Mindful Compassion – Powerful Practices of Healing and Awakening
Since teaching Compassion for Self and Others at Spirit Rock Meditation Center two weekends ago, I’ve discovered one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive explorations of both mindfulness and compassion ever: Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert, PhD, and Choden. The sub-title, how the science of compassion can help you understand your emotions, live in the present, and connect deeply with others, hints at the depth and comprehensiveness of this work.
Paul and Choden come from backgrounds that give them a powerfully different angle on mindfulness and compassion. Paul grew up in Nigeria, seeing firsthand the suffering cause by poverty and disease. His early interests in both Buddhist studies of the nature of the mind and evolutionary psychology’s insights into the nature of the mind, as well as his first academic degree in economics shaped his becoming a clinical psychologist in Great Britain, focusing much of his research on treating depression. As head of the mental health research unit at the University of Derby, he developed Compassion Focused Therapy and authored The Compassionate Mind (see January 2013 e-newsletter).
Choden grew up in South Africa, trained as a lawyer, studied there with the well-known meditation teacher Rob Nairn, became a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition at the Samye Ling monastery in southern Scotland, and now teaches secular mindfulness and compassion programs at the University of Aberdeen.
Paul and Choden met in 2008 at a neuroscience and compassion conference at a Buddhist retreat center in Scotland. They shared a mutual recognition that training in mindful compassion often evoked painful emotions and troublesome resistance among practitioners, that while mindfulness offers great stability to the mind, compassion is the powerful motivator that organizes the mind toward action, and that mindfulness and compassion practices together create a complex social mentality that integrates intentions with skills that help the practitioner become the person they want to become.
Paul and Choden quote Rob Nairn’s definition of mindfulness as “Knowing what is happening while it is happening no matter what it is” and see mindfulness in the context of compassion training as becoming aware of where our mind habitually goes and learning to direct the faculty of attention in ways that serve us.
They offer these words on compassion from Christina Feldman and Willem Kuyken:
Compassion is the acknowledgement that not all pain can be “fixed” or “solved” but all suffering is made more approachable in a landscape of compassion. Compassion is a multi-textured response to pain, sorrow, and anguish. It includes kindness, empathy, generosity, and acceptance. The strands of courage, tolerance an equanimity are equally woven into the cloth of compassion. Above all, compassion is the capacity to be open to the reality of suffering and to aspire to its healing.
“While mindfulness has been shown to have great benefits in helping people with personal distress and suffering, the Mahayana Buddhist tradition has always seen mindfulness as the servant of the awakening heart and compassion as the key transforming agent of the mind. It is the force of compassionate motivation that reorganizes the mind and brings about lasting change. Compassionate motivation will organize our minds in such a way as to foster individual well-being and social harmony.”
The authors explore thoroughly the conditions of human existence – poverty, disease, oppression – that make the practice of mindful compassion an utter necessity in our stressed out, speeded up world, and the evolution of the “tricky” human mind that can make the practices so very darn difficult to do.
They assert that mindful compassion is a choice; it is cultivated over time with intention, diligence and effort. “Mindful compassion is about recognizing the benefits of deliberately harnessing our caring motives as a way to organize our minds. Compassion, therefore, is not soft or fluffy but is rooted in the fundamental ability in our minds to enlist our smart brains to focus on cultivating motives like compassion, on purpose and with intent.” The outcome can be deep inner peace and social harmony and well-being.
The real power of the book lies in the seamless integration of the two practices and much-need integration of Eastern contemplative practices with the insights of Western neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Mindful Compassion offers far more than your average self-help book. “While it’s important to acknowledge suffering, it’s the alleviation and prevention of suffering and the ideas of flourishing and well-being that are central.”
Quite a gift as we bring to closure one full year of living with suffering and flourishing, and enter a new year with the hope of mindful compassion and well-being. May these reflections and practices be inspiring and useful to you and yours.
REFLECTIONS ON MINDFUL COMPASSION
Part One of the book – The Issues -explores the “problem.” We learn how the mind gets itself into various tangles and how training the mind in an emotional context of kindness, acceptance, and connections with others offers the surest way to a more peaceful and balanced life. Part Two – The Practices – explores the “solution,” integrating the wisdom of traditional Buddhist teachings with a very useful Western psychological system, how we can organize and stabilize the mind for ethical action and well-being. [See Exercises to Practice below]
The authors draw the analogy to a medical doctor who must be able to both diagnose and treat an illness. Both sections recognize that mindful compassion operates simultaneously on two levels: cultivating the capacities of the heart and mind to move toward suffering and engage with it rather than shutting it out, and as a motivational system that moves the practitioner to take action to prevent or alleviate suffering in a context of inter-connection with all of humanity.
Chapter 1: Waking Up
Understanding our minds is perhaps one of the greatest challenges for modern science and each of us personally….The human mind generates outstanding achievements in science, medicine, and institutions for justice, but it is the same mind that can produce the most awful atrocities and acts of greed….It’s our minds that will create grasping selfishness, pitting group against group, or an open reflective, cooperative, and sharing approach to these difficulties. And, of course, it is our minds that are the source of our own personal experiences of happiness and joy, or anxiety, misery and despair.
The authors dive right in to the deep end of the pool, exploring the causes of suffering from the Buddhist insights into the nature of mind itself. “When our mind settles and becomes calm, we can begin to see how we are living in a world full of mind-created illusions. With a clear mind we can recognize how our sense of an individual mind is itself a temporary creation. It has been formed from the genes of our parents, shaped by the world we inhabit, and lasts for a relatively short time until the body it inhabits decays and dies. But this is not the end of the story. As our insight deepens, we can gain insight into a deeper level of “big mind” – a quality of unbounded awareness that is free from the limited creations of our biological mind and is characterized by the full development of our innate qualities of wisdom and compassion….
“For many people, this initiates the beginning of an important shift within themselves – instead of being caught in the storylines that are easily triggered by our desires or emotions, such as reliving an argument from the night before, we touch the momentary liberation of looking at this story from the outside, realizing that we don’t have to fuel it. We take a view “from the balcony” with respect to what’s going on in our minds…..Through observing the mind, it becomes quieter, and when it does, insight naturally arises into how it works. So when the mind is not longer caught up, moment by moment, in the tumble dryer of emotions, desires, views, and worries, it settles. It’s like a person sitting in a muddy pool; if she can just sit still, the mud will gradually settle and the water will become clear. This will enable her to see into the depths of the water.”
Chapter 2: Evolved Minds and Motivations
Suffering arises precisely because we have biological bodies and minds, with nerve cells and brain systems that can feel pain and emotion.
The authors draw on the discoveries of evolution to illuminate why suffering is so natural in the human condition and why inner peace can be so difficult. Because the human brain wasn’t designed from the git go but emerged over millions of years in response to changing environments, our brains evolved with tendencies toward anxiety, depression, rage and paranoia every bit as much as tendencies toward caregiving, compassion, and resilience. Emotions may motivate us toward fear, shame, anger, and lust as much as toward gratitude, joy, and desires for closeness, belonging; our reactivity in response to threat may even pre-empt the more pro-social emotions.
And when the “higher” human brain began evolving about 2 million years ago, emerging the astonishing capacities to think, reason, plan, empathize, imagine, fantasize and communicate through language and symbols (and regulate the emotional motivations of the “lower” brain), it also emerged tendencies to get caught in mental loops of anticipation, worry, rumination, procrastination, and grudge. These loops often involve thinking about what other people are thing, getting us caught up in assumptions, projections, expectations that can easily cause endless human misery.
Mindfulness can interrupt these mental loops, but it is a relatively new capacity of the brain. Humans are capable of awareness of experience, reflection on self and on experience, reflection on other people’s experience, empathy for other people’s experience, even awareness of consciousness itself, creating the platform for a reliable trustworthy motivation for compassionate action. And creating this platform requires conscious, deliberate intention and training.
This training involves strengthening capacities of caring, connection, respect, affiliation and equanimity so that the brain itself can stabilize and manage the powerful impulses and desires of the “lower” brain. [All of us familiar with attachment theory can readily recognize the power of this trajectory.] Then the brain can recognize and work with the differing motivations of the multiple “selves” within. The authors suggest that “motivations organize the mind.” Different motivational systems operate in different parts of the brain and different “selves” have different motivations and thus organize the mind differently. Competition v. cooperation is one example of motivations organizing our behaviors in different directions. Revenge v. altruism is another.
When we choose to cultivate the motivation of compassion, that training catalyzes physiological changes in the brain that create specific brain patterns and states of mind conducive to well-being; they help us form harmonious relationships with others and help generate compassionate behaviors and even a way of being as a compassionate self. Research shows people with motivations of compassion (genuinely wanting to help others and avoid harming them) as opposed to ego-centered goals (wanting to get ahead and for others to recognize our good points) are more likely to have positive relationships with others, be less depressed, anxious, and stressed, and be more content. Mindfulness practice helps us discern which “selves” and which motivations are determining our behavior at any given moment, and strengthens our capacities to discern and shift among those different selves and motivations.
Chapter 3: Emotional Systems
Emotions ebb and flow according to what’s happening in relation to our motives and goals….Compassion is a motive – not an emotion – but it depends upon the ability to feel certain types or combinations of emotions.
The authors draw the analogy of motivations setting our course and emotions being the weather we encounter along that course. Choosing mindful compassion as a course of action means engaging with our emotions as they arise moment by moment, managing them, and having compassion for ourselves for having emotions (the brain evolved that way) in the first place.
The authors describe three different emotional-motivational systems. (Acknowledging that modern neuroscience would not divide them into such neatly separate packages.)
The threat and self-protection system “helps us detect and respond to threats and harms. It is the source of emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, jealousy, and disgust.”
The drive and resource-seeking system “helps us detect, be interested in, and take pleasure in securing important resources that help us survive and prosper, such as in finding food, sexual partners, friends, money, and careers. It is the source of emotions like excitement and pleasure.”
The soothing/affiliation system “is linked to feelings of contentment in situations where we are not threatened or driven to get things we want. It is a source of emotions such as peaceful well-being, contentment, safeness, and feeling connected. These emotions tend to be gentler and slower acting, but when they move through us they also influence our attention, thinking, and behavior in particular ways, such as opening our attention, softening anxiety, helping us to reason and reflect in more positive, gentler ways, and directing behavior toward slower, calmer actions.”
Describing these systems further:
Threat and self-protection system:
“All living beings need to detect threats and then do something about them. Plants curl their leaves to retain water when there are droughts. Insects fly away or burrow. Some animals freeze or flee. In other circumstances, threats are dealt with by threatening and fighting; this is especially the case with social threats (e.g., males challenging and fighting each other). In the flow of life, the functions of the threat system have been fundamental to our ability to detect and respond to threats, and as humans we inherit these old design features of quick detecting and rapid responding….Wired into our threat systems is a range of emotions and action tendencies, such as anger with a desire to act aggressively, anxiety with a desire to run away or avoid, and disgust with a desire to get rid of or destroy….
“The threat self-protection system can give us a very hard time indeed. It is the source of many mental health problems…because it’s not designed for careful thinking; it’s designed for fast reaction because that may save your life….There are very fast-acting pathways in your brain that, with the first flush of threat, bypass your fontal cortex and rational thinking [a cortisol driven system]….so it’s very important to realize that in fact your brain is actually designed to make mistakes in certain contexts. It will overestimate danger for you; our ancestors who acted out of “better safe than sorry” survived, as did their offspring….”
This threat self-protection system can also block out positives; the threat system immediately turns off interest in anything else. More problems arise when we get stuck in those old-brain/new-brain loops where threat emotions are fueling our thinking and then those thoughts fuel our emotions, which continue to flush through us – even when the threat is long gone. The result is that not only can we continue to feel bad long after a threat has gone, but we will also continue to block out positive experiences – including compassionate awareness.
“Emotions are all built into us by evolution – they are not our design and not our fault. When we give up blaming and shaming ourselves, we can step back and genuinely take responsibility to work with them as best we can. This is a key component of training in mindful compassion.”
Drive and resource-seeking system
Positive emotions are very important for gearing us up to get on with the life tasks of finding food, shelter, sexual partners, and making our way in the world. Positive emotions fuel both the excitement and drive system described here and the soothing-affiliation system described below.
The excitement and drive system evolved to motivate us to go out and get the things that are important for our survival and reproduction and is linked to achievement and acquiring and consuming things. When we succeed, we get a buzz of pleasure (dopamine). This buzz means we’re likely to try to do the same thing again; psychologists call this positive reinforcement – a great motivator that creates the achievements that culminate in civilization. The downsides of this motivational system are: we can get so focused on achievement and acquisition that we become increasingly self-focused, work focused, and increasingly stressed out. And when our efforts lead to “failure” rather than success, we activate the threat and self-protection system and lean into the negative emotions of shame-blame-resentment-revenge. A viable antidote to the negativity of the “failure” of the excitement-drive system is to link this system with social motivations, building families, communities, working on behalf of common humanity. Training in mindful compassion is key to this harnessing of the excitement and drive system for larger pro-social and more wholesome purposes.
“If, in Western society, the drive system is overdeveloped, overvalued, too much directed at material wealth, and focused on achieving individual rather than collective goals, then the one system that seems sadly under-valued is the one that gives us a sense of contentment and peaceful well-being. ‘The soothing-affiliation system’ is the one that speaks very much to our need to social connectedness.”
“Our brains are set up to be calmed down by kindness….this is the very opposite of what happens when we feel threatened, are rushing about, or are excited. Kindness is rooted in evolution’s mechanisms that motivate parents to take care of their offspring. These basic motivations – to take care of, look after, prevent hard, feed and see flourish – are the foundations of compassion.”
The authors review John Bowlby’s attachment theory which foresaw, correctly, that how we experience our early attachment relationship will have a major effect on how we experience and come to regulate our emotions, views of ourselves, and abilities to relate to others. The availability and basic affection of the parent is key to a child’s development because the child’s brain, which is laying down many hundreds of thousands of connections a day as he or she is growing and developing, is highly influenced by those early life experiences. The inner base of safeness is fundamental to regulating the child’s experience of threat in the world.
“These qualities of affection, kindness, and encouragement from others also help soothe us as adults when we’re distressed. When we feel soothed, we feel safe in our everyday lives. These feelings of soothing and safeness work through brain systems similar to those that produce peaceful feelings associated with fulfillment and contentment. …The bottom line is that kindness and feeling connected to people will help balance your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and this can be the case whether the kindness and affiliation come from yourself or from those around you. The human brain is designed to be highly responsive to signals of affection and care that emanate from others. There is a whole range of specialized systems that have evolved in our bodies and brains to respond to kindness and affection, help our bodies function optimally, and create feelings of peacefulness, safeness, and well-being. The parts of our brain that support and enable attachment also support affiliation, empathy, friendship, and community. Soothing-affiliation supports the development of courage. Our mental health, our immune system, the maturation of the frontal cortex, capacities for empathy, creativity and lower stress – almost all facets of our being – function best under conditions of feeling loved and being loving. This gives us real hope for creating a better and fairer world.”
Chapter 4: The Emergence of Compassion
The authors offer a very helpful re-definition of compassion. “The word compassion comes originally from the Latin word compati, which means to suffer with. The key to compassion as we think of it today is not just suffering or even suffering with, but the motivation to relieve suffering and the motivation to acquire the skills to do so. Compassion stimulates important motives and actions; it is not about being sucked into the mud of suffering and then becoming stuck there.”
And then continue:
“Our motives help to organize our minds. If we deliberately choose a motive like compassion to be the guiding principle of our lives, this is going to organize what we pay attention to and how we think and behave. As a social mentality, compassion can organize a variety of psychological abilities and capacities, such as attention, feelings, nurturing, and the way we think about ourselves and others to achieve particular social outcomes and relationships….
“So our basic motives, life goals, and the kind of person we want to become are all hugely important in guiding and thus shaping our lives in the very significant ways. When we consciously place compassionate motives such as caring, helping, encouraging, and supporting other people and ourselves at the center of our lives, this can have far-reaching impact on how we relate to ourselves, other people and the world we are living in. … There is a sympathetic expansiveness linking self to other.
“This insight has been around for thousands of years and is common to many religions. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, compassion is seen as the fundamental agent of transformation that allows us to shift from a life centered on self-focused concerns to one focused on service to others….These motives, of wanting to develop our own skills of mind because that’s how we will eventually help ourselves and others, are the life blood that flows through the various Buddhist practices and enables them to come alive.”
The multi-dimensional motives of compassion also come alive in the authors’ model of “two psychologies of compassion”:
1) Attributes of choosing to turn toward suffering: motivation, sensitivity, sympathy, distress tolerance, empathy and non-judgment. I especially appreciated their distinction between sympathy and empathy, sympathy being an emotional ability to be moved by distress in ourselves and others, an innate capacity of our lower brain. Empathy involves a cognitive understanding of another’s suffering or our own and of the causes of that suffering. This a cultivated capacity of our higher brain. Key to empathy with another is the capacity to understand their perspective and walk in their shoes. These attributes interact with one another to form integrated capacities of approaching rather than avoiding suffering and support the emergence of compassion.
2) Skills of preventing and alleviating suffering, the practical “how to” of skillful means: attention, compassionate imagery ( the wise inner compassionate friend), compassionate feelings, especially kindness and friendliness toward the experiencer of the suffering, and even enthusiasm for the relieving of suffering; compassionate thinking – drawing on techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy to keep things in perspective, to treat yourself like you would a friend, and to check out the evidence for a particular worry or concern, to perceive a situation through a lens of being already caring and compassionate; compassionate sensory focusing to calm down the nervous system; and compassionate courage (history is full of people who put their own safety at risk to alleviate the suffering of others). These skills can, and often do, operate independently of each other.
The two psychologies of compassion work together synergistically so that people can both feel and act with compassion. The authors give the example: A friend tells you that he has cancer. Motivation is wanting to help; sensitivity is the attentiveness to his experience; sympathy is being moved by his pain and fear, distress tolerance is being able to stay with that pain and fear, neither turning away nor trying to superficially rescue; empathy is imagining what it might be like being him and what he may require of you; and non-judgment is accepting without fighting or raging about this tragedy. Attention is focusing on things that would be helpful; thinking about what would be helpful and how to act skillfully, behavior may be going with your friend for hospital appointments and holding his hand, feeling is holding to your heartfelt wish that he can either recover or his pain be eased; sensory focusing is awareness of your body and the emotions flowing through you.
Nothing passive or laid back about training in mindful compassion.
And the authors suggest that the soothing-affiliation system is the emotion regulation system that will be most helpful for developing and integrating these two psychologies of compassion. “It is this system that gives us feelings of caring and enables us to take an interest in the well-being of others. It is the basis for our ability to experience affiliative and “kind” emotion. If this system is compromised in some way, people struggle with these feelings or do not value them. Compassion itself can begin to falter.”
Chapter 5: The Challenge of Mindfulness Practice
It is important to frame mindfulness training within a compassionate orientation. When unaddressed issues begin to surface, such as feelings of grief, shame, self-criticism, or self-loathing, compassion enables us to hold these feelings with kindness and understanding.
“Some people are very resistant and even fearful of experiencing mindfulness and compassion and the deeper levels of connectedness that this can involve. The problem is that mindfulness meditation can begin to lift the lid on painful and unprocessed emotions. If there is little ability to experience or tolerate affiliative, soothing emotions that can soften our threat system, there may be little ability to contain our emerging inner experience in compassionate, warm, and receptive ways. If we are living in an inner world of self-criticism and self-dislike, mindfulness can become very tricky indeed.”
The authors are quite skillful in exploring probably this biggest derailer of mindful compassion – shame.
“Mindfulness can take us to high-intensity areas of threat in ourselves that lie at the root of what we fear disconnects us from ourselves, our humanity, and our relationships with others. Nowhere does this sense of a separate self created by our brains cause us more problems than with shame. Shame is that self we do not want to feel and do not want to be in touch with. It comes with a feeling that there is something not quite right or indeed very wrong with us, that if people knew what was going on in our minds, they would not like us very much and might even be repelled by us.
“We can feel shamed by our fantasies, secret desires, and lusts; the strength or destructiveness of our emotions; or our cowardliness. We can feel shame about the shape and size of our bodies or how they are functioning; this can become a source of disgust and loss of dignity. We can feel shame about things that happened in the past, or feel haunted by memories of abuse or bullying or just the sense of feeling unwanted. Well, you name it, and we can be ashamed of it.
Shame can be one of the main sources of emotional avoidance; we just don’t want to look at the stuff that makes us feel so awful about ourselves. Mindfulness can begin to lift the lid on all this. Shame nags at us as we sit there meditating, “You are not so lovable really; if people really knew you or what goes on in your mind, they would not like you.” The question arises whether mindfulness practice on its own can contain or work through shame.
On the one hand, judging experience as good or bad can trigger trying to push thoughts and feelings away, or make another thought of feeling happen more and more. Mindfulness makes it less likely our minds will get caught in loops of 1) attention hopping – where our mind wanders all over the place like a butterfly, 2) rumination and brooding – where our mind chews on negativity, and 3) emotional avoidance – where we try to block out of conscious awareness the things that are very painful or don’t fit with how we see ourselves. Mindfulness allows us to be simply aware, separating the mind from the contents of experience that are constantly flowing through it. The authors use Matthieu Ricard’s example of consciousness being like water. It can contain a poison or a medication but it is neither the poison nor the medicine.
But mindfulness can also reveal the early wounding of the soothing-affiliation system and the contamination of our deep yearning to feel loved and connected to others. Ultimately it is training in compassion that awakens the emotions of kindness, affiliation and caring that heal shame. Compassion opens up connectedness, heals the feelings of shame and disconnection, and allows us to be touched by another. This is where the power of compassion really helps. “Compassion is as much about reaching out to others for help as it is about reaching inside ourselves – it’s not just about going it alone. Truly, through relationships we change and grow just as much, perhaps more, than by working alone on our own minds.”[I have found this to be so true in the Mindful Self-Compassion groups I lead. People learn to offer themselves compassion and acceptance for the pain, fear, grief they carry; they also learn to receive the nourishment offered by others who can resonate with and care about that pain, fear, grief. When the soothing-affiliation system that can calm down the threat system has been comprised by early experience (or lack of experience), it’s the nurturing and caring of others that can heal that system again.]
“Compassion training provides a context for working mindfully with our tendencies to avoid or suppress emotions. Mindful compassion helps us heal the wound to our soothing/affiliation system and offers a sense of connectedness and well-being.”
In addition, our brains are very plastic and our selves are socially constructed. Given the evolutionary legacy of the emergence of the human brain, the power of our genes, the shaping of our brains and selves by conditioning in our families or origin, and the norms and expectations of our culture and society, we have limited choices about the kind of person we find ourselves to be. The social circumstances of our lives literally build different brains and therefore entirely different selves. When we step back and observe the way life really is, we can engage with our life struggles and pains without overly personalizing them and without feeling ashamed.
“Healing shame begins with the process of recognizing that it’s not our fault that we are the way we are, while at the same time taking full responsibility to do the best we can to repair the harm we might have done others, and then working on developing the qualities of the person we want to become. It’s much the same as when you buy a new house and want a lovely garden, but find that the plot is covered in mounds of rubble. You don’t just leave it like this. You begin to clear the rubble, bring in new soil, and then start to cultivate it.”
Chapter 6: The Lotus in the Mud
Just as the beautiful lotus flower is rooted in and dependent on the mud in which it grows (Thich Nhat Hanh’s latest book is No Mud, No Lotus), compassion is dependent on the wisdom “that arises out of an emerging understanding of how tough life is and how we are really “up against It’ in its flow: everything is impermanent, living beings arise, flourish, decay, and die, sometimes very painfully; our bodies are fragile, easily injured, and vulnerable to thousands of disease; our brains are easily tipped toward cruelty and horrendous violence. All of this comes with the package of being alive.”
We try to understand how we just find ourselves in situations that have been shaped for us, how socially constructed we all are, and how this life is so transitory and impermanent. We have compassion for the mud from which we begin to grow and blossom. A big part of this process is to acknowledge our connection with everything that lives – how we are interconnected and part of the flow of life. In this way, through awakening our inner capacities of wisdom and compassion, we gradually being to emerge from the mud of emotional avoidance, self-criticism and shame.
When we approach the conflicts and struggles of our lives from this orientation, there is the potential for deep transformation. We become someone willing to step outside the prevailing paradigms of our time, someone who is prepared to open up to the pain of life, lift the lid on the hidden changers of our being, and allow a process to unfold even though we do not know where it will lead. This is a life of surrender in which we allow ourselves to become templates to work through the pain and struggles that mark our age so that we can find a path that others can follow. When we approach mindfulness with this kind of motive, it becomes a transformative process. It is animated with a vision that raise it to another level. It becomes infused with the vibrancy and aliveness of our deep connection and affiliation with one another.”
The authors then do a beautiful job of exploring several elements that can undermine compassion:
A compromised (even contaminated) soothing-affiliation system
Misunderstandings about the nature of compassion (it’s weak or selfish)
Fears and resistances to compassion
Fears of happiness
Emotional memories that de-rail our higher brain and pre-empt the motives of compassion
The challenges of slowing down in our speeded-up culture
The psychology of avoidance
The authors suggest that rather than an ascent to the angelic or transcendent, training in compassion is more of a descent into the “shadow” of these blocks. “Compassion is born within the depths of our being. It arises as a deep stirring beneath the mud of our everyday mind. The key elements of compassion are the emotions of kindness and friendliness and the genuine desire to alleviate suffering. These arise from the sense that we are all in it together and through acknowledging the links of affiliation to everything that lives.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
[from Mindful Compassion]
Compassion is not about being overwhelmed or sinking into our own or other people’s pain; it is not about being superficially nice so people will like us; it is not weakness, softness or letting people off the hook if they cause harm. The key to compassion is tuning in to the nature of suffering, to understand it in the depths of our being, and to see clearly into its sources; but equally important is to be committed to relieve it and to rejoice in the possibility of the alleviation of suffering for all. Compassion requires strength, determination, and courage within an emotional context of kindness and connection with others.
Being prepared to face the reality that we are part of a life that has multiple diseases and ways of dying in pain – and that we can be our own worst (intensely cruel) enemy – can be distressing and even traumatic. It might makes us angry or anxious – but being confronted by suffering calls upon something very deep within us. It is actually a wake-up call and requires courage – being prepared to face the reality of life and find ways to engage with it based on courage, kindness, and commitment.
Mindfulness itself, unlike awareness, is charged with ethical values. It is about setting up the intelligence needed for taking one’s life in hand and shaping it into what one would like it to be. In Buddhism, how one would like it to be is naturally rooted firmly in Buddhist values…Mindfulness could be taken very literally as the mind being full of, i.e., not forgetting its purpose. In Buddhism, mindfulness is synonymous with remembering or, more precisely, not forgetting. The general outline is being very aware of what is happening in the moment. One remembers wise counsel, because one cares deeply about the outcome.
– Ken Holmes, director of Buddhist studies at Samye Ling Tibetan Center, Scotland
Historically, mindfulness has always been based on ethical values and allied to a body of wisdom.; it has not stood alone as a skill in its own right.
Generally, when people hear about meditation or mindfulness, they think that it is about emptying the mind and making it go blank, stopping thoughts, and “blessing out.” All of these are misconceptions. It is a more subtle process of allowing thoughts to come and go and realizing that we do not have to engage with them Moment by moment, we realize that we have a choice as to what to cultivate and what not to cultivate. We create a point of steadiness within. Tragically, most people do not realize that they have this choice and they can become enslaved to habitual patterns of thinking, speaking, and acting that do not serve them, and bring them unhappiness. But even a few glimpses of this choice can initiate a fundamental reorientation in our mind as an entirely different possibility for living our life begins to open up to us.
The practice of mindfulness meditation can become a way of seeking calmness and stillness rather than familiarity, understanding, and insight. While a boatman rather likes the calm waters of the harbor, in fact, what he needs is to learn to sail on the open seas. That is the dilemma that is central to the integration of compassion with mindfulness. Compassion enables us to stay afloat on the turbulence of the open sea, while mindfulness is the way in which we skillfully navigate the sea.
Compassion is not the same as submissive acceptance. While it is important to develop empathy rather than avoidance or fear, the courage of compassion may mean we have to be assertive and stand up to our bosses. Similarly, we can understand that violent people often come from violent backgrounds, we try to treat them compassionately, but that does not mean that we just let them carry on being violent, because this is nether wise nor compassionate. So we can be compassionate to the person and empathize with their struggles, and have a heartfelt wish that the causes of their destructive behavior disappear, yet still take appropriately touch action against their negative behaviors.
It can happen that I sit on my meditation cushion in the evening and suddenly remember something really stupid that I did, a blunder I made, something ridiculous. I was so busy during the day that I totally forgot it. Then in the evening I remember it on the cushion and there is no escape. It would be cruel to become aware of my own stupidity without kindness. We need kindness to make it possible and bearable to have open, receptive attention. I have to let go of judging myself, and reproaching myself for my thoughts and feelings. The act of being cognitively aware is impossible without a compassionate attitude.
– Edel Maex
A foundation for all sharing that heals is the awareness that no matter what we feel, all of our experiences are part of a common human mind – common humanity. We are not alone in what we go through because so many others will go through something similar too. This is the compassionate wisdom that can “de-shame” us. What is crucial here are relationship based on mutual connection and support. Perhaps the ideal of the Buddhist hermit meditating alone in a cave is not one that we should aim for in the West. Instead, what might be more appropriate to our time if becoming more mindful and compassionate while in relationships with others.
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
The story of the mud and the lotus:
According to myth in the Buddhist tradition, the seed of compassion lies dormant beneath the mud of the lake. It may have lain there for an entire lifetime, completely hidden and ignored. It represents our capacity to transform our own lives and the lives of many others and have a huge impact on the world. The mud represents our darker side – all those difficult, troublesome desires and emotions that afflict us on a daily basis, such as anger, jealousy, shame and pride. It also represents our tendencies toward selfishness and neurosis that limit and preoccupy us. This is the stuff that we may want to get rid of, but his is not so easy because these emotions are part of our evolved minds. The lake symbolizes the depths of the psyche and the surface of the lake, the boundary between our unconscious experience and our conscious lives.
Now, according to the myth, what activates the seed beneath the mud and starts the process of germination is the force of compassionate motivation, namely the wish to open our hearts to the suffering of ourselves and others, and to engage with this suffering. We need to be willing to go there to enable the seed to germinate. In fact, we can think of our minds as having many potential seeds that can be germinated by different social conditions and motives. We can grow the seeds of violence and tribal hatred, if we so choose. To do the opposite is our responsibility as human beings, as we wake up to the fact that our brains are much more malleable than we may have realized and we can make choices about what we want to cultivate in ourselves. In choosing to cultivate our compassionate selves, however, we begin the process of transforming the destructive emotions and, indeed, our lives.
In the beginning, perhaps all we might know is that we are suffering and that others are suffering too. But as soon as we choose to move toward the pain not away from it, something is touched and begins to grow within us. According to the myth, the seedling of compassion, which is the lotus flower shoot, starts to sprout; and, as we continue to practice mindfulness and compassion it grows and finally breaks the surface of the lake. Now, although it has grown out of the mud, at the point when it blooms and breaks the surface of the lake, it is completely untainted by the mud, and symbolizes the mind that opens out to the world with love and compassion.
An important part of this myth is that the lotus flower cannot exist without the mud because the mud is the manure that feeds the plant and enables it to grow. Without suffering, there is nothing to be compassionate about. This allows us to step out of shame and avoidance and to see that the difficult parts of ourselves are the very manure of transformation; so we do not need to get rid of them (and nor can we) but we can acknowledge instead that they are a source of power. In this way we can see that the awakening of compassion can sometimes depend upon the dark and difficult parts of ourselves. Consequently, compassion is born within the depths of our being. It arises as a deep stirring beneath the mud of our everyday mind. What stirs it is the force of motivation and commitment to engage with our pain and and the pain of others. But while it is important to descend and make contact with the mud, it is also important to bear in mind that the key element of compassion are the emotions of kindness and friendliness and the genuine desire to alleviate suffering. These arise from the sense that we are all in it together, and through acknowledging the links of affiliation to everything that lives.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Part Two of the book – Practices – is a rich offering of many practical tools in the context of the deep wisdom tradition of Buddhism. Here I present one exercise per chapter; there are many more.
Chapter 7: Mindfulness Practice
With mindfulness, we become more familiar with how we react to life events, with the nature of the unsettled mind and the power of focusing attention to shift our perspective (“energy follows focus”), the power of focusing attention to evoke different emotional state, slowing down, techniques of anchoring awareness in the breath so that emotions can arise and pass away without getting hooked by them. We can shift how we relate to our emotional experiences without necessarily controlling them. We can also shift perspective out of narrow contraction of survival responses to the larger world of the soothing system through sensing and savoring awareness of touch, taste, sight, sound. We can break the storyline and be with what is. The authors offer exercises in single-focused attention, awareness of sensation, of flow, relaxed breathing, mindfully eating an apple. Compassion present from the beginning so we stay in the soothing system rather than threat self-protection system.
Exercise: Body Scan with Compassionate Focus
Find a comfortable place to lie down, on the bed or on the floor, remembering that your intention is to foster kindness and wakefulness and not to fall asleep. Ensure that you will not be disturbed while you do this practice and that you will be warm enough; cover yourself with a blanket if necessary.
Close your eyes and focus for a while on the rising and falling of the diaphragm as you breathe and then become aware of the movement of the breath throughout the body. Feel the sense of release and letting go as each out-breath leaves the body. Then, take a few moments to become aware of your body as w whole: the outline of our skin, the weight of your body, and the sense of gravity bearing down upon it. Notice the points where your body is in contact with the surfaces it rests upon. Now place your hand on your heart as a reminder to be kind to yourself. Take three deep, relaxing breaths, and then place your arms by your sides.
Imagine that your attention is infused with a warm glow of kindness and then bring your attention to the big toes of both of your feet, exploring the sensations that you find there. You are not trying to make anything happen; you are just feeling what you are feeling. Gradually broaden your awareness to include your other toes, the soles of your feet, and the other parts of your feet. Simply feel the sensations as they are and soften around them. Bring a sense of gratitude to your feet: they work so hard for us yet we pay them so little attention. Then imagine that you are breathing into both your feet on the in-breath, and breathing out from your feet into the space surrounding them on the out-breath.
Gradually move the warm glow of your attention up your body to your ankles, calves, knees, and thighs, simply experiencing the sensations you encounter, always being sure that your attention is tender and saturated with gratitude and respect for each part of your body.
Now let the soft glow of your attention move up to your buttocks and notice if you are holding any tension in this part of the body. If so, soften around it with your awareness. Then imagine that you are breathing into this part of the body on the in-breath, and breathing out from this part of the body into the space surrounding it on the out-breath. As you breathe in, imagine that you are holding the entirely of the lower part of your body within your awareness and as you breathe out, imagine that you release this part of your body within your awareness.
When you notice that your mind has drifted off into thinking or dreaming or planning, as it will do very often, simply notice this and return to the sensations in your body – no judgment, no sense of getting it wrong, as this is just what the mind does. And then gradually move your soft attention to your lower abdomen, lower and upper back, shoulders, rib cage, and chest. Every now and again, pause and bring a sense of gratitude and tenderness to the part of the body you are holding in awareness, reflecting on what it does for you and how, so often, you may take it for granted.
Now bring kind awareness to your spine, gently curving through your body, and to the point at which it meets the skull. Have a sense of the solid frame of our body. Then bring your awareness down your arms and into your hands, fingers, and fingertips. Notice the warmth and energy that is stored in the palms of your hands. Notice what the hands feel like at rest. And then once again imagine that you are breathing into your torso on the in-breath and breathing out from this part of the body into the space surrounding it on the out-breath.
Then gradually bring the soft glow of awareness to your head, neck, throat, and face, noting any tension held in the muscles around the forehead, around the eyes, the jaw, and the mouth. Notice how sensitive your face feels to the temperature of the air in the room. Allow your face to soften.
Now bring your attention from your head back down to your feet again, but more quickly this time, and then bring your attention back to your breathing. Pay attention to the movement of the breath in your body as a whole -as if your whole body is breathing and is held in the warm glow of your awareness. When you are about to finish the practice, place your hand on your heart again as a final gesture of kindness, and slowly start moving your body, rolling over onto one side, and then gradually getting up. This will help get the body moving again and reduce stiffness. Make sure not to jar yourself back into ordinary awareness too quickly.
An exercise like the body scan with compassionate awareness is a strong foundation for compassion practice because it accesses the soothing affiliation system; we cultivate anchoring in that system as the new default mode of the brain.
Chapter 8: Working with Acceptance
As we become more aware of experience in the moment, we can become more aware of all of our experiences, including strong emotions that may haunt us from the past, and become more aware of our reactions and preferences around them, including habitual patterns of reactions that may be narrow and not very functional. We can have strong preferences for how we want to feel, so when difficult emotions or mind states arise, there can be immediate resistance. Negative emotions are wired in and the tendency to want to avoid or get rid of them is also wired in. The resistance itself causes conflict, stress, and suffering within us.
Some of our habitual strategies to deal with our emotions and our resistance serve our well-being and some do not. It is actually an act of personal compassion to notice, care, and act to let go of strategies that don’t work and cultivate those that do. (Wise Effort in the Buddhist tradition) Acceptance is the entry point to compassion; acknowledging that we are not perfect makes room for imperfection without judgment. We can stay in the soothing-affiliation system (accepting of imperfection) without reverting to the threat self-protection system which can persist on insisting on perfection as a way to avoid judgment or harm.
Accepting our experience of suffering does not have to mean accepting the causes and conditions of that suffering. In fact, acceptance of reality as it is, not avoiding or denying, not condoning or submitting, is the first step toward effective change because we’re not stuck in resentment or resignation.
Exercise in Experiential Acceptance
1. Turning Toward (Motive)
Settle yourself into a comfortable posture, relaxed yet alert; anchor your awareness in following your breath. When an uncomfortable thought or a difficult emotion arises in your awareness, as it will certainly do, actively turn toward it rather than pushing it away or letting it go, treating it as something that is calling for your attention. (Please practice with an emotion or mind state that is relatively easy to hold in your awareness with kindness and friendliness before attempting to work with more challenging experiences.)
2. Recognizing and Labeling (Sensitivity)
Recognize the emotion or mind state that has arisen and label it in whatever way fits best. “Loneliness, worry, sadness, longing, envy, pride, or lust.” Mentally repeat this label two or three times in a soft, kind voice and then return to the breath as your mindfulness support. Sometimes the emotion of difficulty can exert a strong pull, in which case let your attention be drawn from your breath by the emotion, label it, and then return to your breath, going back and forth between your breath and the emotion in a relaxed, fluid way.
3. Allowing (Tolerance and Sympathy)
Actively welcome the emotion and allow it to be present. Let go of the wish for it to go away. Make space for it. Then lightly return to the breath for support, but if the emotion persistently calls for your attention, then incline toward it, soften around it, and let your heart be touched by it. You can place your hand on your heart as a gesture of kindness and create a gentle friendly smile. Now switch from focusing on breathing to the emotion itself and make this the focus of your mindfulness practice. But do this in a particular way by following the next step.
4. Paying Close Attention (Empathy)
First bring your attention to where the emotion or difficulty is held within your body. Do this by sweeping your attention from your head to your toes, and notice where the feeling expresses itself most prominently in the body. Then gently inclined toward that place in your body, while continuing to breathe naturally and just allow the sensation to be there as it is. You can place your hand over your heart again as you breathe as a reminder to be soft and kind. Allow the rhythmic motion of the breathing to soothe your body. Notice what kind of sensations your are experiencing in this part of the body – maybe there is a tightness, contraction, heat, vibration, and so one. Notice if you are resisting these sensations. Then notice what happens if you open to them with softness and acceptance.
Now bring your attention to the emotions and feelings connected with the experience. Notice what the primary feeling is – whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral – and then observe what layers of feeling make up the experience. You may notice that the emotion you are working with is not one emotion, but a constellation of subtle feelings. Then try to meet each of these feelings with kindness and acceptance.
Notice what thoughts or beliefs are spinning around the emotion. Take a step back and look at these thoughts: are they true or biased? Are they permanent or changing moment by moment?
Notice how you are relating to your experience. Are you taking the emotion to be very solid and real? Are you seeing it as permanent? Are you clinging to it and focusing on it alone?
5. Making Space (Non-judgment)
Open outward around your experience and be willing to hold whatever you are experiencing in a non-judging awareness. In this stage, you move from paying attention to the detail of your experience to holding your experience as a whole within your awareness. Then inquire of every mental state or emotion that arises: “Is this really who I am, or is this just an experience that is moving through me? Has it become who I am in this moment?”
Through practicing in this way you may come to see that the presenting emotion or difficulty is not who you are – it is just something moving through you. It is temporary.
When it comes to doing this acceptance practice, it is important to understand the principles and follow the stages but then to tailor the practice for yourself. In this way you find your own way of doing the practice that corresponds with your personality.
Chapter 9: Building Compassionate Capacity
Mindfulness is an important foundation for practicing compassion because it enables us to come to land in our own experience. The process of acceptance is important too because it enables us to disengage from the tendency to resist and struggle with what is occurring within us and to come into clear and honest alignment with what is actually happening. But mindfulness and acceptance are not enough. We also need to develop inner resources that enable us to hold and contain what is happening within us so that it is not too intense or overwhelming. We need to build inner capacities from which we can effectively respond to the different parts of our inner experience, and then relate skillfully with the experience of others.
One such inner resource is the compassionate self, the imagined yet felt sense of the wisdom, authority, strength, warmth, kindness, and commitment we need within ourselves to hold all of our experiences with mindful compassion.
Exercise: Compassionate Self
Settle into a posture that is comfortable, relaxed and alert. Anchor your awareness in your breathing, finding a sense of stillness and calm within.
Notice the feeling of your body slowing down. Relax your facial muscles, starting with your forehead and then your cheeks, and let your jaw drop slightly. Allow your mouth to turn upward into a warm and friendly smile. Then just rest where you are – nothing to do.
Now use your imagination to evoke an image of yourself at your compassionate best. Sometimes it can help to bring to mind a memory of when you felt very compassionate toward somebody. Recall what was going through your mind, the feelings of kindness and warmth, and your genuine wish for the person to get better or do well. It’s important to focus on your compassionate feelings and not the distress that the other person might have been feeling.
Next, reflection for a few moments about the qualities you would like to have if you were to develop your compassion more fully. Remember, it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel as if you are a very compassionate person; the most important thing is to imagine the qualities of a deeply compassionate person and imagine what it might feel like if you did these qualities.
Now focus on the specific qualities of compassion. Start by imaging that you have wisdom. Bring to mind your understanding that all of us just find ourselves here in the flow of our own lives – so many complex factors have shaped who we have become, and so much of what has happened is beyond our control. See the wisdom of no blame and the value of seeing things clearly and choosing to be compassionate. Recognize that you have this wisdom right now – it is present within your life experience as a rich resource. Hold on to your friendly facial expression and consider your warm voice tome, imagining yourself expressing wisdom ad you speak. For the next few moments, imagine yourself being a wise and insightful person – open, thoughtful, and reflective.
Next, imagine that from your wisdom comes a sense of authority, strength and confidence. Connect to the sense of your own inner authority and dignity in your body posture. Tune in to your posture, your sense of solidness, and allow yourself to be held, body like a mountain, breath like a gentle breeze, and mind like the open sky. Draw strength from the fact that the vastness of the earth holds and supports you. Notice how you feel when you imagine yourself embodying authority and confidence. While holding your friendly facial expression and your warm voice tone, for the next few moments, think about how you would speak in a compassionate way with authority how you would move in the world, and how you would express this confidence, maturity, and authority.
Now, on the basis of this confidence, authority, and wisdom, focus on your desire to be helpful and supportive and your wish for others to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, to be happy, and to prosper. Hold your friendly facial expression and consider your voice tome and how you would speak in a compassionate way with kindness. Then become aware of any areas of tension or physical pain or emotional reaction to that tension within you and gently soften around these areas, holding them with kindness. Remember that your wisdom and strength are there as a support if things feel difficult. And so, for the next few moments, gently and playfully imagine that you have great kindness and the desire to be helpful. Notice how there is a certain calmness that comes with kindness and also a positive pleasurable feelings; it doesn’t have that frenetic feeling of being agitated or frustrated. Notice how you feel when you imagine having these feelings within you.
And now, on the basis of your wisdom, strength, and kindness, imagine that you have the courage to face and work through the difficult experiences that may arise. You are willing to move toward what is difficult, without blaming or criticizing, and you are willing to take responsibility for your life. For a few moments, imagine that you are such a person someone who is deeply committed and responsible for working with your own mind.
Now imagine that you are looking at yourself from the outside. See your facial expressions the way you move in the world, and note your motivations to be thoughtful, kind and wise. Hear yourself speaking to people and note the compassionate tone in your voice. See other people relating to you as a compassionate person and see yourself relating to other people in a compassionate way. For the next few moments, playfully watch yourself as a compassionate person in the world and others relating to you as such.
The more you practice slowing down and imaging being this kind of person in the world, the more easily you may find you can access these qualities in you, and the more easily you will find they can express themselves through you. And now, as a way of concluding this exercise, let go of trying to visualize and for a few moments, rest without focusing on anything in particular.
Chapter 10: the Compassionate Self.
Increasingly, research reveals that harsh self-critical thoughts and negative views of ourselves are associated with vulnerability to unhappiness, anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. Self-criticism is usually associated with feelings of disappointment, anger, and frustration, which are threat-based emotions. So people who are routinely self-critical are constantly stimulating their threat system. And self-criticism blocks our ability to be self-compassionate. Even when we try to become self-compassionate, that critical voice can get in the way, passing harsh judgments by telling us that we don’t deserve it or that we are not doing it properly. However, if we just fight the self-critical part of ourselves, then we can end up still being trapped in the threat system by being “critical of being critical.” What is needed is to move out into the soothing-affiliation system and stimulate our feelings of compassion. If we make our compassionate self the authority within us, then this will deal with the self-critical self in a kind but firm way.
Exercise: Compassion for the Critical Self
Begin by settling into a posture that is comfortable yet alert, focusing your awareness on the gentle rhythms of your breathing. Bring a kind, loving awareness to your breathing. Bring to mind your Compassionate Self.
Bring to mind a situation in which things were tough. Perhaps you were physically unwell or you were experiencing a bereavement of relationship conflict or you failed to achieve something that was really important to you. Tune in to the flow of self-critical thoughts and feelings.
Now imagine that you can see that part of you that does the criticizing – see it in front of you and notice what form it takes. Notice the emotions it is directing at you. Be curious and notice the anger or disappointment or contempt. Refresh the kindness and friendliness of your Compassionate Self and try to see what’s behind all the recriminating thoughts. What is your critic really frightened of? Does it remind you of anybody? Ask yourself: “Does my critic really have my best interests at heart? Does it wasn’t to see me flourish, be happy, and at peace. Does it give me a helping hand of encouragement when I struggle? The answer is likely to be a resounding “no.” The question that follow is, “Do you want to let it run the show?”
Remember that looking through the eyes of your compassionate self is your sense of inner authority and the wise part of you that understands. See if you can hold the critical self with kindness, recognizing that it comes from being threatened or hurt in the past. Try to connect with the fear that lies behind it. This can be quite challenging because it can give you a sense of just how much you have been bullied by this critical self in the past and how you may have lacked an authority to restrain it. But don’t go any faster or any deeper than you feel comfortable with.
Now gently direct the following questions to your critical self:
What is it that you really need?
If you got what you needed, how would you feel?
Imagine that you direct a flow of energy toward the critical self that takes the form of how it would feel if its needs were met. If the self-critical part needs love and attention, for example, and if it would feel at peace if it received this, then imagine that the flow of energy takes the form of feeling at peace in whichever way feels best to imagine.
As you direct this flow of energy; you can offer the following aspiration:
May you be freed of the pain that is causing you to be angry and critical of me. (or)
May I be free of the pain that is causing me to be angry and critical of myself.
As you say these words and phrases, or similar words, imagine a flow of compassion toward the self-critical part, and if the feelings do not flow so easily, then focus on the following intentions: the wisdom that sees through the self-criticism and appreciates how we are all caught up in the flow of life and undergo difficult challenges; the strength that holds and contains the anguish of the self-critical mind; the warmth that softens and connects to its underlying needs; and the courage to meet those needs rather than be drawn into a self-critical spiral.
When you have finished, let the image of your critical self fade and spend a few moments tuning into the feelings that have arisen in you, noticing in particular how this feels in your body. Then rest without focusing on anything in particular, stretch, and get up.
When you find yourself being sucked into a spiral of self-criticism in daily-life situations, slow yourself down, and then consciously identify with your compassionate self. Then look at your self-critical mind through the eyes of your compassionate self. Consciously connect to the needs underlying the self-critical stance and imagine meeting those needs in the way described in the exercise above. If we make efforts to work with our self-critic, this will soften it, which in turn helps us become gentler and more self-compassionate.
Chapter 11: Widening the Circle of Compassion to include strangers and adversaries.
We may find that we can easily connect with the struggles and conflicts of those we love, and extend love and compassion to them, but we may feel quite indifferent to strangers, and when it comes to people we do not like, such as competitors and adversaries, we might even feel happy that they suffer because it gives us an edge over them or justifies our desires of retribution and revenge. So the next challenge on our journey is to find a way to be compassionate toward those who do not fall within our immediate circle of concern and to turn away from taking pleasure in their suffering.
We can take hope in the realization that, despite the many things that divide people, be it race, gender, culture, economic circumstances, or religious beliefs, we are all united when it comes to one thing – just like me, everyone wants happiness, and just like me, everyone wants to avoid suffering. Moreover, just like me, everyone wants to be loved, safe, and healthy, and just like me, no one wants to fee afraid or inadequate, or to be despised, sick, lonely or depressed. We come to realize that whatever differences there are between people, in essence, we are all seeking the same things. Through reflecting on the fundamental equality of our self and others we are able to see beyond the differences that divide us to the common humanity that unites us. This is the basis for identifying with others, and placing ourselves in their shoes; it is the basis for empathy, a key attribute of the compassionate mind.
Exercise in Widening Our Circle of Compassion
Settle into a posture that is comfortable, relaxed and alert. Focus your awareness on your breathing, allowing the gentle rhythm of your breathing to both nourish and soothe your body. Imagine that you are identifying with your compassionate self. Bring to mind each of the qualities of your compassionate self – wisdom, strength, warmth, and commitment – and imagine that these qualities are present within you. Remember to create a friendly facial expression and imagine you have a warm voice tone.
Someone Who is Close
Bring to mind someone you hold dear and imagine that she is sitting in front of you or going about her daily business. This can be a visual image or a felt sense of her being present. This might be a parent, child, partner, or even a pet for whom you feel a natural flow of love and care. Now think of a time when this person (or pet) was going through a difficult phase. Notice how you feel a sense of concern based on your feelings of tenderness and care, and how there is a natural movement of compassion, wanting to reach out and help alleviate her suffering.
While holding to your compassionate self and maintaining your friendly facial expression and warm voice tone, imagine directing the following heartfelt wishes to this person.
(Say their name) May you be happy and well.
(Say their name) May you be free of suffering and pain.
(Say their name) May you experience joy and well-being.
Connect to the flow of compassion toward your loved one and pay attention to the feelings that arise in you when you focus on your heartfelt wish for her to be happy and free from suffering. If the feelings do not flow easily, then remain connected to your intention to be kind, supportive, and committed.
Now shift perspective and reflect for a moment on how it may be very natural for you to feel love and care for this person, but to someone at work, for example, your loved one might be seen as hostile and aggressive and may even be the object of loathing. And then reflect on how, for the vast majority of people, your loved one is merely part of a faceless crowd. So you see how your feelings arise out of your particular relationship; they are not qualities intrinsic to that person.
And now reflect that just like you and your loved one, the people who do not like her and the people who are indifferent to her all want to be happy and free from suffering. In this respect, they are all equal. Then let the image of your loved one fade, and spend a few moments tuning in to the feelings that may have arisen in you, noticing in particular how this feels in your body.
Someone Who is Neutral
Now think of someone whom you neither like nor dislike, but have some form of contact with on a daily basis. It might he a bus driver, the person who serves you coffee on a break at work, a classmate, or someone you see on the train every morning. Bring to mind an actual person. Think that, just like you, this person has dreams, hopes and fears. Just like you, this person finds herself in the flow of life and struggles with her emotions, life circumstances, and setbacks. Just like you, this person struggles with feelings of anxiety and anger and self-critical thoughts; she is hurt by rejection and boosted by love.
Now imagine this person facing suffering in some way: perhaps dealing with conflict at work, struggling with addiction or depression, or feeling lonely and unloved. Then allow your heart to feel tenderness and concern for this person and offer the following heartfelt wishes:
May you be happy and well.
May you be free of suffering and pain.
May you experience joy and well-being.
Notice how you feel when you express these wishes. Perhaps there is a natural flow of care and concern, or perhaps you feel indifferent or even irritated by the exercise. If you notice yourself feeling shut down, irritated, or resistant, simply be curious about this and notice where you feel this in your body. Is there tightness in your face, jaw, or shoulders, or tension and contraction in some other part of your body? Try to be gentle and honest, not suppressing the emotions you are feeling. Try looking” from the balcony,” so to speak, as an observer of how your threat and compassion systems are clashing in some way. Then affirm your intention that although you cannot open up to this person right now, you make the wish that one day you may open your heart more fully.
Now shift perspective and think about how this person to whom you feel indifferent loves and cares for some people; there are people who look forward to seeing her when she comes home from work; there are things in her life that she cherishes. In this way, reflect that your indifference or neutrality is about you and the way you see things; it is not intrinsic to her.
And now reflect that just like you, this person wants to be happy, and just like you, this person wants to be free of suffering and pain. Just like you, she wants to be loved, safe, and healthy; and just like you, she does not want to be despised, lonely, or depressed. Let the poignancy of this person touch you. Then let the image of this person fade and spend a few moments tuning in to the feelings that may have arisen in you, noticing in particular how this feels in your body.
Someone Who Is Difficult
Now think of someone you dislike, and who may have done you some harm, someone who is an adversary or competitor, or someone you know but have little time or regard for. Bring a particular person to mind and imagine that he is present in front of you, focusing on the felt sense of his presence. Despite what this person has done, just like you, he has hopes and aspirations for this life. Just like you, he finds himself in the flow of life with a complex brain and a difficult array of emotions that pull him this way and that. Just like you, this person struggles with feelings of anxiety and anger and self-critical thoughts.
Now imagine this person facing suffering in some way, perhaps dealing with conflict at home or at work, struggling with addiction or depression, or feeling lonely and unloved. Maybe you can even see that one of the reasons he is difficult is because inside he is suffering; he may be insecure and angry at the way his life is. Then allow your heart to feel tenderness and concern for this person and make the following heartfelt wishes:
(Say their name) May you be happy and well.
(Say their name) May you be free of suffering and pain.
(Say their name) May you experience joy and well-being.
Notice how you feel when you make these wishes. Is there a natural flow of tenderness and care toward this person, or does your heart feel contracted and resentful, not really wanting this person to be happy and free of suffering? Simply notice how you are feeling – there is not right or wrong way to feel. Be curious and tune in to how you are feeling in your body – is there tightness in your face, jaw, or shoulders, or tension and contraction in some other part of your body? Maybe you feel the very opposite of compassion, and that is completely okay. Just affirm your intention that one day you may open your heart more fully than today.
Now shift your perspective and reflect that other people might see your adversary in a very different light. He might be adored by some even though you cannot stand the sight of him. He might be a loving parent at home and very tender with pets. In this way, reflect that your feelings and reactions may have a lot more to do with you than they have to do with him. This does not mean to say that you have to condone his negative actions. If you find this step too difficult, then return to the aspiration stage and aspire to one day see past your initial reactions and wish him well.
Now once again, reflect that just like you, this person wants to be happy, and just like you, this person wants to be free from suffering and pain. Just like you, this person wants to be loved, safe, and healthy, and just like you, he does not want to be despised, lonely, or depressed. Let the humanity of this person touch you. In essence, he is just like you. Then let the image of this person fade and spend a few moments tuning into the feelings that may have arisen in your, noticing in particular how this feels in our body.
Opening Out to All Others
Bring to mind the three types of people you have been working with – someone close, someone you feel indifferent toward, and someone who is difficult. Recall that they all share the same basic yearning to be happy and free from suffering; they are all actors in the flow of life. In this respect, they are exactly the same. Now contemplate people you know, going through them person by person. Begin with friends and loved ones, and then to people you have less connection with, such as those who serve you coffee or sell you the morning newspaper as you walk to work. Then gradually open this up to include adversaries and those you find difficult. Imagine that, just like you these people want happiness and don’t want suffering; just like you, these people do not want stress; just like you, these people want safety and ease; just like you, they want to be loved. The more personal you make it, the more powerfully it will move you. Now gradually expand your awareness to take in other people who live or work near you, those in your neighborhood and your town, those who live in the same country and continent, and finally all living beings everywhere. And now, imagining all beings everywhere, you can conclude with these heartfelt wishes:
May all living beings be happy and create the causes of happiness.
May all living beings be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.
May all living being experience great joy and well-being untainted by suffering.
May all living beings come to rest in a peaceful, contented state of mind.
Focus mainly on your heartfelt wishes flowing out in all directions and becoming more and more expansive. And then foster a sense of appreciate for all these countless living beings upon whom our lives depend in so many way, in this way seeing life as an interconnected web. Then let the visualization fade and spend a few moments tuning in to the feelings that may have arisen in you, noticing in particular how this feels in your body. Then rest, without focusing on anything in particular stretch, and get up.
Mindful Compassion: How the science of compassion can help you understand your emotions, live in the present, and connect deeply with others by Paul Gilbert, PhD and Choden. New Harbinger Publications, 2014.
The Compassionate Mind: A new approach to life’s challenges by Paul Gilbert, PhD New Harbinger Publications, 2009.
The Power of Self-Compassion: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to End Self-Criticism and Build Self-Confidence by Mary Welford, foreword by Paul Gilbert. New Harbinger Publications, 2013.
The Compassionate Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Calm Worry, Panic and Fear by Dennis Trich, foreword by Paul Gilbert. New Harbinger Publications, 2012.