as “pity,” but the Visudhimagga has it as “grief.” Specifically it’s the grief that comes from “the household life.”

What does this mean? The Visuddhimagga makes it clear that the “grief of the household life” doesn’t have anything literally to do with households at all. What it refers to is the grief, or suffering, of not having what you want. How I interpret this is that we are aware of others’ suffering, and we do want that suffering to end, but the reason we want it to end is because it’s uncomfortable for us, not because it’s uncomfortable for them. You turn on the TV news, and there are scenes of disaster from around the globe. And it feels bad. Maybe you’ll give some money to the Red Cross to help, or maybe you’ll just feel bad. Maybe you’ll change the channel to avoid feeling bad. But this isn’t genuine compassion because you’re not really feeling for the other people. You’re attached to your normal range of mental states, and now you’ve lost those, because of these poor people. You’re feeling the loss of your own happiness and wellbeing. This can feel rather heavy, especially if you get into feeling guilty or despairing.

I used to see this a lot when I trained as a veterinary surgeon. People would come in with a beloved pet dog that had been in a car accident and needed an amputation. Now a dog can get around perfectly well on three legs, and often the dog would be standing there, just after its accident, with a mangled, bloodied leg and its tail wagging. Even then, having just experienced trauma, the animal was very resilient. But the owners would be so overcome by the trauma of having a mangled dog — their own trauma — that they’d insist on having it put down. They’d say they were putting the dog out of its misery, but actually they were putting the dog out of their own misery.

Compassion actually recognizes that others are suffering. I’m not saying it can’t be heavy, just that it’s not an response that makes you feel crushed and helpless. But as the Visuddhimagga says, compassion “fails when it produces sorrow.” Compassion may lead to an ache in the heart, but it’s not sorrowful.

The “far enemy” of compassion is cruelty, and I think cruelty is often a way of keeping “grief” at bay. If you deride those who are suffering, then you don’t have to admit to your own vulnerability.

In future posts I’ll say more about the practice specifically, but for now, just see if, in your lovingkindness practice, you can be a bit more aware of your own and others’ suffering.

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

Read More

Lovingkindness as a path to awakening (Day 25)

Stone carved with a mantra, which has been painted in red.

The Buddha is recorded as having said:

For one who mindfully develops
Boundless loving-kindness
Seeing the destruction of clinging,
The fetters are worn away.

If with an uncorrupted mind
He pervades just one being
With loving kindly thoughts,
He makes some merit thereby.

But a noble one produces
An abundance of merit
By having a compassionate mind
Towards all living beings.

The “fetters” are mental habits that hold us back from attaining enlightenment. Lovingkindness practice, the Buddha is saying, wears away these fetters. So lovingkindness practice helps us become enlightened.

The way I think of the Buddhist path of practice these days is that it’s all about “un-selfing.” Normally we are “selfing” all the time — “selfing” being a rendering of “ahamkara,” which literally means “I-making.” Every time we experience craving or aversion, we are creating, from an essentially undifferentiated mass of experience, a sense of a separate self. We have a mass of undifferentiated experience, and some of those experiences we have aversion towards, or try to push away. In the act of pushing, there is a sense that we are pushing them away from “us.” And so there’s a reinforcement of the sense of “I.” I don’t like this. I don’t want this. Similarly, with craving there is some experience that is clung to, held onto. And in the act of clinging or holding there is a reinforcement that there is this thing called “me” that is appropriating the experience. I like this. I want this.

All practice helps us to “un-self.” Lovingkindness “unselfs.” When we’re experiencing kindness we’re not capable of experiencing ill will or craving. Our ill will and craving, not being exercised, become weaker. “The fetters are worn away.”

Lovingkindness practice also helps us to do more “we-ing” (and I apologize for the infantile sound of that term, but I also hope it brings a smile). When we’re “we-ing” we’re not selfing. In lovingkindness practice we recognize that all beings are like ourselves. We all want to be happy; we all find happiness elusive. And knowing this to be true, we feel less inclined to obstruct others happiness, and want to assist others in finding happiness if we can. Our concerns move from being all “in here” (how can I be happy) and move “out there” (how can we, or they, be happy). We become kinder.

In the final stage of the practice, having a compassionate mind towards all living beings, there is an emphasis on spaciousness, as I’ve explained in the last two posts.

In the approach that the Buddha seems to have taught, we become aware of each of the directions, and we pervade each with lovingkindness. What I’ll tend to do in this stage of the practice is to become aware of the actual space around me. I’ll notice the the light, the space, and the sound. I’ll notice sounds in particular in a non-reactive way, simply allowing them to exist. I don’t try to hold onto sounds, nor do I try to push them away. This in itself is a form of unselfing, since craving and aversion are being dropped. And I’m aware that there are living beings in the space I’m aware of (both in the physical space I’m attending to and in the mental space of my mind, in the form of memories or imagination). And I’m wishing them well. The space I’m perceiving is pervaded with kindness, because my mind is pervaded with kindness.

But noticing the space and sound in particular contribute to a sense that my consciousness is no longer something that’s “inside” me, but is something that extends out into the world. I can almost feel my mind filling the space around me. This is not simply imagination. All experience happens in the mind. Whether an experience is a thought or the sound of a passing jet plane, the experience happens in the mind. We perceive the thought as being “in here” and the sound of a jet being “out there” only because of a more subtle kind of selfing that divides experiences into “self” and “other.” When we simply pay attention to so-called inner and so-called outer experiences at the same time, eventually we mind puts less and less effort into making this distinction. As we pay less attention to whether our experiences are “in here” or “out there” these two concepts cease to have so much (or sometimes any) meaning.

And so there are several kinds of unselfing going on. There’s the unselfing that consists of dropping the selfing activities of craving and aversion. There’s the unselfing of “we-ing” — of seeing other beings as having the same basis needs as ourselves and, with a mind of kindness, being prepared to help them find happiness. And there’s the unselfing of no longer considering ourselves to be “in here” while the world is “out there.” We allow there to be “a mass of undifferentiated experience” that we don’t divide into a self and an other. All thought of there being a self may be lost. At first this loss is temporary, but this can become a permanent state. At this point the fetters (or at least some of them) have been broken, and the experience of awakening has begun.

So lovingkindness is not a “basic” practice. It’s one that can take us all the way.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Read More

Lovingkindness meditation: Breaking the boundaries (Day 24)

bird breaking out of its shell

Yesterday I wrote about how, in the fifth stage of the development of lovingkindness practice where we’re cultivating metta for all beings, it’s enough simply to sense the space around you and to allow that space to be filled with kindness. Your mind is filled with kindness. Your mind is aware of the space around you. And so the space you’re aware of is filled with kindness. Therefore, any creature that is in that space will be received kindly. And the same is true for any being you call to mind. You’re receiving them into kindness as they appear in your mind.

I find this helpful when it comes to the transition from focusing on one person at a time — yourself, the friend, the neutral person, the person you find difficult — to wishing many beings well.

As we move into the final stage of the lovingkindness practice we’re asked to cultivate lovingkindness equally for all four people, not favoring self over other, other over self, friend over ourselves, the neutral person, or the difficult person. And this is a step that many people find a bit awkward, because you may find that the mind is hopping from person to person.

But traditionally this step is called “breaking the bounds.” Breaking the bounds of what? In my view what we’re doing is breaking the bounds of the one-to-one relationship. Having focused on one person at a time, we’re now embracing in our kindly awareness all four people. And this is where my perspective of noticing space, and letting that space be filled with kindness, is useful, because this approach doesn’t require us to focus on one person at a time. In fact it requires us not to do this.

In making this transition what I do is move from cultivating metta for the person I find difficult to simply sensing the space of my awareness, which includes the space around me and also the “virtual space” of the mind in which images and other thoughts appear. And I sense this space with kindness.

Then I simply invite the friend, neutral person, and difficult person to be in this space, and because my awareness is imbued with kindness they are perceived kindly. I too am in the sphere of my awareness, and so I too am perceived kindly.

So I don’t have to “beam” metta to any of the four people, or to make any spacial effort to ensure that I’m wishing them all well to an equal extent. My lovingkindness is “omni-directional.” It is simply a property of my consciousness, and whoever is in this space of consciousness is held kindly. The boundaries have been broken. Kindness flows everywhere that my attention is.

And from here it’s easy to become aware, in a kindly way, of the wider space around me, and to receive all beings in that space, and beings that appear in my mind, with love — with a recognition that they are feeling beings who desire happiness and who find happiness elusive. And recognizing this I feel no desire to obstruct their happiness and wish to help them find happiness if I can.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Read More