Welcome to the second in my series on the Brahmaviharas – a set of four qualities in Buddhist teachings. These are: loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. In this article I’ll be focusing on the profound virtue of compassion (Karuna). You can find the article about the first jewel, loving kindness, here.
What is compassion?
Compassion distinguishes itself from loving-kindness, in the way that it extends beyond feelings of warm-heartedness and goodwill towards others (loving-kindness). Tara Brach describes compassion as the act of allowing ourselves to be deeply touched by the vulnerability and suffering that exists within ourselves and all beings. She emphasizes that true compassion involves not only attuning to the presence of suffering but also taking responsive action. It encompasses a heartfelt response to alleviate suffering and make a positive difference in the lives of others.
Steps to strengthen our capacity for compassion
The cultivation of compassion involves two essential steps.
Step 1 – face it directly
The first step involves overcoming our natural inclination to avoid or distance ourselves from suffering. Instead, we consciously choose to face it directly and allow ourselves to be affected by it. It requires a shift in our mindset and a willingness to acknowledge and connect with the pain and struggles of others, as well as ourselves. By turning towards suffering, including our own, we develop a greater understanding and empathy for those who are experiencing it.
Step 2 – take responsive action
The second step involves responding to suffering with care. To go beyond mere empathy and take action to alleviate or address the pain. It involves actively seeking ways to alleviate or address the suffering, both for others and ourselves. It is as important to extend care and kindness towards ourselves, to recognise our own vulnerabilities and treat ourselves with understanding and forgiveness. The response can vary depending on the situation and our capabilities. It can range from offering kind words, providing assistance or support by engaging in acts of service, or even offering prayers or positive thoughts for the wellbeing of others and ourselves.
By following these two steps and cultivating self-compassion, we strengthen our capacity for compassion. This allows us to make a positive difference in the lives of others and contribute to a more compassionate and caring society.
Practice: Compassion in motion
Through a series of heart-opening asanas, gentle movements, the power of breath, and mindfulness we will create space within our bodies and minds, which will nurture feelings of love, empathy, and connection and cultivate deep compassion for ourselves, all beings and the world. My aim is for you to to be inspired, uplifted, and empowered; I hope you enjoy it.
The power of sincere intention
Compassion does not require us to have the ability to solve every problem or provide immediate assistance. Even when faced with situations where we may feel helpless, our capacity for compassion is authentic and virtuous in and of itself. The sincere intention and the genuine care we offer can hold immeasurable value, irrespective of the outcome or our ability to offer tangible solutions.
Compassion does not require us to have the ability to solve every problem or provide immediate assistance… The sincere intention and the genuine care we offer can hold immeasurable value, irrespective of the outcome or our ability to offer tangible solutions.
I have noticed that even if my response to suffering may not have a significant impact on the world at large and I can’t solve the problem or make a big difference, it still affects my heart and spirit. It instills hope within me and keeps me in a positive mindset. It reminds me that my actions matter and have meaning.
For example, I feel a deep compassion for the state of the world and the challenges we face, particularly in relation to climate issues. I have taken the simple step of collecting the water I use in my sink and shower and redistributing it to the plants in my garden. While this action may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, it empowers me and allows me to maintain a positive outlook. In turn, this motivates me to do what I can, and not become despondent.
Compassion transcends judgment
The cultivation of the Brahmaviharas, particularly compassion, is essential in preventing us from becoming discouraged and stagnant in the face of overwhelming challenges. It empowers us to take action and create a positive impact in the world.
Another remarkable aspects of compassion is its independence from agreement or approval. It is possible to extend compassion to others without necessarily aligning with their beliefs or endorsing their actions. Compassion transcends judgment and allows us to offer care and understanding even to those who may cause suffering to themselves or others. It is a powerful reminder that compassion is rooted in empathy and a genuine concern for the well-being of others, regardless of our differences.
Compassion is a profound expression of our interconnectedness and a powerful force for positive change in the world.
Recognizing the significance of self-compassion is crucial for sustaining compassion towards others in the long run. By practicing self-compassion, we avoid becoming depleted and exhausted, ensuring that we have more to offer as we journey through life.
When we establish self-compassion, we can access an inner rootedness and find refuge within ourselves. We become capable of allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by the pain and suffering in the world. This ability to be touched by the suffering of others can be cultivated by caring for oneself. Developing self compassion enables us to navigate feeling the suffering of others without becoming overwhelmed. By cultivating a compassionate and resilient mindset, we can maintain our emotional wellbeing while remaining open and responsive to the suffering around us.
The science of compassion
In the realm of science, it is fascinating to discover that cultivating compassion involves embracing suffering and vulnerability. Surprisingly, experiencing compassion activates the parts of our brain associated with positive emotions. This aligns with our vision of creating a world where caring and kindness hold great value. To truly care, we must pause, observe, and genuinely see the people around us. We must allow their vulnerability to touch us and ignite a sense of tenderness within.
Compassion cultivates lasting positivity
To deepen our connection with this tender caring, it is important to dedicate a brief moment, just 15 to 30 seconds, to fully immerse ourselves in it. Scientific research shows that our negative experiences tend to leave a lasting impact in our memory, easily accessible for recall. This bias towards negativity is ingrained in our evolutionary nature.
Conversely, positive experiences like tenderness, caring, creativity, and happiness may come and go without leaving a lasting impression. However, by intentionally pausing and fully immersing ourselves in the experience of tenderness and compassion, we provide an opportunity for them to become more prominent in our implicit memory. Through consistent practice, compassion becomes a defining trait, an integral part of our identity.
The far reaching benefits
In conclusion, experiencing and expressing compassion has benefits that extend far beyond the individuals involved. It not only reduces stress, promotes healing, and brings solace, it also allows us to offer care without the need for agreement or support. Compassion remains real and virtuous, even in situations where we cannot provide direct help. By consciously nourishing the good within ourselves, we can create a positive impact on our own lives and the world around us, fostering a more compassionate and caring society.
To finish I’d like to share the poem “Please Call Me by My True Names,” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist. This poem beautifully captures the essence of interconnectedness and the depth of our shared humanity. It invites us to embrace both joy and suffering with compassion, acknowledging the diverse experiences of all beings.
Please Call Me by My True Names, by Thich Nhat Hanh
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.
Watch my recorded Satsang
A while ago, I gave a Satsang about this subject. I discussed it, shared inquiry exercises, and led a meditation on compassion which focused on how to stay rooted while allowing yourself to be deeply moved by the pain and suffering in the world. If you’re interested in watching it, here’s the link.