Welcome to this fifth session in the eight week series on Engaged Mindfulness. This is also the third session focused on cultivating compassion.
Christopher Germer, PhD, co-founder of Mindful Self-Compassion program, states, “A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” This week’s opening meditation focuses on cultivating self-compassion by focusing on an experience of love and inviting love’s warmth to grow in our heart and body, holding tenderly any sensations and feelings that arise.
Begin by moving into a comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, or standing) where you can remain alert, yet relaxed.
Embracing common humanity and widening our circle of compassion are in a way two sides of the same coin. The following two meditations are intended to cultivate such an understanding. With the election on the horizon, an unrelenting pandemic, and all the consequences of these realities, I believe we are at a crossroads. There are many people talking about this right now, so I know I am not alone in thinking this way. We can either go down the path of separation, mistrust, exclusion, and division or we can go choose the path of connection, understanding, belonging, and inclusivity. To choose the later path and to help others choose this path too, we must be willing to cultivate compassion for others. This includes people we do not know, people we feel are different from us, and those with whom we do not agree. This is not always easy, but our willingness is a necessity. The Dalai Lama makes the point that “love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” Let us find the courage to dip our toe in the water and get more comfortable with this willingness to grow compassion for others, especially for those we do not know or find difficult to be compassionate towards.
“Compassion is a verb,” says Thich Nhat Hahn. It is an action; it is the turning toward suffering. We can think of compassion as an equation: empathy (feeling with another, to be in another’s shoes) + the impulse to alleviate this person’s suffering = compassion. We practiced this last week for ourselves. A benefit of self-compassion is the understanding of other’s pain and suffering. By practicing compassion for ourselves, we find it easier to have compassion for others.
Some people use empathy and compassion interchangeably, but they are not the same. Empathy is a part of or precursor to compassion. It is important that we tap into empathy if we want to get to compassion. So, how do we have empathy for people we do not know, we do not like, we see as different than us or hold differing views? We begin by embracing common humanity.
Common humanity is the recognition of the basic sameness of self and others in that we all share a common aspiration for happiness and freedom from suffering. In understanding this fundamental truth, we begin to see the humanness behind the mask, behind the behavior, behind the tweets. etc.. We begin to understand that just like me, regardless of our differences or disagreements, others want to be happy, be free from pain, live with ease, feel safe and secure. I believe that common humanity is on the ballot right now. If more people would embrace it, then more would choose the path of connection, belonging, justice and inclusivity. We would begin to see an important shift in our culture and in our governing. While it is likely those of you reading this have chosen such a path, I encourage us to remember that this change starts with us. This is why we practice. We practice for ourselves, but we also practice for others. So let us explore this through meditation.
If you found it difficult in this meditation to picture someone who is challenging for you, that is okay. This is why we practice self-compassion. Sometimes we are not ready to open our hearts, to have compassion for someone who has hurt us. Compassion, especially when we practice it for ourselves, helps us have a boundary. It is okay to say “no.” Cultivating common humanity and compassion does not mean we condone inappropriate, mean or malicious behavior. In this meditation, we are not saying the challenging person’s behavior is acceptable; instead, we are cultivating the capacity to see the person, the human being, beyond the behavior.
Tara Brach shares a story in which illustrates this point clearly. Here it is: Imagine you are walking in the woods and you see a small dog sitting by a tree. As you approach it, it suddenly lunges at you, teeth bared. You are frightened and angry. But then you notice that one of its legs is caught in a trap. Immediately your mood shifts from anger to concern. You see that the dog’s aggression is coming from a place of vulnerability and pain. This applies to all of us. When we behave in hurtful ways, it is because we are caught in some kind of trap. The more we look through the eyes of wisdom at ourselves and one another, the more we cultivate a compassionate heart. It can be quite helpful when we are dealing with someone who is challenging (and I have applied this to my child expressing his anger), to think as if they are caught in a trap. They are perhaps responding from a place of vulnerability and pain. This does not mean we have to go towards the lunging dog or the angry person. We have the choice to say not right now. What this helps us do is to understand that this person is not necessarily their behavior. This is an important distinction.
Another way to further cultivate compassion for others is to recognize their goodness, to see beneath the mask, beyond the trap. Last week I used the analogy of the orange. In this meditation we get past the bitter rind and experience the sweetness, the goodness, inside. Paul Gilbert, mental health expert and author, writes in his book Mindful Compassion, “[C]ompassion is not just about becoming aware of suffering and trying to relieve it in others; it is also about rejoicing in the possibility of others being happy and free of suffering.” We can think about the pain and suffering as well as rejoice in the fact we want people to be happy and to not suffer.
In this last practice, we will visualize three people again, but this time we will offer lovingkindness. We will focus more on their goodness, to see beyond the mask.
- Pause and notice someone (a friend, a total stranger) and silently wish them to be happy, well, free from fear and at ease.
- Try to really “see” other people in your life. At least once a day, notice someone you would otherwise not really “see,” and contemplate, “Just like me, this person wishes to be happy, healthy, and free from suffering.”
- Look for an opportunity to reinterpret your reaction to a situation/interaction – “Just like me, this person wishes to be happy, loved, and appreciated.”
- Discover what happens when you let someone know the goodness you are seeing in them.