Cultivating Compassion: The Contemplative Approach
A talk given by Patrick Gaffney at the Empathy and Compassion in Society Conference in London on 23 November 2012.
It’s no secret that when it comes to thinking about and meditating on compassion, a lot of ideas come from the Buddhist tradition, especially that of Tibet. But these methods are now being used by people of any or no religion, all over the planet. They are based on the reality that we can train the mind, just like the body. And that we can change.
Not so long ago in the United States, a teacher who was speaking at a high school graduation shocked and outraged everyone when he told the students, “You are not special.” Everyone froze and listened in horror as he went on: “Even if you were one in a million, there would still be 7,000 just like you… You’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, bubble-wrapped, feted and fawned over, and called sweetie pie. You are not exceptional…”
He seems to have put his finger on something, because it looks like we have created a world where we are fixated on ourselves. Tons of time and money go into worshipping our self-image. There’s the beauty industry, the anti-aging industry, X-factor, American Idol, buying more and more stuff, or just feeding ourselves until we burst. Self-centredness and self-cherishing are actually encouraged, and held to be the key to success. Psychologists talk about the ‘epidemic of narcissism’. There we have it: in the myth, Narcissus actually dies, out of sheer infatuation with himself.
This is where compassion comes in, because fundamentally compassion is about a profound shift, from focusing entirely on our self towards focusing on others—a fundamental change of attitude. It undoes our fixation on self, and there is a wonderful twist here, because developing a genuine concern for others actually does a much better job of looking after our own welfare than making ourselves number one the whole time.
Our American teacher finished his address by giving the students this advice: “Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the seven billion—and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.“
Simply put, compassion is the wish to relieve suffering and its causes, coupled with the urge to act in order to do something about it. Compassion is sometimes called ‘the inability to bear someone else’s suffering.’ Think of that instinctive feeling that a parent has to help a child in trouble, a child feels for a parent with Alzheimer’s, or we feel when we hear a dear friend has been re-diagnosed with cancer.
But compassion is much more than just a feeling or an emotion. It includes a strong cognitive element, of reason or thinking. It is an attitude, an awareness, and something that is directed towards everyone, including ourselves. And it is about respect, not pity.
Now we all have the seed of compassion. The Buddha, Darwin and the primatologists agree that the ability to feel and experience the suffering or happiness of someone else is hard-wired into our nature. This is what makes us special. In fact you can say that our true nature as human beings is fundamental goodness—open, clear, loving, intelligent, limitless and compassionate. So compassion is not some vague or random quality, which we may or may not have. It can be cultivated by anyone. And when we take this basic human feeling, this open heartedness, and expand it deliberately, developing it with our imagination, then we are cultivating compassion.
There are all kinds of daft ideas about compassion. First that it is a purely religious matter. That is evidently not true. The Dalai Lama, something of an authority on compassion, spends most of his time campaigning for what he calls secular ethics, a universal altruism that fits everyone and is beyond religion.
Then you might say that compassion is all about helping other people and you end up neglecting your own welfare. But frankly who benefits from self-centredness? Neither us, nor others. Who benefits from caring for others? Whatever other people may get from our compassion, we ourselves benefit 100%. This is why it is said that if you want to be ‘wisely selfish’, look after others.
Then you could claim that compassion is a refuge for wimps and softies, and breeds weakness, especially in this brutal, competitive world of ours. The American entrepreneur Donald Trump once said, “Show me someone without ego, and I’ll show you a loser!” So will we end up an army of helpless low achievers and doormats? Far from it; some of the most compassionate people I know are also the toughest and the most determined and uncompromising.
So part of cultivating compassion is making a checklist in our minds of the pros and cons of self-regard versus altruism. Thinking of our self at the centre of the universe—we know what it feels like—seems to guarantee a claustrophobic narrowing of our vision. It tends to attract misfortune. We blame others, the slightest disappointment upsets us and becomes a catastrophe, and if we do a good turn for someone we go on and on about it. We make a huge mistake when we think cherishing just our self is our best protection, and in our ultimate interest.
All of us have a persuasive little voice in our heads with its running commentary, looking after number one. Of course we need a certain functional, warm sense of identity in order to live, but most of us are being cultivated by our egos. And on a global and economic, environmental scale, this is disastrous.
On the other hand, developing a genuine concern for others, as we can see from the scientific and medical research, brings us all kinds of benefits—it makes us kinder, healthier and less stressed. It stands to reason that by thinking of others, inevitably our minds expand and become more spacious. The feeling that our own problems are so huge and insurmountable fades away. Courage and fearlessness grow too, because compassion involves facing difficulties, changing our attitude to pain and standing in the presence of suffering—ours or someone else’s. The Dalai Lama says: “Cultivating a close warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life.”
Compassion is something that always corresponds to reality. Martin Luther King said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. This is the interrelated structure of all reality.”
All of us are profoundly connected with one another. Aren’t we all descended from one lady in East Africa? Virtually everything we use, consume and feel is because of other people. Being born, growing up and getting old, we depend entirely on others. We are utterly interdependent, which means that our happiness and our suffering are inextricably bound up with the happiness and suffering of others.
One crucial thing we all have in common is that all of us are seeking happiness and fulfilment and all of us are trying to steer clear of suffering. Isn’t this what everyone wants? And so a key step in cultivating compassion is to turn over in our minds this undeniable fact that all of us are the same. To dwell on it, absorb it, and even remember it when you see others in the street and imagine they are just like another you. All of us need one another, we all make mistakes and we all face challenges, suffering, of one kind or another. One ancient philosopher said: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” The only difference between us and others is that they outnumber us, seven billion to one. So whose agenda is more important: ours or theirs?
And so in cultivating compassion, at the very least we try to feel like we are all playing on the same team. We always begin with ourselves, and with our own experience, with our own suffering and understanding of it. We know what it’s like to feel frustration, isolation, anger and grief; we know what it’s like to be our own worst enemy. We also know what brings us contentment and well-being. So it’s our own experience, our own wish to break free, that becomes the channel to compassion for another.
At the moment our love and compassion are quite limited. Often they are based on another person’s attitude or behaviour or relationship towards us. It’s almost a kind of bargain or contract. True compassion is something we generate for everyone, based on the mere fact of their being alive. So a mark of our progress in cultivating compassion is when we can step outside of our comfort zone and feel the same compassion for our enemies and people we cannot stand, as we do for our loved ones.
So the first step in cultivating compassion is everything that has been said so far—when we recognize personally the importance, the value—maybe even the sheer desperate need—for compassion. For only this will give us the commitment and energy to bother about training in compassion.
Then, we need to take a sober glance at our own minds. To cultivate compassion we need to have at least some ability to focus our attention—on others, on acts of kindness, on compassion itself. Researchers at Harvard found that our minds tend to wander off from what we are supposed to be doing an amazing 47% of the time. And it makes us unhappy. It means, allowing time for sleep, we clock up nearly eight hours a day in ‘the non-present’. It’s like a full-time job!
This is why we need to bring the mind home with the practice of meditation. Sogyal Rinpoche has said that to learn how to meditate is the greatest gift of kindness we can give ourselves. We get to see how our minds work, which, of course, is not without a distinct element of comedy. Meditation means “familiarizing ourselves”, and we learn how to leave the mind alone, relax in the present moment, and gradually discover a state of non-distraction. We learn how to be non-judgemental and compassionate towards ourselves whenever our mind wanders off, or slides into some insane or nasty thought state. The beauty is that we establish a different relationship with our thoughts: one where we don’t repress them, we don’t become their slaves, and, above all, we don’t identify with them.
As we practise meditation, it can dawn on us quite naturally that we don’t have to protect ourselves any longer, there’s no reason to feel insecure or afraid, and there’s nothing to stop us from being compassionate. When we are in touch with who we are, we can be in touch with others.
With this kind of focus and attention, then we can develop our natural capacity for warm-heartedness and concern for others. We can meditate on love, compassion, joyfulness or equanimity. Let’s take the meditation on love or loving kindness—‘unconditional friendliness’. Here we use mental images, or phrases repeated in the mind, to contact and enhance our capacity for love, which is the wish to bring happiness and its causes, for ourself and for others. Phrases like: “May you be safe; May you be happy; May you be healthy; May you live with ease…”
This is a powerful method, which proves particularly helpful when directed towards ourselves. “May I be well; may I be happy.” We imagine ourselves opening to receive love.
In fact self-compassion—kindness, understanding and acceptance aimed at ourselves—seems immensely important for us today when we feel that we don’t deserve to be happy, we feel unworthy, lonely and insecure, or have a talent for being extremely self critical. It also stops us getting overwhelmed when we encounter others’ suffering, or just using compassion for others as a way to escape or ignore our own unhappiness. Finding love and compassion for others is that much easier when we have found it for ourselves.
When we come to cultivate compassion for others, we focus on a loved one: someone for whom we feel dearness or gratitude; someone who is spontaneously associated in our heart with feelings of love; someone who is suffering. The natural feelings that we are used to having for a few moments we nurture for twenty minutes or half an hour. We arouse a strong feeling for them to be free from suffering, pain, anguish and anxiety, and their causes. Starting with those we love, we expand that feeling and direct our compassion towards people who are progressively more distant or troublesome. So we imagine sending compassion to our loved ones first, then to friends, members of our family (of course their position in the sequence may vary), strangers, rivals, then all human beings and all living things everywhere.
One of the most popular and key practices of compassion is tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning ‘sending and taking’, or ‘giving and receiving’. We give happiness and well-being and we take suffering on ourselves. Mentally, we imagine the suffering, fear, isolation and discomfort experienced by others (or ourselves) and we breathe it in with our in-breath. We can imagine that it destroys our self-cherishing. As we breathe out we imagine we give the person our happiness and well-being: whatever it is that they need.
Many people have found this practice an enormous help when ill or when someone is dying. It’s a practice too, which is very helpful in healing relationships or things that went wrong in the past. It can be used in everyday life in the most ordinary circumstances, when we are waiting in a queue or stuck in a traffic jam, for example.
Of course, by taking suffering and giving happiness, we are throwing a spanner in the mechanics of our usual patterns of behaviour. And so whatever its impact on others may be, one thing that is certain is that tonglen decreases our attitude of self-centredness and enhances our capacity to care for others.
This kind of compassion is one that seeks to put ourselves completely in another’s shoes, to the point where we exchange our happiness for their suffering. And whenever anything undesirable or painful happens to us, any difficult feelings, we breathe these in and arouse a heartfelt compassion for the countless people who are now undergoing fear, isolation or pain like ours, wishing they be free from it all. We are already suffering, and so we make a strong wish that all their suffering lands on us instead, and that they may all be released from it, and find happiness.
All of these practices can be done like a formal training, or informally at any time in our day-to-day life. This is because 1) compassion is not something that someone else does. 2) It’s not telescopic either—it has to be practised at home, in the street, as much as we can manage. 3) We need to make all this as real as possible, accepting exactly where we are and not having any illusions about being perfect.
4) Compassion means always examining our mind, and choosing to act with generosity, self-restraint, patience, attention and deep thoughtfulness. And 5) basically compassion means letting go of wanting everything our own way, letting go of proving our identity the whole time, letting go of making ourselves the most important person in the world.
Whatever our flaws or failings, we all have the capacity to wake up and be the authors of change, in ourselves first and then in the world around us. It is in us. One by one, we can do it. Someone once said that compassion is a natural resource, an energy on a par with wind, water, oil, solar or nuclear energy. This is why it is so inspiring to see groups like the Charter for Compassion, CCare and Action for Happiness drawing our attention to compassion, the scientists and psychologists researching it, not to mention the countless people who already embody it. The Dalai Lama spoke about this natural resource when he was given the 2012 Templeton Prize in London: “We need to share this with more and more people. If a thousand can make an effort, it can multiply to ten thousand, a hundred thousand. That’s the way to change the human mind.”
© Tertön Sogyal Trust