Day 27 Meditation
Sometimes lovingkindness comes in the form of compassion, the stirring of the heart in response to pain or suffering — our own, or that of others. Compassion overcomes the tendency to isolate ourselves if we’re the ones in pain, or to avoid others whose pain we fear will discomfit us. Compassion ultimately involves seeing difficult states like fear, greed, and jealousy not as bad and wrong and terrible but as states of suffering. The more we do that, the more compassion will spontaneously arise within us.
Lovingkindness and compassion are the basis for wise, powerful, sometimes gentle, and sometimes fierce actions that can really make a difference — in our own lives and those of others.
When I toured a wing of Walter Reed Army Hospital before spending an afternoon offering a meditation class to nurses working there, the woman giving me the tour said, “You know, the nurses who can stay here are not the ones who get lost in the suffering; they’re the ones who can connect to the resiliency of the human spirit.” For these nurses, compassion doesn’t mean being so overcome with sorrow that they can’t help their patients. Rather, by tapping into their own resiliency and that of their patients, they’re motivated to act.
Question & Answer
Q: I’m afraid I’m losing the ability to defend myself or look out for myself when it’s appropriate. With all this open-hearted lovingkindness in me, I feel like I’m wearing a sign that says “do with me what you will. I will merely accept you.”
A: This is a very important question. Through our experience with lovingkindness, we will come to see that compassion doesn’t necessarily leave us weak or sentimental or susceptible to being used by others. But until we discover that, of course we worry: “I’m so openhearted. I’ll just smile and let anybody do whatever they want to me or to other people.” That’s our conditioning; we’re likely to have grown up hearing “give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile” or even “everybody’s out to get you.”
We have this idea that if we’re coming from a compassionate place, we can only be nice and say yes to everything. But sometimes the most compassionate response might be saying no—refusing to enable someone’s destructive behavior, setting a limit, or trying to the best of your ability to keep someone from hurting themselves. Practicing lovingkindness doesn’t mean that you’re no longer discerning or proactive.
A friend of mine is a wonderfully empathic therapist. One day a man came to see her, beseeching her to take him on as a patient. She found his political views alienating, his feelings about women repugnant, and his behavior quite annoying. In short, she didn’t like him at all and urged him to find another therapist. But he very much wanted to work with her, so she finally gave in and took him on. Once he became her client, she tried to look at his unskillful behavior with compassion instead of with contempt and fear. She began to see all the ways in which his life was very difficult, all the ways he had shut himself off from others. Soon, even though she continued to see his behavior as undeniably unpleasant, she found herself feeling that she needed to be his ally, to help him find the way out of his suffering. Even though I don’t believe she ever liked him, or approved of most of his views, she came to care deeply about him.
Welcome back. Today’ we’re going to explore the quality of compassion as a facet of lovingkindness. This is a reflection that can be done in any posture, eyes open or closed, just be relaxed.
Call to mind a difficult emotion you felt recently, anger, greed, jealousy, fear. Then notice how you feel about that emotion. Are you ashamed of it? Do you dislike yourself for it? Do you feel you should have been able to prevent it from arising? Do you consider yourself, in some way, bad or wrong for having this feeling? And see what happens if you translate that sense of bad, wrong, defective, terrible, to painful, recognizing that the state of anger or fear or jealousy is a painful state, it’s a state of suffering. See what happens to your relationship to that feeling as you make this translation. Now take that emotion, see what it feels like in your body, the anger, the fear, the jealousy, whatever, now held with some kindness, some compassion.
Observe the various sensations, maybe it’s tightening in your chest, constriction. Notice the nature of the compassion, which is holding it, surrounding it. The pain is there and the compassion is there. Notice the affect if that idea of bad and wrong and terrible comes back.
Now, imagine someone you know filled with that same emotion, jealousy, anger, fear, or greed. Notice what happens as you describe to yourself those states of emotion as bad, wrong, terrible, horrible. Now what happens as you respond to them instead as states of pain or suffering? You can reflect on the fact that we can’t seem to control the arising of these feelings. We didn’t invite them, we didn’t wish for them. But as conditions come together, they arise, and we see our own greed, jealousy, hatred, and so on. We don’t need to be overcome by them, defined by them, fall into them, act from them, but we’re actually not able to prevent them from arising. This is just in the nature of things, for ourselves and for others.
We can commit ourselves to trying to see them very quickly, to recognize their painful nature, to have compassion for ourselves and to let go. We can commit ourselves to remembering that when someone else is acting badly, the state that is likely motivating them, of greed, or hatred, or fear, is a painful state and we can have compassion for them. Even as we may take strong action to try to change the situation, protect ourselves or take care of someone else, our motive in doing so need not be a sense of disgust or aversion but can be that recognition of the pain they are in.
And when you feel ready, you can open your eyes and relax. Pay attention to what it feels like to recognize certain states within yourself as states of suffering rather than calling them bad or wrong. Was that different, was it helpful? See what it’s like when you bring that kind of consciousness toward yourself and toward others into your day.