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Meditation #5

Bodhipaksa will guide you through the first four stages of the karuna bhavana (development of compassion) practice: (1) Oneself, (2) A person who is suffering, (3) a so-called "neutral person," or relative stranger, and (4) a person we have some kind of difficulty with.

Email 19: Idiot Compassion

Gurdjieff, a rather fascinating spiritual teacher of the early to mid-20th century, considered us all to be idiots of one kind or another. One of his most interesting classifications was “the compassionate idiot.”

Compassion is the desire that beings be free from suffering. Idiot compassion, on the other hand, is “being nice” to people in order to avoid conflict or avoid inconveniencing them, so that we’ll seem like a “good person.” It involves giving people an easy time when actually they need to be given a hard time, and leads to them walking all over us. Idiot compassion is not compassion at all. Rather than relieving suffering, idiot compassion causes suffering.

Idiot compassion lacks courage because “being nice” and “being good” are held to be the most important qualities we can manifest, and so we’re afraid to do anything that might make us unpopular. It’s not uncommon to see this in certain parents’ interactions with their children. They want to be their children’s best friends, and so they indulge them, giving them what they want and using discipline inconsistently or not at all. But it’s not a parent’s job to be a “BFF” to their children. It’s their job to help bring their children up to be responsible adults, which means doing things that do not make them popular with their kids, such as setting boundaries. Idiot compassion is the hallmark of co-dependency.

Idiot compassion lacks wisdom because it leads to suffering. If someone cheats you, and you then decide to trust them unconditionally, this isn’t helpful to either of you. The person who cheats you is unlikely to have a sudden conversion to being conscientious, and any easy promise they make to change their ways is likely to be just another form of cheating. By letting them off the hook you don’t help them, and in fact you become an enabler of their dysfunctional behavior, thus helping them to suffer more in the future, once their unskillful behavior starts to catch up with them.

True compassion does not shy away from causing short-term pain in order to prevent long-term harm. The Buddha explored this in an interesting dialogue with prince Abhaya, the son of a king friendly to the Buddha.

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

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

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

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

In this way the Buddha shows Abhaya that it’s acceptable to cause someone pain in the short term if you want to save them from long-term harm. However, he goes on to say that:

In the case of words that the Tathagata [i.e. the Buddha] knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
And those are the only circumstances under which the Buddha would say something that he knew to be disagreeable.

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

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

So ask yourself, “Am I avoiding conflict and calling it compassion? Am I afraid to be honest because I might end up being disliked? Am I letting people off the hook too easily? Am I setting myself up for resentment?” And if any of these is the case, muster your courage and speak up, even if you make mistakes. If it feels uncomfortable to think about speaking up, then notice that this discomfort is a form of suffering, and be compassionate toward that discomfort. You may then find it easier to speak.

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

So be wary of trying to be compassionate in a self-conscious way. The more you think of yourself as compassionate, the more likely it is that you’ll end up acting as a compassionate idiot. Rather than "trying" to be compassionate, just stay aware of your own and others’ vulnerability, and let your care and concern flow in a natural and unforced way. That care and compassion might sometimes take the form of saying “no,” or of giving people honest feedback.

With love,

Email 14: Compassionate Spending

Spike Milligan, the British/Indian/Irish comedian, wrote a rather serious little poem called “New Members Welcome,” which reads, in its entirety:

Pull the blinds on your emotions
Switch off your face.
Put your love into neutral.
This way to the human race.

And isn’t that how we so often live as we’re racing through life? We can be so fixated on getting what we want that we leave our hearts in neutral, forgetting that people around us are feeling beings, and not human vending machines, placed there for our convenience.

The meditation practice we’re exploring has five stages, in which we cultivate compassion for (1) ourselves, (2) a person who is suffering, (3) a “neutral person,” (4) a person we find difficult, and (5) all beings. At the moment we’re on the third stage.

A “neutral person” is someone whose wellbeing we habitually take little to no interest in. Often when we’re focused on a task we’ll become very focused in a way that cuts us off from our feelings, and thus from others. One of the reasons we put our hearts into neutral is because we become fixated on want we want. When we’re shopping, for example, we often aren’t very aware of the feelings or well-being of those who work to serve us, or of the wider impact of our actions. We’re more focused on making our purchase as quickly as possible, or on saving money.

Last year, for several reasons, I stopped shopping at Amazon.

In some ways Amazon is wonderful. It’s an amazing example of entrepreneurialism. It offers a huge range of goods, often at significantly lower prices than can be found elsewhere. And there’s a benefit to that. I’ve definitely saved some money (and time — let’s not overlook the convenience of shopping from home). In theory the money I’ve saved is of benefit to me.

But there’s a bigger picture too. Amazon thrives in part by employing people at rock bottom wages. In the US, workers toil in huge warehouses where temperatures can be over 38°C (100°F) in the summer. Many have collapsed with heat exhaustion. The work is brutal, involving constant movement, bending, stooping, lifting, and fast-paced walking for miles on hard concrete floors. Even young and fit employees find themselves in constant pain. The company of course doesn’t provide health insurance. Workers are electronically tagged and monitored in an Orwellian way, and even bathroom breaks are strictly timed. Staff have to queue up for long periods of time in order to pass through security checkpoints when leaving at the end of their shifts, and Amazon refuses to pay them for that time, on the basis that it’s not an “integral” part of their work. Is this the kind of world we want to build for ourselves?

There’s also the financial pressure that the company puts on suppliers, including the tactics they used in their recent disputes with publishers, such as increasing the shipping times of their titles, refusing to take pre-orders, or simply removing the “buy” button. This was all in an effort to force publishers to lower their prices.

And then there’s Amazon’s highly effective (albeit legal) tax avoidance strategies. They’re a company that benefits from the infrastructure and services that our taxes fund, and yet they contribute little or nothing to the system they benefit from.

Now I either shop locally, or buy from smaller online retailers. When I buy books in my local bookstore, I pay more, but I also have the pleasure of knowing that I’m supporting a valuable institution and the people who work there—some of whom I know by name. That’s the kind of world I’d like to support with my purchasing power—not a world in which humans are treated like disposable machines.

I’m not saying you need to make the same choices I have, just that if we’re serious about cultivating compassion, and if we really care about others, it’s worth thinking about how and where we spend our money, and how this affects other beings.

With love,

Email 18: Compassion for Self, Compassion for Others

We’re now moving on to a more challenging part of the cultivation of compassion: wishing that a person we are in conflict with be free from suffering.

It’s here that compassion for oneself and compassion for another person connect in a particularly strong way.

There’s a reason why we experience conflict with or ill will toward another person: something about that person or their actions causes us pain or discomfort. When we encounter or even just recall this person, this pain is evoked. In response to this pain we find ourselves thinking critically about and generating ill will toward them.

Our aversion toward a person we have conflict with is really an aversion toward the painful feelings that arise when this person enters our experience.

Unless we are able to deal skillfully with our own pain, we’ll continue to have aversion to it, and therefore to others.

At the start of the fourth stage of the meditation practice, where you’re calling to mind someone you experience conflict with, or dislike, or feel critical of, I suggest checking in with your body to see what kind of response you’re having toward them. Often you’ll find that there’s physical discomfort around the heart or in the solar plexus. This is the unpleasant feeling that we’re trying to push away by having aversion for this person. This is what we need to accept and respond to with compassion.

Notice the discomfort, and accept that it’s OK to feel it. You can even tell yourself, “It’s OK to feel this.”

Wish your discomfort well, and give it reassurance: “It’s OK. I’m here for you. I love you and I want to be happy.”

Once you’ve done this—and it may only take a few seconds—you’ll find that it’s easier to turn your attention in a compassionate way to the person you find difficult.

With love,

Email 20: Putting Resentments Into Perspective

A few years ago I stumbled on a quick method of cultivating compassion. It came about when my daughter was going through that period known as the “terrible twos,” although in common with many children her phase of tantrums went well into her third and fourth years. She’d always been a very even-tempered baby—often serious, but usually cheerful, friendly, insatiably curious, and with a keen sense of humor. And one day as I observed her having a tantrum on the kitchen floor, screaming at the top of her lungs and drumming her fists and feet on the floorboards, I remembered her as this sweet (tantrum-free) baby, and then found myself picturing her as a mature (again, tantrum-free) adult. And I found that my attitude to her tantrum instantly changed. It was easy to recognize that this was just a phase she was going through, which took some of the emotional heat off. The tantrum phase was no longer something I had to “fix” or cure her of. I now saw my role as her father as being a compassionate presence as she worked her way through the emotional confusion of moving toward independence.

And this gave me an idea for an approach to cultivating compassion toward anyone. So here’s an experiment I’d like you to try.

Call to mind someone you have difficulty with—someone you have conflict with — someone associated in your mind with feelings of hurt, or anger, or even hatred.
Try to get a really clear picture of this person in your mind’s eye. Got that? And then think of the thing about them that really bothers you. Recall the thing they do that really annoys you, the thing they said to you that really hurts. And notice how you feel.
Now, to the left of that person, imagine them as a really young child—maybe 10 or 11 months old—not quite at the age of walking. And on their right, imagine them as a really old person—about as old as you can get and still hang on to life. They’re frail, withered, barely there.
Now, keeping all three versions of this person in mind—past, present, and future coexisting—call to mind once again, as vividly as you can, that thing that really bothered you.
Just notice how you feel this time. And how many of you, right now, are even capable of thinking an unkind thought about the other person?
I’ve asked many people to do this exercise now, and two emotional responses come up time and time again.

People often say they feel sad. Sometimes they say it’s because they realize that the thing they’re obsessing about is just one small part of a person’s entire life. A human life is the most miraculous, amazing thing we know of. And yet we’ve been focusing on one small part of it in a negative way. Realizing this makes us feel sad. We’ve let the other person down. We’ve let ourselves down.

Often people say that they feel compassion. When this happens, it’s usually because they recognize that the other person is suffering too. We’re often so focused on our own feelings and our own preferences—our hurt, our anger, how this person makes life difficult for us—that we don’t recognize that others are having a hard time.

So this is something you can do anytime. You can do it as a meditation technique when you’re on your own, or while you’re interacting with someone—especially in a situation where conflict might arise—seeing them not just as they are now, but as they were and will be.

With love,

Email 16: Connection and Compassion

Although as social beings we’re genetically programmed to experience compassion, it should be obvious that our evolutionary heritage hasn’t turned us into saints. Sometimes we act in ways that hurt other people, or simply fail to care about others. Today I’d like to discuss the tendency to suppress our compassion through blaming others, and how to overcome that obstacle.

We may find it relatively easy to experience compassion for someone who suffers from broken a leg, cancer, or Alzheimer’s, which we see as unavoidable accidents, but feel critical of people who have problems because of obesity or alcoholism, which we tend to see as the results of bad choices.

It’s as if we think that by being compassionate we’re giving someone permission to continue with a destructive course of action, like over-eating or abusing alcohol. But compassion doesn’t work like that. We can be compassionate—allowing ourselves to be sympathetic to the person who is suffering—and yet still recognize that their actions are damaging to themselves and others. Recognizing this helps us not to repress our compassion out of fear that we’re “enabling” others’ bad habits. Moreover, starting with compassion rather than judgement leaves us more open and receptive, so that we’re less inclined to assume that people just have to “pull their socks up” in order to change. Life is rarely so simple.

Our tendency to blame can be particularly strong in some people when it comes to social disadvantages, such as poverty and homelessness, which often seen to evoke contempt. I strongly suspect that many of us blame the poor as a protection mechanism: if we see poor and homeless people as responsible for their own plight, then we think we’re immune to sharing their misfortunes.

The contempt people feel for those less fortunate than themselves prevents them from even considering whether forces outside of those individuals’ control may have led to the unfortunate situations they find themselves in, or to consider that every single one of us makes bad decisions, but that some of us are lucky enough to have resources, such as money or caring family members, that keep us from catastrophe. Being open to such considerations helps us to practice compassion.

To overcome these self-imposed obstacles to compassion, I suggest that we develop mindfulness of the heart. Compassion is mediated by the vagus nerve, which runs from the base of the brain down to the heart, intestines, and other organs. Those with stronger vagal activity—quite literally a stronger connection between the head and the heart—are more moved by the plight of others and more inclined to offer assistance to others. They’re also happier.

When we relate to others through judgement and blaming, we can feel this in the heart, which feels cold, hard, and tight. Simply bringing our attention to the heart area helps to activate our vagus nerve, and helps connect us with others. When we connect the head and the heart, we connect compassionately with others, and the heart feels warm, tender, and open.

So this is a practice I highly recommend—simply bringing your attention to the heart, and keeping your heart in your awareness as you relate to others. It’ll help you to relate more compassionately to everyone in your life—including the “neutral people” from whom you’ve emotionally disconnected.

With love,

Email 15: Random Acts of Compassion

The word “karuna,” meaning compassion, comes from the Sanskrit verb “karoti,” meaning “to make” or “to do.” Compassion is an inherently active quality, and not just a feeling. It’s to be put into practice rather than merely felt. So here are a few suggestions for ways you can practice kindness and compassion in daily life:

Take someone else’s turn to do a household task, like emptying the dishwasher or putting the kids to bed, and give them some free time.
Take something you buy often at the supermarket (like tea or coffee) and buy a fair trade alternative.
Give blood.
If someone has left a shopping cart abandoned in a supermarket parking lot, take a minute to return it to its proper place.
Buy some treats (donuts, cookies, etc.) for your colleagues. Take into account people with special dietary needs and preferences (gluten free, vegan, etc.) to let them know that you’re aware of their needs.
If you see someone looking unhappy, ask them how they’re doing. Often you don’t need to try to fix things; just listening is compassionate in itself.
Allow other drivers to merge into your lane.
Let someone go ahead of you in the supermarket checkout line. Use the extra time to do lovingkindness or compassion meditation.
Give a larger than usual tip: if you’re buying coffee, try giving at least as much as the coffee cost.
Pick up a piece of trash and put it in a receptacle.
Spend a few minutes cleaning and tidying a communal area.
If you drive through tolls, pay the toll of the driver behind you.
Go through your wardrobe and create a pile of clothing to donate to a charity shop (thrift store).
The next time you want to buy a book, visit a charity shop. Let the limited selection force you to buy something you might normally pass over. When you finish the book, donate it back to the charity shop again.
If your local supermarket has a collection for a food bank, buy a couple of extra cans and donate them.
If you hear that a friend is sick, call or text them and ask if there’s anything you can get for them.
Research has shown that our desire to help others is more deep-rooted than our selfishness. First we feel an urge to help, and then we repress that urge. Cultivating compassion in daily life often involves noticing our selfish tendencies, and then letting go of them in order to let our innate compassion express itself in action.

Compassion is about responding spontaneously to people’s needs as they arise in the moment, but looking for opportunities like those above will help you to get into a mindset where you want to help others and see service as a joyful opportunity. But think of these suggestions just as a way to get started, and be open to the spontaneous arising of compassion in your daily life.

With love,

Email 17: Compassion and Commonality

Many academic studies of compassion have shown that it’s easier to feel sympathy for those who we believe to be more similar to ourselves. And we can recognize this in our own experience, too. For example, people with children can more easily empathize with a parent dealing with a screaming toddler in a supermarket, while the childless are more likely to feel critical; it’s easier to empathize with sick people when you’ve recently been sick; people who know the city of Boston, or who know people who live there, are more likely to be moved by the bombing that took place at the city's 2013 marathon race.

Even when people are separated by arbitrary labels (such as being assigned to the “red team” and the “blue team”) their sympathy flows more readily to members of the in-group and is muted for out-group members. This “in-group bias” limits our empathy and compassion towards those from different social, religious, cultural, and racial groups.

The Buddhist approach to cultivating compassion cuts through our superficial similarities and differences with others, and reaches into the depth of the most profound commonality we have with any being, which is our shared desire to be free from suffering.

None of us wants, deep down, to suffer. When we do embrace suffering, it’s with the ultimate purpose of becoming free from suffering (for example suffering now so that we can get the sympathy of others, or putting ourselves into a difficult situation in the short-term in order to gain a long-term benefit). Our deeper instinct is to wish not to suffer.

It’s this commonality that we choose to empathize with in cultivating karuna. We look beneath the labels of “friend” and “stranger,” and see that we have this in common: just as I suffer, and want to be free from suffering, so do you, and you, and you.

When I’ve been leading the guided meditations in Living With Compassion, I’ve emphasized looking for this deep commonality, recognizing that we’re all “doing this difficult thing of being human.” And in daily life I encourage you to keep repeating the phrase, “suffering beings, suffering beings,” to remind yourself that we all carry around a burden of pain and dissatisfaction. When we recognize that we all suffer, our attitude and behavior toward others changes profoundly.

With love,

Email 12: Joy in Compassion

Joyful experiences can arise alongside our compassion. Compassion is where our kindness meets the perception of suffering. Kindness often feels light and joyful, while the awareness of suffering is often darker and more weighty. Light and dark, joy and heaviness, can co-exist.

I’ve experienced joy even when cultivating compassion for a dying friend. I wanted her, in her final months, to experience mindfulness and calmness, and wanted her to know that she was loved and that her life had been meaningful. I was aware of the physical and mental suffering she was going through, but the love I had for her was enough to be able to balance up the sober feelings that were arising in my heart.

At that time I had no sense that I needed to “fix” anything. I couldn’t make her better. I couldn’t save her. There was no point thinking that she “shouldn’t” have be dying or that life was “unfair,” or that suffering shouldn’t exist. Things happen. People get sick. People die.

Just rest assured that if you find experiencing compassion to be joyful, this doesn’t mean something’s wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re lacking in compassion or empathy. So there’s no need to try to block or suppress pleasure or joy. These experiences are perfectly normal; compassion can be joyful.

With love,

Email 11: Others' suffering is as real as our own

There are a few places in the early Buddhist teachings where the Buddha helps children to develop empathy. One time he came across a crowd of boys who were fishing, and he simply asked them “Boys, do you fear pain? Do you dislike pain?” Of course the boys said they did, and made the leap from knowing “my pain is something I don’t want” to knowing “others too don’t want to experience pain.” This awareness is the empathic basis of compassion, which the Buddha explains, in the Dhammapada, as “All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”

When we’re children we often just don’t understand that small creatures we’re tormenting are actually experiencing pain. And we may need to be taught that what seems like fun for us isn’t fun for the other; that the other creature’s pain is as real to it as ours is to us. And with that leap, empathy is born.

It’s hard to keep this in mind in daily life, though. Yes, we may not go around inflicting physical harm on others, but through our words, tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and actions we often cause emotional hurt, fear, embarrassment, or other forms of distress.

So I suggest that you try, as an exercise, reminding yourself at various points throughout the day that others’ suffering is as real to them as yours is to you, and that their happiness is too. And just notice what effect that awareness has.

With love,
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