meditation and compassion

Mudita is not “sympathetic joy”

Person kneeling in front of a giant Buddha statue in a temple

This is an extract from the introduction to my current course on Mudita, which is part of a longer series of teachings on the brahma-viharas — also known as the “immeasurables.”


The third of the Brahmaviharas, after lovingkindness and compassion, is mudita. Mudita is usually translated as sympathetic or empathetic joy, and is described as “feeling happy because others are happy.”

This is an interpretation I profoundly disagree with.

A first century text called the Path to Freedom describes the cultivation of mudita like this:

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

(Sādhu, by the way, means something like “Yay!” or “Alright!” or “Great!”)

The records we have of the Buddha’s teachings don’t define mudita, and the text above is the earliest I know of that gives us an indication of what mudita is and how it’s to be cultivated. There are several things that are significant here.

  • We’re asked to call to mind someone whose skillful qualities are developed to the point where others esteem them. Having mudita involves recognizing what’s skillful.
  • We’re not just being asked to call to mind someone who is happy, but someone who is happy (and at peace) as a result of having those skillful qualities. So when we have mudita we see the connection between skillful actions and their beneficial results.
  • Appreciation is involved. We appreciate skillful qualities, and the peace and joy they bring, as being good things.
  • Love is involved. Because we want what is good for them, we encourage this person’s future joy and happiness, by supporting, rejoicing in, and encouraging their skillfulness.
  • By valuing this other person’s skillfulness, and the peace and joy that come from it, we ourselves become joyful. So we’re cultivating a state of appreciation that’s joyful.

This all goes far, far beyond “being happy because someone is happy.” That much more mundane experience is actually fraught with spiritual difficulties, because a lot of the apparent happiness we see around us arises on the basis of unskillful actions. We shouldn’t be glad that someone is happy because they’ve just defrauded an old lady of her life savings, for example.

In summary, when we practice mudita we appreciate skillful attributes, speech, and actions, and this brings joy. And so mudita is “joyful appreciation.”

A Progression

There is a progression in the first three brahma-viharas.

Metta is kindness. We want what is best for others’ long-term happiness and well-being. We want them to be happy. We want them to feel supported and to know that they matter. We speak and act kindly, and think about others kindly as well.

Karuna, or compassion, is what happens when we want beings to be happy but are aware that they are suffering. In order for them to be happy we want to remove their suffering, or at least support them while the suffering persists.

When we have mudita we want others to be happy, but now we recognize that happiness is not something that happens randomly. The happiness we’re interested in is the kind that comes from having skillful qualities. And so, wanting beings to be happy, we recognize the skillful qualities within them that give rise to happiness, and we appreciate, rejoice in, and encourage the development of those qualities.

To have mudita we have to be able to recognize conditionality, which is the way in which certain conditions and actions give rise to suffering, while others free us from suffering. Mudita is therefore at least in part a wisdom practice.

Just as we can define compassion as metta meeting suffering, we can define mudita as metta meeting skillfulness. This meeting is a joyful experience, or at least is capable of arousing joy.

The Stages of the Mudita Practice

As with the lovingkindness and compassion practices, there are five stages in joyful appreciation meditation.

  1. We start with cultivating appreciation of ourselves, or at least establish kindness towards ourselves. This stage is not found in the earliest description of the practice, but is a healthy place to begin, given that many of us often lack appreciation of our own skillful qualities.
  2. We then call to mind a person who embodies skillful qualities and experiences peace and joy as a result.
  3. Then we do this for a relative stranger (“neutral person”).
  4. Then for person we have difficulty with.
  5. And then finally we wish that all beings develop skillful qualities and experience calm and joy as a result.

As with the compassion practice, there is no “friend” stage. The person with skillful qualities in the second stage may be a friend, or we can include friends in the final stage.

For the first few days, we’re going to focus on self-appreciation.

Today I’ve chosen an exercise from “Living With Appreciation.” It’s on “Taking time to savor the positive..” The guidance begins with a short talk and is 10 minutes long in total.

Meditation Isn’t Enough

Although mudita bhavana is a meditation practice, developing joyful appreciation is something we can and should do in daily life as well. We can recognize skillful words and actions that we encounter, and we can also be more generally appreciative — recognizing and being glad for anything whatsoever that bring benefits to us or others.

An Exercise

Today, carry around an attitude of appreciation as best you can. As you encounter others, or even just think of them, be aware that they contain the seeds of goodness. When good things happen to you, however minor they seem dwell on them appreciatively.

Bodhipaksa

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Forgiveness as a practice of compassion

A post-it note on a wooden desk, reading "sorry"

One of the emotional drivers of cruel and unkind behavior is resentment. Resentment is when we hold onto past hurt, locking ourselves into a pattern of blame. Unable to let go of the past we keep bringing up a memory of someone hurting us, betraying us, or failing to protect us. Every time we do so we experience the hurt anew. And every time we hurt ourselves we feel a renewed burst of ill will.

There’s something about this that I’d like to clear up, and that’s the misapprehension that we somehow store old emotions in the subconscious, from where they make appearances from time to time. This model dates back to Freud, at least, and is based on a model of emotion that we now know to be wrong. It’s a tempting view, however, especially given that we often, as I’ve described above, experience the hurt accompanying an old memory. But what’s actually happening, according both to Buddhist teachings on the mind and modern psychology, is that the feeling of hurt is being recreated over and over again, every time that the memory is triggered. Every time you feel the hurt, it’s a new hurt. Every time the hurt gives rise to anger or self-hatred, it’s a new emotion that you’re experiencing.

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We get trapped in cycles of resentment instinctively. It’s not exactly something we plan to do. It’s a habit we share with other animals. A favorite example of mine is crows, who develop resentment against researchers who have caged and banded them. They can maintain these attitudes—which involve scolding calls, accompanied by wing- and tail-flicking, and mobbing—for years. The signs of resentment they show spread through entire communities and can grow over time as new members of the community learn from others.

The example of the crows is a good reminder that we don’t choose to have resentment as part of our emotional make-up. It’s part of our genetic inheritance. And so it’s pointless and needlessly painful for us to blame ourselves for the mere fact of being prone to resentment.

We can also learn from the crows that resentment is about both punishment and protection. We want to punish those who have hurt us or those close to us. We want them to know they have done something unacceptable. The aim is to stop them from repeating the hurtful act. We’re trying to change their behavior. (Notice that we’re once more back to Punishment Culture.)

Resentment can be painful for those it’s directed at, but it’s certainly painful for us. In fact in many cases it causes us far more suffering than it causes the other person. There’s a saying in AA that resentment is like swallowing rat poison and waiting for the other person to die. A much older saying from the Buddhist tradition is that resentment is like picking up feces to throw it at another person; you might make them smell but the only person guaranteed to be punished is yourself.

These are useful reflections to bear in mind, because they help make resentment look less attractive. When we catch ourselves in the midst of resentful reactivity, we can help weaken the emotion by reminding ourselves of its consequences.

Forgiveness is the opposite of resentment. Forgiveness is a willingness to let go of ill will. And we can do this both because we want to stop hurting another person and because we want to stop hurting ourselves.

It can hard for us to forgive because we think that to keep ourselves safe we have to keep reminding the other person that they have transgressed so that they don’t do it again, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that this person has the capacity to hurt or harm us. For the first part of that we maybe need to ask ourselves, how much punishment is enough if we want the other person to know we’re upset that they hurt us? Do they already know? If not, will they ever? What would you need from them in order to be sure? Might you have already received it? Or received as much as you’re going to get? Is maintaining the resentment worth the pain you’re causing yourself?

It’s good to remember that you don’t need ill will to protect yourself from another person. If they have the potential to hurt you, you can simply know that, and be on the look-out for signs that they might do so. You can keep your guard up (if that’s needed) without hatred or resentment, simply by knowing. You can trust yourself on this.

However you don’t have to trust the other person. if they’re untrustworthy, remember that. Don’t give them your trust. Resentment doesn’t need to be involved.

Having talked about untrustworthy people who want to hurt or harm us, in my experience a lot of resentment is against people who have no ongoing desire to do us wrong. They may even be people we love and who love us. Especially in those cases, since loving relationships are so precious, I suggest being quick to forgive.

The self-compassion practices I’ve outlined are ideal for helping us let go of resentments:

  1. Recognize you’re causing yourself suffering.
  2. Drop the resentful story.
  3. Drop down into the body, find your pain, and accept it.
  4. Offer compassion and reassurance to the suffering part of you.

In this way you help heal the unhealed hurt, so that it ceases to ask, over and over again, to be protected by your ill will — a form of protection that can never truly protect you. Self-compassion gives our hurt the protection ill-will promises but can never deliver.

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The importance of emulation in compassion

concentric circles of bright colors

In some versions of the  lovingkindness (metta bhavana) meditation practice we start by calling to mind a benefactor — someone who has been kind to us. The significance of this is that we’re remembering what kindness is like, connecting experientially with it so that we remember what it’s like to be looked at with kind eyes, to hear kind words in a kind tone of voice, to see kind body-language, and to be on the receiving end of kind actions. This makes kindness real for us, so that we can become kinder ourselves.

The reason I think this is important is that in cultivating kindness and compassion we’re all limited, and we’re all in need of outside help in order to become less limited.

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We all have genetic and cultural conditioning that makes it hard for us to cultivate compassion. We might aspire to be kind and compassionate, and although sometimes we will succeed, we will often struggle. Sometimes we fail to notice suffering or respond compassionately to it. Sometimes we behave in ways that make people suffer. We have blind spots that prevent us from even recognizing that we are acting unkindly or harshly.

We often just don’t know how to act differently. I was brought up in a household where I didn’t witness many examples of kindness and compassion, but instead saw a lot of criticism and harshness, and where suffering was often dismissed. Those were behavioral patterns that were impressed into the substrate of my developing brain, just as they’d been impressed into my parents’ brains, and into their parents’. This kind of conditioning causes the very blind spots I was talking about.

People who had the blessings of a genuinely empathetic and compassionate upbringing have very different patterns imprinted in their neural pathways. They know what compassion looks like, sounds like, and feels like. They know how to behave when face with someone’s suffering.

Ultimately, we’re never going to figure out compassion all by ourselves. We can make a certain amount of progress on our own, but our most powerful breakthroughs and insights are likely to come from learning from other people. That learning might come from a book, course, or video, or perhaps more likely just from seeing examples of compassionate behavior in action. Witnessing compassion can be an “aha!” moment. We realize, “Oh, wow! It’s possible to act like that!” And in that way we begin to transcend the limitations of our conditioning.

So you might want to remember instances of others behaving compassionately toward you. This doesn’t have to be just in meditation. You can remember instances of forgiveness and understanding, even of someone just listening patiently to you. Repeatedly calling those memories to mind, you imprint those patterns on our neural pathways. You build the realization, Yes, I can act like that. You make it more likely that you’ll act compassionately in the future.

Compassion spreads from mind to mind through a slow virality: sometimes from parent to child, teacher to student, or friend to friend. This is why the world has, on the whole has been becoming a better place over the last few millennia. (Admittedly a pattern of progress with some ups and downs.) Compassion has been imprinting itself upon our minds.

It’s good if we remember that we are part of this process. We can be the examples of compassion that influence others, and make them realize, “Wow! It’s possible for someone to behave like that! Maybe I can do that too!”

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Can empathy be unhelpful?

Hand holding the stub of a burning candle in the upturned palm. Before long, the person's hand will burn.

One of the members of Wildmind’s community reminded me recently of an article, “The Surprising Downsides of Empathy,” that appeared on the BBC website two-and-a-half years ago.

The article says:

In recent years, researchers have found that misplaced empathy can be bad for you and others, leading to exhaustion and apathy, and preventing you from helping the very people you need to. Worse, people’s empathetic tendencies can even be harnessed to manipulate them into aggression and cruelty.

Empathy generally has a pretty good press. Most, people, although not all, would suggest that we need more empathy in the world. The hold-outs are often those who take a “tough love” approach and think that we are mollycoddling people (especially young people). I suspect, however, that many of those people are often just unkind individuals. I also think they misunderstand the nature of empathy, but since I want to write today about misunderstandings of empathy I’ll leave that there for now.

The BBC article quotes researcher Paul Bloom, who famously wrote a book called “Against Empathy” several years back. I previously commented in this blog on an article drawn from that book. One thing Bloom wrote in that article was:

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

Bloom is perfectly correct to point out the difference between empathy and compassion. The two are not the same. Empathy is a state of feeling something in response to another person’s feelings (you’re talking to someone whose child has drowned) or in response to their situation (you hear about someone whose child has drowned). Despite what the article I’m quoting states, empathy doesn’t necessarily require an act of imagination. If someone tells you their child has drowned, you will (as long as you’re not a psychopath) feel touched by their situation. You don’t, hearing that awful news, have to imagine in detail what it’s like to be in that situation.

Compassion is  the desire to help alleviate suffering. We can see the active nature of compassion in the root of the Pāli and Sansrit word karuna. This comes from the verb karoti, which means “to do.”

Empathy isn’t enough. We need compassion. But does that mean empathy is bad, or useless?

The BBC article seems to suggest that it is.

Bloom uses the example of an adult comforting a child who is terrified of a small, barking dog. The adult doesn’t need to feel the child’s fear to help. “There can be compassion for the child, a desire to make his or her distress go away, without any shared experience or empathic distress,” he writes.

So according to this, we don’t need empathy. We can just have compassion.

To Have Compassion, We Need to Have Empathy

But is that the case? Let just imagine an adult who completely lacks empathy. To them, the crying child is probably just an annoyance, and they shout at the child, terrifying it even more. This adult doesn’t understand what it’s like to be afraid. They don’t know what it’s like to be helpless and to need help. Nor do they understand that the child needs adult reassurance. They don’t recognize that a child can’t turn off its fear by force of will. To know these things requires empathy. To know those things is empathy.

This highlights that empathy actually is at work in Bloom’s example. The compassionate adult knows what the child is going through and what it needs, which is empathy. They know what it’s like to be helpless and to be in desperate need for support and reassurance. It’s because they’re empathetic that they offer compassion.

See also:

The idea that empathy requires us to re-experience the child’s terror is a red herring.

Often in talking about situations where a “good thing” (like empathy) leads to a bad outcome (like being paralyzed because of taking on someone else’s pain) you’ll hear that the problem is that the person is “too empathetic.” I believe this is a mistaken diagnosis.

No virtue on its own is complete. Take generosity, as an example. It’s a good thing to be generous. It helps us be happier; studies have shown that giving something to another person can be more satisfying than receiving the same thing ourselves. But what if you’re so generous that you give away the resources that your family need for basic survival? Does that mean you’re “too generous”?

There’s No Such Thing as Too Much of a Virtue

I don’t actually believe in the concept of having too much of a virtue. What I do believe is that you can lack other qualities (also virtues) that are necessary to stop a good quality such as generosity from being toxic. For example, prudence and wisdom are qualities that balance generosity, telling you what the consequences of continued giving are (“Wait, I have to pay the rent next week”) and so suggesting limits.

“Empathic distress” is another of the ideas that can grow out of the idea that you can have too much of a virtue. Clearly, if you take on board so much of a person’s suffering that you paralyze yourself and are unable to help them, that’s unhelpful. You’ve taken a situation where one person is in trouble and needs help, and turned it into a situation where two people are in trouble and need help.

In vividly imagining distress to the point where you paralyze yourself, you’re no longer practicing a virtue. You’re doing what the Buddha called indulging in “grief, sorrow, and lamentation,” which is a cause of suffering. An ancient Buddhist commentary in fact says that “sorrow is failed compassion.”

Missing Virtues

So what virtues are missing, so that empathy is turning into  something toxic?

As with generosity, we need to balance empathy with wisdom. As an example example, Bloom shows that people will want a girl who has been brought to their attention to skip the queue for life-saving surgery. They empathize with the girl and want to act compassionately. But they ignore the others ahead of her in the queue, who might be in even more urgent need of surgery. It’s easy to ignore them, because they’re anonymous.

Wisdom considers that the other people in the queue are deserving of care as well.

We also need to balance empathy with ethical awareness of what’s right and wrong. In another study, people were willing to inflict pain on someone who was competing in a mathematics competition with a financially strapped student. The researchers had encouraged them to empathize with the student, but not the student’s competitor. Ethics (the Buddhist variety, anyway) tells us that even if we feel motivated to punish another person by inflicting pain on them, we shouldn’t, because violence is wrong. Ethics also embodies wisdom, because it tells us that another person’s suffering is as real to them as ours is to us; why then would be inflict unwanted pain on an other when we would dislike having that pain inflicted upon us.

Most of all, though, empathy needs to be balanced by self-compassion. When we see that another is in distress, we can be moved by that. That “feeling moved” can contain an element of discomfort. Self-compassion teaches us how we support ourselves emotionally as we experience suffering. It also helps us recognize when we’re bringing too much suffering upon ourselves — suffering that’s more than we can cope with and that isn’t necessary in order for us to be helpful.

All of the “downsides” of empathy that the article describes are of this nature. They’re not actually the downsides of empathy at all. They’re the downsides of lacking virtues such as wisdom, ethics, and self-compassion or self-care.

Certainly, empathic distress isn’t helpful. It’s even harmful. But it’s not the sum total of what empathy is. To give money to help starving people on the other side of the world you most certainly don’t need to imagine what it’s like to starve. But you do have to care. And a person lacking in empathy doesn’t care, which the person who has real, balanced empathy does: they experience compassion and are moved to help.

It is wonderful that Bloom and others are showing the harmful side of unbalanced empathy, which leads to “empathic distress.” It’s just a shame that they’re not clearly pointing out what the problem is: the under-development of balancing virtues.

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Donald Trump as a Buddha

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Donald Trump Buddha statue

So this is one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in a while.

I stumbled across a story from two years ago about a Trump Buddha statue that was on sale in China. A 5-foot tall ceramic statue of Trump as the Buddha was being sold on Chinese shopping platform Taobao for $153. There also seem to have been plans for a 14-foot tall version that would cost buyers $613, although I’m unclear whether that actually came to fruition.

The seller said that the idea of the Trump Buddha statue reminded him of Trump’s slogan of “Make American Great Again” and the former US president often claimed he knew things better than anyone. So the seller adapted the idea into something auspicious for Chinese companies: “make your company great again.”

Some Buddhist teachings say that all beings have the potential for enlightenment, and in my own struggles to find a spirit of kindness and compassion for Donald Trump (let’s just say he’s not one of my favorite people) I sometimes did imagine him as a Buddha. To be clear, I wasn’t visualizing him as he is now but appearing as a Buddha: I imagined him having connected with and developed his own potential for wisdom and compassion.

This wasn’t the only practice I did involving the former president. I hope to share another article with you at some point, but I’m hoping it’ll be published outside of this blog.

If $153 to $613 is a bit steep for you, you might be interested in another of Taobao’s top sellers: a Trump toilet brush. It’s more modestly priced, coming in a pack of three for just $2. 

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How to recognize, respect, and love the demon, Māra

This is the first time I’ve posted here in a while. Virtually all of my energy is going into supporting Wildmind’s community of supporters — people who make a financial contribution every month in order to support me to explore and teach meditation and Buddhism. This article is condensed from a couple of pieces of writing I’ve done for them. If you enjoy this, and you’d like to support Wildmind, you can read about the many benefits that our sponsors get by visiting this page.

I’d like to share one of the most powerfully transformative practices I’ve evolved over the years.

Have you heard of Māra? He’s a figure from Buddhist mythology. He’s often portrayed as having conversations with the Buddha and his monks and nuns. These encounters always end with Māra being recognized, at which point he vanishes.

Sometimes Māra is portrayed in art as a demon, but in the scriptures (and in the image above) he’s a good-looking young man. He’s often royally attired, and sometimes holds a lute. We can take this to mean that Māra is a smart smooth-talking Machiavellian.

The name Māra comes from the Sanskrit root, mṛ, which indicates death and destruction. That’s also where we get our words “mortality” and “murder.” Māra is the destroyer or murderer of spiritual practice, and the murderer of peace and joy.

See also:

In the scriptures he appears to spiritual practitioners, including the Buddha himself, trying to tempt them out of practicing, or sometimes distracting them or making them afraid. As well as appearing as a young man he can also appear as a fearful animal, such as a snake or wild ox. He can do things like throw boulders down a mountainside in order to cause fear. Or he can make loud and distracting noises happen. He can also create an unpleasant physical sensation.

Māra has lots of ways of distracting people, but he never, as far as I’m aware, actually harms anyone physically. I assume by this that even the earliest Buddhists regarded him as a psychological projection.

Recognizing Māra

If you recognize Māra, he simply vanishes. One time he challenged the nun, Uppalavaṇṇā, who was meditating under a tree, and tried to make her feel afraid that she might be sexually assaulted:

“You’ve come to this sal tree all crowned with flowers,  and stand at its root all alone, O nun. Your beauty is second to none, silly girl, aren’t you afraid of rascals?”

She recognized him, though, and showed him that he was out-classed:

Even if 100,000 rascals like you were to come here,  I’d stir not a hair nor panic. I’m not scared of you, Māra, even alone.  

Māra then disappears. This represents the way in which mindfulness can dispel unskillful or unhelpful thoughts.

And this has become my own practice.

When I’m getting annoyed, or despondent, or impatient, or anxious, just saying “I see you, Māra” — simply recognizing that Māra was trying to trick me — was enough to break his spell and return me to a sense of calmness and balance.

I’d highly recommend trying this. Whenever you’re suffering, or caught up in anger, despondency, worry, and so on, observe the thought processes that are taking place. Observe the feelings arising within you. And then say, “I see you, Māra.” Recognize the forces that are at work within you, trying to throw you off balance. And refuse to let them fool you.

Appreciating Māra

But there’s another aspect of this practice that I’d like to draw out. It’s an aspect that’s very important to me: acknowledging how clever Māra’s tricks are.

As above, the experience of unhelpful emotional arousal acts as a trigger for recognizing Māra. Any of the emotions I described above, and any others that lead to a sense of suffering, are signs that Māra is at work. Even mild distraction in meditation can be a trigger.

Now, rather than just saying, “I see you, Māra,” which is what people do in the scriptures, you can say something like “Nice try, Māra!” This is a way of letting those disruptive inner forces know that I’m onto them, and that I’m refusing to be manipulated.

You can marvel at how convincing Māra’s tricks are. After all, he had you totally fooled! The story that was causing you suffering was totally believable. It seemed that you had to respond with anger, or fear, or despondency, or whatever it was. Someone criticizes you? Well, of course you have to be annoyed and defensive. Money’s tight? Well naturally you have to worry. Something hasn’t worked out as planned? Who wouldn’t be frustrated?

And then the feelings you had were so vivid. They’re like really good special effects in a Hollywood movie. The crushing weight of despondency, the jangling buzz of anxiety, the hot upwelling of annoyance. Those feelings are not just vivid, but are powerfully compelling. It’s as if you had to act on them.

So you can applaud Māra. “Great special effects, Māra! You really had me going there!” Admire the whole process of reactivity. It’s amazing!

There are a couple of reasons that I think this act of appreciation for Māra’s work is important and powerful. One is that appreciation is a skillful state of mind. Even if what you’re appreciating is Māra (who is not skillful), the appreciation itself is still skillful. (It’s not like you’re approving of what he’s doing.) Since appreciation is a skillful state of mind, this helps reinforce your new-found freedom from Māra’s (unskillful) world of delusion.

The other reason that appreciating Māra’s work is helpful is is that you’re appreciating it as a delusion.  You’re recognizing that the feelings that motivate you, and the thoughts and emotions that arise from those feelings, are all illusory.

Seeing the illusory nature of reactions while they’re actually happening is a powerful and liberating practice.

This perspective finds support in teachings like the one where the Buddha compared form (this includes forms we perceive in the world and also those we imagine in the mind), feelings, perceptions, emotions, and consciousness to various illusion-like phenomena:

Form is like a lump of foam;
feeling is like a bubble;
perception seems like a mirage;
emotions like the non-existent core of a banana tree;
and consciousness like a magic trick.

(I’ve tweaked the translation here for the sake of clarity.)

These are the famous “five skandhas (aggregates)” which constitute our experience and which we take to be our “selves.”

Feelings have no substance. Neither do thoughts or emotions. They’re like mirages, dreams, bubbles, or conjuring tricks. They arise within us only as patterns of sensation, caused by the firing of neurons. Why be scared by a bunch of neurons firing?

In talking about the skandhas in the above quote, the Buddha doesn’t mention Māra. Elsewhere, though, he says that they are Māra:

How is Māra defined? Form is Māra, feeling is Māra, perception is Māra, emotions are Māra, consciousness is Māra. Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with form, feeling, perception, emotions, and consciousness.  

It’s by seeing the illusory nature of the skandhas — seeing them as tricks, designed to make us react — that we’re able to disengage from reactivity and find peace.

That’s what’s happening when I admire Māra’s tricks.

Sending Love to Māra

The other night I woke up from an anxious dream in which the US had turned into a fascist state. Once again I recognized Māra and offered him congratulations on how vivid and convincing his special effects were. It wasn’t just that the dream was realistic. It was that the feelings of anxiety in my body had convinced me that something was really wrong.

But at this point I brought another aspect into my practice, which enriched it even more

Māra isn’t literally a demon who’s out to get me. Our inner demons aren’t demons. They’re us. Marā’s a part of my mind, and he’s trying to help, within his definition of help. To this particular Māra, fascism isn’t just something I should be concerned about. He thinks I needed to panic about it. He thinks I needed to be in a state of fear. He thinks he needs to give me good dose of suffering to help me get motivated. He’s misguided in this, but he doesn’t know that. So he’s not my enemy. In fact he needs my compassion. So I regarded Māra with loving eyes, offering him kindness.

Now, even though I was watching the anxiety from a  place of calm and peace, and didn’t feel touched by it, my body was still reacting as if it was in danger. So I embraced it within my loving gaze as well.

Now I felt completely at peace. And although the anxiety that had arisen could conceivably have kept me awake for hours, I was at this point so at ease that I fell back to sleep within minutes.

So I’m going to suggest that every time you feel upset by something or know that suffering it present, recognize that Māra is at work. Don’t just recognize him, but feel some honest appreciation for how convincing his attempts are to get us to suffer. And don’t just admire him, but offer him compassion, and offer your whole being compassion.

And as the scriptures say:

And thereupon that disappointed spirit
Disappeared right on the spot.

And within two or three minutes of being woken by an intensely anxious dream, I fell sleep again, and was untroubled for the rest of the night.

Again, if you find this helpful and you’d like to benefit from more of my teaching activity, please read up on Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative.

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Meditating with pets

I have a daily Zoom meditation group as part of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative, and there are often a few pets in evidence. In fact one day someone commented that it must be “Take Your Dog to Meditation Day.”

In some ways pets are natural meditators. I’ve had a few cats in my life, and currently have a couple of dogs, and their ability to “just sit” and to be in the moment puts mine to shame.

At the same time, sometimes when we’re trying to meditate they want to get involved in ways that are distracting, and so that’s the topic I’d like to address today.

I stress I’m talking about cats and dogs here. And since I currently have two dogs and haven’t had a cat in a long time it’s almost inevitable that I’ll be talking mostly about dogs. Hopefully you’ll be able to adapt what I say here to your particular circumstances.

Preparing for Meditation

Even before I meditate, I’ll separate my dogs from each other. When they play together it’s a very noisy affair. There’s lots of running around, wrestling, and growling. I don’t want that going on when I meditate. We have baby gates in the house, so I can have one dog in the room with me, and the other one in the next room. Because the one in the next room (that’s Suki) can see through the barrier, there’s no anxiety. I’m right there.

If the dogs seem to be restless as I’m preparing to meditate, I’ll often give them something by way of a distraction. Suki is still teething, and so I’ll make sure she has a teething toy; it’s kind of distracting to realize during a meditation that your dog is destroying the kitchen cabinets. And sometimes I’ll give them each a “Kong” (a thick rubber cone) filled with frozen peanut butter. That keeps them busy for a good few minutes while I settle in to meditation, and after they’ve done with their treats they usually settle down as well.

My dogs also tend to be very quiet when they’re in their crates, so I’ve sometimes taken that approach during meditation. But not everyone has crates for their pets, and I imagine not all pets are quiet when they’re crated.

Be Empathetic

Next, if their human sitting still with their eyes closed isn’t something they’ve been exposed to before, your pet may be confused by you meditating. My experience has been that they get used to it in time, although you may have to work with them until they do. And maybe they never will.

A cat of mine called Piglit used to be very curious when I meditated. Sometimes she’d just come and sit beside me with her eyes closed, looking for all the world like she was joining in with me. Other times she’d bat at me with a paw, trying to get my attention. One of my dogs, Luna, does this as well. In fact sometimes she’ll stare at me and bark. It’s hard to ignore.

When this happens I think it’s best to be empathetic. This can be a confusing situation for your animal. Ignoring them can make them even more confused. Often they need attention.

And they’re individuals, so forcing them to do something isn’t very kind. Don’t feel that your dog “should” quietly sit as you meditate. Why should they? You need to work with them on their own terms.

Make Contact

Today, during an online sit, I opened my eyes to see one of the participants sitting cross-legged between her two Labrador retrievers. She was holding one dog’s paw, and had a hand resting on the neck of the other. In order to get her attention they’d started barking during the meditation, and this was her way of calming them down. Given this small degree of contact, both dogs were perfectly happy and relaxed, and were just lying quietly beside her.

Most pets love touch, so simply reaching a hand out to them and making contact, or let them make contact with me, if sometimes enough to calm them.

If you have to stroke your pet in order to help them settle, that’s fine. A lot of people think this would be a distraction, but you can pet your animal mindfully and with kindness, so that it becomes part of the meditation.

If I’m stroking my pet I do it in time with the breathing. Find your own (and your pet’s) pace. Let the meditating and the petting be one single experience. Be mindful of the movements of the arm and of the sensations of contact, and of how these things synchronize with the movements of the breathing.

Luna, who stays in the room with me, is small, so if she’s really persistent in trying to get my attention I’ll often pick her up (if she’ll let me) and sit her on my lap. (Suki’s too large for that.) That makes it easier to pet her and show her reassurance. She rarely stays on my lap for more than 15 minutes, and then she’ll jump back onto the floor. I’m happy to let her go. That’s what she wants to do.

Practice Lovingkindness

Often I’ll include Luna in my lovingkindness (metta) meditation. My favored way of cultivating metta — which I just think of as “kindness” — is to remember what it’s like to look with loving eyes. I’ll remember times I’ve watched my kids sleeping, for example. As soon as I do this, I feel a sense of warmth, tenderness, and softness around my eyes. And then as I turn my attention toward my own body, and Luna sitting on my lap, those same qualities are brought into the way I’m regarding the two of us.

With my eyes soft, relaxed, and kind, I’m able to embrace myself and my dog in a single field of loving awareness. There’s no question of this being a distraction. When I’d doing this I’m very concretely cultivating metta (kindness) for myself and another living being. We are, experientially, one body, not two.

When Luna is on my lap, she’s usually very happy to have her back stroked or her tummy tickled. (Until she decides she’s had enough and goes away.) Sometimes though she wants to lick my face. So I’ll just accept that as part of my meditation practice. I’m accepting kindness, which is an important practice in its own right. Usually she doesn’t do it for long.

Practice Compassionate Reassurance

Sometimes my dogs bark while I’m meditating. A neighbor might be taking their dog out, or a delivery worker might be dropping something off. And the dogs see it as their responsibility to defend the house. When Luna (my first dog) started doing this, I was a bit annoyed at first. I wanted to yell at her to get her to shut up. Then I saw her hackles were up and realized that she was physiologically and emotionally aroused. She was experiencing anger, and possibly fear as well. Her territory was under threat, and she was trying to ward off this menace and to alert me to danger.

So it became obvious that what she needed was reassurance. So when she’s barking like this (and I’m not meditating) I’ll go through to her, pet her to calm her down, and emphasize that the person or dog outside is a “friend.” (I’m training her to recognize that as a reassurance word.)

In meditation I don’t get up and pet the dogs, but —without moving — I do talk to them reassuringly. I’ll say things like, “It’s just a friend, Luna (or Suki)! Thank you for protecting the house. Good girl. It’s just a friend, though. You’re OK. You’re OK.” (“You’re OK” is another phrase I’m training the dogs to recognize as reassuring. I reckon that if they associate “You’re OK” with the experience of calming down, those words will start to be effective even without physical contact.)

Again, you might think that this is a distraction from the meditation, but I see it as part of the meditation. If I was dealing with a knot of anxiety in meditation, I’d talk to it in a similar reassuring way: “It’s OK. I’m here for you. I know this is scary, but we’re safe right now. I love you and I want you to be happy.”

It’s the same principle here, except that the knot of anxiety is in my dog’s belly rather than mine. All suffering deserves to be met with compassion. My dogs’ barking is a sign of their suffering. Therefore I respond compassionately.

Of course you have the option simply to let your dogs bark. After all, it’s an impermanent phenomenon and will therefore come and go. But I live in an apartment building and I think it would be a bit obnoxious to let my dogs disturb other people. And unrestrained barking isn’t a habit I want to encourage.

Practice Patience and Insight

Although I’ve said that sometimes your dogs need reassurance and comfort, sometimes they don’t! Or at least sometimes it’s better just to let them quiet down on their own, and maybe give them just minimal attention or no attention.

This morning while I was sitting, Suki started whining in the kitchen. I decided just to let her work through her emotions on her own. It isn’t really in my or the dogs’ long-term best interests if I jump up and attend to them every time they whine. After all, they whine every single time I leave the house, and I don’t respond by staying permanently at home. That the dogs are sometimes unhappy is something I just have to learn to tolerate. So be patient. They’ll be OK.

And bear in mind the insight that things are impermanent. “Things” here include my dogs’ feelings. They may be unhappy for a minute, but they’ll calm down and be at peace. Your feelings are impermanent too. It may be unpleasant to hear your dog crying, but it won’t go on forever.

It’s a judgement call to decide whether to intervene or not. Everyone is different, and all animals are different. I bear in mind, “Is this for our [i.e. mine and the dogs’] long-term happiness and well-being.”

So these are the kinds of situations I sometimes encounter meditating with dogs in the house, and some of the ways I respond to them.

Now bear in mind that my dog is not your dog, and that my dog is definitely not your cat or your African Grey parrot! So what works for me might not work for you.

In fact I’m sure some of you have evolved your own ways of meditating with pets. Perhaps you could share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

 

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Eleanor Roosevelt: “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt is often credited with saying “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” As a bit of a quotation stickler, I feel compelled to point out that there’s no evidence she actually used those words. She did however express the core idea that feeling snubbed is something we do to ourselves.

Even if she never said the words in the quote, it’s certainly true that a lot of the time we make ourselves unhappy by making ourselves feel inferior to others. And this usually involves taking things personally.

Taking things personally means that we see things as being about us when they’re really about the other person.

Reacting to Being Snubbed

One time when I worked in Community Education in Scotland I was heading to a training course with Kate, a colleague of mine. Neither of us drove, so we took the train, which involved a bit of walking at the other end. As it happened, we weren’t entirely sure where we were heading, and so Kate suggested that I ask a pedestrian who was walking on the other side of the road. I dashed across and started following him.

As I got closer I said “Excuse me.” The pedestrian ignored me and kept on walking. I said “Excuse me!” again, but this time louder. Again he ignored me. By this time I was starting to get mad. How rude, I thought,  to ignore someone in this way! How dare he ignore me? Who does this guy think he is!

See also:

I actually had to catch up with the man before I could get him to pay attention to me. At which point I discovered he was completely deaf! It turned out that he was very friendly, and he gave us directions the building where the training course was being held. I felt very embarrassed at having taken another person’s disability personally.

I assumed that this man’s lack of response was an act of rudeness he was directing specifically at me. But it wasn’t about me at all. His not acknowledging my hails was simply because he couldn’t hear me.

Not Reacting to Being Snubbed

In a contrasting example, the other day as I left the building where I live, a woman was heading in the opposite direction. I said “Good morning” to her as I passed. All I got in response was a startled gaze.

Now I could have taken this personally. And in fact I could sense that part of me wanted to. But I very quickly realized that she probably didn’t reply because I hadn’t greeted her until I was right in front of her. Quite possibly she was distracted and didn’t hear me. Or maybe she was startled and didn’t have time to reply before I’d gone by. Perhaps she was trying to work out if she was supposed to know me.

This brings us to the practice of “don’t-know mind.” Don’t know mind is when we accept that we don’t know something. Being comfortable with not knowing, we don’t rush to create a story that will fill the void.

I simply don’t know what was going on with the woman who didn’t say hello to me. But there’s no reason for me to make up a story that her behavior was about me personally. Her behavior was to do with what was going on in her life. It wasn’t about me at all.

It’s About Them, Not You

Even if someone directs anger or criticism against you, you don’t have to take it personally. The other person may be having a bad day or a bad week.  Perhaps they are having a bad life!  It may be that you’re just the person who happened to be near them when they had an outburst.

So just reminding yourself of the phrase, “It’s about them, not about me.” This can help you to take things less personally. You can say those words to yourself when you realize you’re freaking out and becoming reactive. The words “It’s not personal” can also help.

Victims of Our Own Thoughts

Often, when someone treats us in a way we don’t like, we run through a very rapid set of thoughts, something like this:

  • That person treated me rudely.
  • Therefore they don’t respect me.
  • Therefore they don’t think I’m worthy of respect.
  • Therefore they think I’m worthless.
  • Therefore I don’t matter to others.

And so you feel unhappy, because believing you don’t matter is unpleasant. This process of generating narratives that make us feel inferior is called the hindrance of doubt. It’s also traditionally referred to in Buddhism as “inferiority conceit.” Normally we think of conceit as involving a belief in our superiority, but in Buddhism any belief that we are superior, inferior, or even equal to another person is called conceit.

Displacing Reactive Thoughts With Compassion

When someone behaves toward us in a way that triggers thoughts of our inferiority, one antidote is to consider that they are suffering. This is a constant factor in all bad behavior. If the other person is suffering, and doesn’t have the self-compassion or mindfulness to deal with that, then they’ll tend to act out in ways that hurt others.

By considering that the other person is suffering we’re directing our attention away from our own self-preoccupation. There’s less mental processing power available for us to run through our usual self-punishing thinking — the chain of rapid-fire thoughts (like those I outlined above) that end with us feeling miserable.

I mentioned that when someone didn’t reply to my “Good morning,” I could sense my reactive thought-patterns waiting to be activated. But in this case they stayed dormant, and so I didn’t cause myself unnecessary suffering. The reason was that I had diverted my attention to what was going on with her; I considered the possibility that she was suffering, because I had startled or confused her. Because that’s the direction my thoughts went in, they weren’t able to go in the direction of taking things personally.

Mindfulness, empathy and compassion, then, help us to stop taking things personally so that we can stop freaking out and instead be calmer and happier.

This post is adapted from materials in Wildmind’s online course, “How to Stop Freaking Out.” You can learn more about how to access our courses here.

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The benefits of making things hard for ourselves

I find that a lot of the time, when people are cultivating kindness or compassion for a person they find difficult, they do it in a rather vague way. Usually in their meditation practice they just visualize an image of the “enemy” and repeat the appropriate phrases — “May you be well,” “May you be free from suffering,” and so on. That’s what I was taught to do, and it’s what most other people were taught as well.

Creating a challenge

So what’s the problem with this? It’s that when we have difficulties with people, what we really have difficulties with are their behaviors — what they say and do. Those are the things that provoke our own reactivity. When the person in our mind’s eye is just sitting there passively, we’re not triggering the discomfort that leads to us getting annoyed by them. We’re simply not making things hard enough for ourselves. We have to make ourselves uncomfortable in order to learn how to handle discomfort without reacting. We have to put ourselves in the position where reactivity is a real possibility before we can start to recognize the signs that we’re starting to get angry, and then choose not to feed our anger.

So I tend to teach lovingkindness and compassion meditation as opportunities to rehearse facing real difficulties. When you call a so-called “difficult person” to mind in one of these meditations, it helps if we focus very specifically on the things they say and do that tend to trigger us. If we remember or imagine those things very vividly, we’re more likely to create uncomfortable feelings, and it’s those feelings that in turn trigger our reactivity. And now, in the mindful space that meditation offers us, we have the opportunity to sit with those uncomfortable feelings and be present with them. And we have the opportunity to see our anger arising, so that we can choose not to encourage it, but instead to let go of it. We have an opportunity to remember the humanity of the person facing us, and to cultivate an attitude of kindness toward them.

Superheroes of nonviolence

I was thinking about this the other day in the context of the civil rights marches of the 1960s.

When I first heard how Martin Luther King’s civil rights marchers endured, without retaliation, insults, beatings, being hosed with water, and having dogs set upon them, I was astonished and humbled. How was it they could do these things, when I take offense at merely being belittled online?

Later I learned that these brave activists trained to be non-reactive in the face of violence. They rehearsed. They met in groups where they would role-play facing insults and physical assaults, in order to learn how to respond non-violently to violence. They trained in reframing encounters with the police, so that they didn’t see arrest and imprisonment as violations of their freedom but as a badge of honor, to be worn with pride.

They trained in learning that the point of nonviolent resistance was not to insult or humiliate their opponents, but to win their trust, friendship, and understanding; it was to convert the enemy to nonviolence. They trained in understanding that the enemy was the ideology of evil and oppression, and not the persons who were committing injustice.

Training to be more loving

These brave individuals didn’t make some sudden leap to practicing love in the face of hatred; they learned, step by step, to do this. It became clear to me that we can learn to do seemingly superhuman acts of nonviolence through training.

If they could practice love while being beaten with clubs and insulted in vile ways, surely we can learn to do the same with the much more minor irritations in our own lives? And so I suggest that you make your meditation practice into a form of rehearsal. Do you get irritated with the way a household member loads the dishwasher badly, or doesn’t clear up after themselves? Or when someone ignores you, or puts you down? Visualize those things very clearly in your mind’s eye; let the feeling of irritation arise, and allow it to be present, without reacting. If angry thoughts and impulses arise, let go of them. Connect with kindness as you visualize the things that annoy you. Rehearse responding lightly, humorously, kindly, with full sensitivity to the other person as a feeling, vulnerable human being.

To create compassion, evoke powerful suffering

The same applies to compassion meditation, where we train ourselves to be loving and supportive in the face of another’s suffering. It’s fine to call someone to mind and remember that they suffer, but that’s really not very challenging. The Buddhist monk, Mathieu Ricard, explained once how he imagined suffering while meditation. One example he gave was of visualizing a friend, “terribly injured in a car accident, lying in his blood by the side of a road at night, far from help.” This is a potent image, evoking powerful feelings.

In fact, Ricard suggests that we imagine “different forms of distress as realistically as possible, until they become unbearable.”

It’s not about making ourselves suffer

The point is not to make ourselves suffer. It’s to give ourselves an opportunity to develop a compassionate response that envelops, sustains, and protects the person who is suffering. In fact, compassion is heart-warming, nourishing, and loving, and this to a large extent insulates us against sinking into suffering ourselves.

At the same time, it’s best if we stretch our capacity to bear suffering gradually. If we’re not able to respond to suffering with kindness and compassion we’re likely to become overwhelmed. And that’s not going to help us or others.

In short, our meditation practices of kindness and compassion are only going to lead to very slow change if we don’t challenge ourselves. But if instead we vividly imagine situations that provoke us emotionally, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to really grow the strength of our kindness and compassion. And as the civil rights marchers showed, we can even develop what appear to be superhuman levels of love and compassion.

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Seven lessons from a pandemic

Deserted streets. Shuttered restaurants. Empty shelves in the supermarkets. Dizzying unemployment graphs in the papers. Announcements over the supermarket, warning us to stay six feet away from each other. The new ritual of donning a face mask before going into a public building. Mass graves in New York City. Rotting corpses piled up in rented trucks in New Jersey.

It’s like a dystopian science fiction movie. But it’s real. And we’re living in it. And we’re having to learn new ways of living.

In fact I’m hearing from lots of people that they are, in some ways, thriving. We’re gathering on Zoom: connecting, meditating, learning. We’re finding new ways to connect. We’re experiencing stillness. We’re reflecting. We’re considering life from a more existential perspective: What’s important? What’s life about?

We’re looking for meaning.

I’ve pulled out just seven lessons from this crisis that have been important for me. (I’d love to hear in the comments what’s important for you.)

1. Embrace vulnerability

In the papers there are pictures of demonstrations against stay-at-home orders. There are stories of people gathering in large social groups, even though illness and deaths have been tracked back to similar gatherings. I see people cherry-picking data, trying to convince themselves and others that this virus is no big deal.

I think of all those phenomena as refusals to acknowledge the vulnerability of our situation. These are expressions of unacknowledged fear. It’s scary to accept that this virus is going around, and that in some places, even with the numerous precautions that are going on, medical systems and even funeral homes are breaking down under the strain. It’s scary to accept that a handshake, or even just casually walking by someone, might result in illness or death. It’s unnerving to acknowledge that right now, in this moment, you might be infected and be a danger to others. Rather than face those anxieties, no wonder some people want to carry on as normal, or to pretend that there’s really no risk.

It takes courage to admit to those fears. It takes courage to admit to uncertainty: there’s much we don’t understand. There’s much we don’t know, including how long this thing is going to go on.

So take a breath. Acknowledge that fear. Feel it. See it. You don’t have to let it control you. But you can know that being in denial of it is, in a sense, just another way of letting it control your life.

2. Count your blessings

This situation is hard. It’s hard to have your life disrupted. Many people have lost their jobs. In my small town, several businesses have announced that they’re closing for good. I’ve barely seen my kids in weeks, because my partner is at high risk of being exposed to the virus at her workplace and it’s too risky to have them come over here. I’ve lost one friend to this thing already.

All those things are hard. But however hard it is, you can find someone else who has had it harder.

And so I find it helpful to count my blessings. At least I’m used to working from home. At least I’m an introvert, and used to isolation. At least I’m still working. My income has been affected, but I’m still able to pay the rent. I’m still healthy.

So spend some time every day thinking about what’s going right. And think about someone who’s one or more rungs down the ladder of hardship. In other words, count your blessings. You always have more of them than you thought you did.

3. See the big picture

Although we’re doing difficult things and making sacrifices, we’re also saving lives. Yes, when we wear our masks and swerve six feet to the side when someone approaches, we’re avoiding getting infected. But we’re also avoiding infecting others. Because the chances are that if we catch this thing we’re not going to know for several days, during which time we’d be spreading the virus. So all these precautions are literally saving lives. As has often been pointed out, it’s a strange kind of heroism that involves staying at home on your couch watching Netflix, but it’s heroism (and compassion) nonetheless.

So relate your discomforts to the big picture. You can look back on this in years to come and realize that you saved lives. That’s a big deal, and you can feel good about it right now.

4. Realize what you do affects others

What you do matters. Small actions make a difference. Wearing a mask normalizes wearing masks. It encourages others to overcome their reluctance to do so. Giving someone the “‘rona swerve” reminds others that it’s important that we keep our distance right now. Every time we act, we’re reinforcing or undermining social norms that can save lives.

Everything we post on social media has an effect. Studies show that negative emotions spread much faster on Facebook than do positive ones. False information leaves a mark so strong on our minds that even when we’re given a correction, we’re more likely to remember the myth than the fact. So it behooves us to be mindful of our speech, and to be careful about what we share. Fact-checking, as I like to say, is a spiritual practice.

This is a reminder that we all have power. Remember that. If you’re conscious of this fact, you’re more likely to act wisely and with compassion.

5. Find new meaning

A lot of people, their normal habits disrupted, often with far more time on their hands than is normally the case, are first finding that they’re lost, bored, and confused, but then come through that phase, into a place where there’s a greater sense of meaning and purpose. What that meaning is varies from person to person. It’s only important that you find yours. I can’t tell you what’s meaningful for you, but I’d guess it’s to do with connecting with others, becoming more loving, or being of service to others. Or to do with creating, appreciating the moment, growing, or learning.

So take time out. Reflect. Read. Daydream. You’ll figure it out, this business of having meaning in your life.

6. Embiggen your heart

There’s a lot of suffering in the world. Closing ourselves off from that fact doesn’t protect us — it just causes a different, and worse, kind of pain. It brings isolation, disconnectedness, loneliness. As the 8th century Indian teacher Shantideva wrote, “After seeing the suffering of the world, how can this suffering from compassion be considered great?”

Suffering can often shrink our perspective. In pain, we curl in upon ourselves, mourning our lot. Grieving, we become obsessed with our own unhappiness. But just as there’s a part of us that suffers, there’s a part of us that is capable of responding compassionately to that suffering. And once that’s happened — once we’ve shown support and encouragement to the suffering part of us — we uncurl. We open up. We blossom. We open to the reality that others are suffering as well. In fact may of them are suffering worse than we are. We move from self-compassion to selfless compassion.

Now, compassion is not just a feeling. The Sanskrit word for compassion, karun?, comes from the verb karoti, which means “to make” or “to do.” Compassion is not a feeling, but a desire that propels us to act. Specifically, it’s the desire to relieve suffering to whatever extent we can.

Feeling that we’re going through difficulties alone can be intensely painful. Loneliness amplifies suffering. So, often the best way of relieving suffering is to support others as they go through hard times. Knowing that someone understands what we’re going through relieves us of some of the burden of isolation. It’s easier to carry our suffering when someone is helping to bear the load. So simply expressing support and solidarity is a powerful expression of compassion.

So reach out to others. Call your friends and family. Check up on them. Listen rather than lecture. Let them know you know what they’re going through, and that you understand their pain. That’s more effective than trying to “fix” things for them.

And if you can safely give practical help, do that too.

7. Start planning a better world

Even as hundreds of millions of people around the world are losing their livelihoods, and even as people are dying lonely deaths, the stock market is soaring. Billionaires are adding more billions to the billions that they already have and already could never spend. Workers in Amazon warehouses that complain about being forced to work without protective gear are being fired. Doctors and nurses that complain about being forced to work without PPE are being retaliated against. In Russia, doctors that make these complaints are mysteriously falling from high windows, which happens a lot to social critics in that country.

And it turns out that many of those doing jobs that turn out to be essential, and the jobs that we really miss being there, are those we are led to believe are unimportant and “menial.” And in the US they usually live paycheck to paycheck, can’t afford to take a single day off work, are one bill away from financial catastrophe, don’t have health insurance, and certainly can’t afford to pay hospital bills. The exact details of these inequalities vary from country to country, but it’s clear that although we’re all in it together, some of us are more in it than others. We’re all in a storm at sea, but some are on luxury yachts while others cling to flotsam.

The world that’s falling apart around us has been sick for a long time. We’ve forgotten that everybody matters.

Most of us are craving a return to normal but, let’s face it, normal was not good. So when this crisis is over, let’s make sure that what we rebuild isn’t an exact replica of the old normal. Let’s make it better.

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