karuna bhavana

Our latest meditation CD: How to Stop Beating Yourself Up!

Wildmind’s newest guided meditation CD (and MP3) has just been published and it’s all about self compassion.

Most of us are far too hard on ourselves. We doubt our own worthiness. We talk to ourselves unkindly and often sacrifice our own well-being in order to “get things done.” Often we fear that if we stop criticizing ourselves we’ll cease to perform well.

Paradoxically, though, it’s people who lack self compassion who are more prone to stress and burnout, while self-compassionate individuals are more emotionally resilient, better able to face challenges, and overall more effective.

Self-compassion can be learned. It arises from developing four skills:

  • Mindful awareness, which helps us to recognize our mental habits, including that of giving ourselves a hard time
  • Acceptance, which allows us be with our suffering without reacting to it or seeing it as a sign of failure
  • Self-kindness, which helps us, in the face of difficulties, to give support, encouragement, and compassion to ourselves
  • Realistic perspective on life, which help us to see our problems in a balanced and mature way

Each of those skills—which are woven into the four guided meditations on this CD—can be learned through practice.

Self-compassion helps us to relearn our own intrinsic worth as human beings, and is an essential step toward having true compassion for others.

This CD includes 4 tracks:

  1. Kindfulness of Breathing 12:08
  2. Empathizing With Ourselves and Others 25:39
  3. Being With Difficult Experiences 19:56
  4. Four Steps to Self-Compassion 12:35

Total Running Time: 69:38

Listen to these two-minute MP3 samples:

Track 1: Kindfulness of Breathing

Track 2: Empathizing With Ourselves and Others

Track 3: Being With Difficult Experiences

Track 4: Four Steps to Self-Compassion

Purchase How to Stop Beating Yourself Up now as an MP3 download!

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

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An awareness imbued with compassion (Day 49)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

“…an individual keeps pervading the first direction — as well as the second direction, the third, and the fourth — with an awareness imbued with compassion. Thus he keeps pervading above, below, and all around, everywhere and in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with compassion: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.”

I want to focus on the phrase, of the Buddha’s, “an awareness imbued with compassion,” because I think it’s rather important.

Here’s something you can try in your meditation. When I’m teaching, often at the beginning of a period of practice I’ll suggest that people become aware of the light, and space, and sound around them. It’s the space that’s particularly important to notice. I encourage them to feel the space in front, behind, to the sides — even above and below.

We have this sense of space as one of our senses, although we tend to neglect it in favor of the big five. If the room you’re in was plunged into darkness so that you couldn’t see anything at all, you could still point to the door. You would still have a sense of how far it was to each of the walls around you.

It can feel like your mind is filling the space around you. Our awareness seems expansive.

And then I ask people to become aware — in addition — to the inner space of their experience, noticing the sensations that are arising in the body, noticing thoughts and feelings.

There can be a tendency at this point for our awareness to move completely inwards. We drop our awareness of the outer world, and focus exclusively on what’s inside. But interesting things happen when you remain aware of outer experience and inner experience simultaneously.

Usually this spacious, open awareness brings about a sense of quiet in the mind. Our thoughts slow down, and may stop altogether. There will inevitably be a tendency for the mind to move either outward into the world, or inward into our physical or mental experience, but if we can find a point of balance where we are equally aware of the other and inner poles of our experience, then the mind remains very still.

This state is very restful. There’s no need to go looking for our experience; it’s just coming to us. We can realize that our experience of the inner and outer worlds is there all the time, and that it’s “looking for our experience” that cuts us of from the totality of our experience. As soon as you focus on one thing, you exclude a thousand others. So we just rest, not focusing on anything in particular, letting our experience come to us. So this is deeply restful.

And if we can maintain that point of balance, then the sense of there being an inside and outside to our experience can begin to dissolve and, eventually, vanish altogether. On some level, there’s no self or other, but simply an expansive field of undivided awareness.

So this is something I often encourage people to do at the beginning of meditation, but this is also very useful to do when we’re moving into the final stage of the metta bhavana or karuna bhavana. Because at this point, when we imbue our mind with compassion, we’re also imbuing our world with compassion.

Basically, at this point, any being you happen to meet is going to be met with a compassionate awareness. You might “meet” these beings by hearing their voices, or their car engines, or even by hearing the sound of the airplanes they’re in. You might meet them just by knowing that they’re present, in the way that you know when your partner is in the next room even if they’re silent, or know that there are neighbors in the house next door. Or you may meet them in your mind. You might think of the people who have been in the practice; you’re simply receiving an awareness of them into your compassionate mind. Or you might think of people in some far-away country. And of course you are meeting yourself all the time, since both the inner is in your awareness as well as the outer; remember we just have one unified field of awareness. And all of these beings that you come across are met with compassion; you are aware of them as beings who want to be happy and to be free from suffering, and as beings who nevertheless suffer, and you wish that they be free from suffering.

So we have “an awareness imbued with compassion … abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.” There are no boundaries to the mind.

You can try this exercise of being aware of the inner and outer worlds simultaneously anytime. I’m doing it right now as I type this post. I do it as I’m walking or driving. In fact some of the Buddha’s instructions on walking meditation include an awareness of space: “Percipient of what is behind and in front, you should determine on walking back and forth.”

This expansive, open, non-self-focused awareness is very accessible. And then all we have to do is to imbue our awareness with compassion, and every being we encounter will be met with kindness and with a desire that they be free from suffering.

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

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Living with a heart of tenderness (Day 46)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seeing with the eyes of compassion (Day 44)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing with the eyes of compassion changes everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Compassion can be joyful (Day 39)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

For most of the 25 days in which we focused on Metta Bhavana, I felt like I was swimming in joy. About two thirds or three quarters of my meditations were positively blissful, and in my daily life I felt cocooned by lovingkindness, as if I was inside a bubble of joy that stress was unable to penetrate.

Then, on day 26, I switched to the karuna bhavana (developing compassion) and that all ground to a halt. I didn’t find the practice actually depressing, but it did feel sober. There was a feeling of having a weight in the heart.

But after just over a week of karuna bhavana I started finding the joy starting to return to my meditations. I’m not the only one. One of the participants in 100 Days of Lovingkindness wrote about experiencing a rush of blissful energy (pīti) as he cultivated compassion for a “neutral person”:

What’s startlingly odd about this is that it was only a few days ago that in the same step merely looking at others’ lingering hurt utterly flattened me, filling me with a deep, yawning sorrow. Yet, this morning I was witnessing the arising of p?ti when looking at the same thing.

He was rather perplexed by this, and concerned that it might be the result of decreased compassion. After all, why feel pleasurable sensations when contemplating someone’s suffering?

But as I said to him at the time, “Interesting things happen when you turn toward your fears.” When you find you can’t contemplate others’ suffering without feeling sorrow (which an early Buddhist commentator called “failed compassion“) but keep on looking, then the fear and aversion can drop away. And this can be experienced as liberating — even blissfully liberating — and the tension that’s released in the body can be experienced as pleasurable energy.

In fact there can be many joyful experiences that arise while cultivating compassion. It can feel both serious and light at the same time. Last night I chose to focus on someone I know who has terminal cancer, and to wish her well, in the sense of wanting her, in her final months, to experience mindfulness and evenmindedness, and to know that she is loved and that her life has been meaningful. And there was a feeling of warmth and joy. I was aware of her condition and the physical and mental suffering she must be going through, but my sense of love for her was enough to be able to balance up the sober feelings that were arising in the heart.

And I had no sense that I needed to “fix” anything. I can’t make her better. I can’t save her. There’s no point thinking that she “shouldn’t” have cancer or that life is “unfair,” or that suffering shouldn’t exist. These things just happen. People get sick. People die. The important thing, it seemed, was just to see myself as a compassionate and supportive presence for her. With an acceptance of impermanence and no attachment to the idea of her getting better (although that would be welcome!) there was no sorrow.

In fact it’s possible to experience joyful, even blissful, states of jhāna in the karuna bhavana practice. The Buddha discussed this often, and that’s something I’ll write about tomorrow. So rest assured that if you find experiencing compassion to be pleasurable, this doesn’t mean something’s wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re lacking in compassion or empathy. So don’t try to block or suppress pleasure or joy. These experiences are perfectly normal; compassion can joyful.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Wildmind’s latest meditation CD to be launched October 16


The Heart's Wisdom

We’re delighted to announce that Wildmind will be launching a new double CD of guided meditations on October 16, 2007.

The double CD is a guide to the four meditations known as the “Brahmaviharas” (Divine Abodes). These practices include the Development of Lovingkindness (Metta Bhavana), the Development of Compassion (Karuna Bhavana), the Development of Empathetic Joy (Mudita Bhavana), and the Development of Equanimity (Upekkha Bhavana). The meditations are led by Bodhipaksa.

To the best of our knowledge this is the first time that all four Brahmavihara meditations have appeared on CD.

The two CD set comes with a 12 page booklet with detailed instructions about the four practices.

The title, “The Heart’s Wisdom” refers to the insights we can gain through the practice of the Brahmavihara meditations, such as:

  • You cannot choose what happens to you in life, but you can learn to choose how you respond emotionally to those events.
  • All beings want to be happy and free from suffering
  • We can cultivate loving-kindness for a person regardless of whether we like them, dislike them, or have no feelings towards them at all
  • In sharing another’s suffering we find ourselves becoming more fulfilled
  • Approached with mindfulness pain becomes a skilled teacher, pointing out with exquisite clarity what’s wrong with our approach to life
    happiness arises from skillful thoughts, words, and actions
  • The less we cling to our expectations, the happier we will be
  • Equanimity is not indifference

The Brahmaviharas culminate in the Development of Equanimity, an insight meditation in which we contemplate the conditioned nature of happiness and suffering as we wish all beings well.

The meditations will be available as MP3 downloads in advance of the launch of the CD. The date of the launch will be announced in the blog.

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