Tonight’s talk, “The Heart of Compassion,” is adapted from a presentation that touched my heart during recent InterSangha meetings at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. My friend, Lori Wong, Community Dharma Leader of Insight Meditation Central Valley in Modesto, California, took an 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University. Since 2014, she has been using the CCT protocol to teach veterans with PTSD, adolescents in schools, as well as physicians, nurses and hospital leaders.
Lori listed four conditions for compassion to arise in the heart: First we recognize suffering with awareness. Secondly, we experience how the suffering affects us in body, thoughts, and emotions. (Here we must be alert for the danger of feeling overwhelmed with “empathic distress.”) Thirdly, we intend to alleviate the suffering—the natural response of an open heart. Lastly, our willingness to alleviate suffering leads to acting appropriately. Action has many different aspects. Often compassionate presence and willingness to witness are more skillful responses than doing something concrete.
Mathieu Ricard, a French scientist and monk who has written about happiness, asks us to consider if we are acting to relieve our own discomfort or out of true concern and compassion for another’s suffering. He distinguishes compassion from empathy, which entails being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others. When I volunteer at Omega House hospice as a Contemplative Chaplaincy intern, I sense when I am losing myself in a patient’s suffering, and I try to remember that the natural quivering of the heart in the face of suffering is not personal. I am learning that it is not skillful to attempt to fix someone else so that I feel better myself!
Matthieu Ricard participated in a MRI study to evaluate the body and brain’s differing responses to feelings of empathy and compassion. In both instances, he gazed at photos of suffering victims. Initially, when he concentrated on feeling only empathy for the victims, he felt exhausted. Then when he practiced only compassion for the same victims, he was suffused with fulfillment and joy. His MRI exams revealed more angst and stress in the former situation and more calm and relaxation in the latter one.
The Buddha taught that a monk “free from enmity and free from distress” feels compassion (DN 13, translation Nyanaponika). According to Bhikkhu Anälayo, “Compassion is a positive mental state that is open to suffering but envisions an improvement of the other’s condition and is willing to go out of one’s way to help…Out of the willingness to give priority to helping the other—that is where the joy comes from.”
Recently at Omega House, I witnessed the director’s extraordinary capacity for compassion. Sandy had evicted a formerly homeless, wheelchair-bound AIDS patient for smoking Kush at the hospice. The next day, he wheeled up to the front door, weak, exhausted, stoned, and urine-soaked, begging her to readmit him. Sandy ushered him inside, instructing a volunteer to assist the on-duty nurse with bathing him, laundering his stinking clothes, hosing down and cleaning his wheelchair, and inviting the patient to bask in the sun on the patio until he was sober enough to talk about realistic plans for his final days of life. Sandy responded compassionately yet pragmatically, without being caught sentimentally in the patient’s drama.
Brahma Vihara practice prioritizes and starts with the self. Self-care precedes compassion for others and differs from either self-pity or self-indulgence. If our own cup is not full, we are too drained to help others, and we burn out. Before we send loving kindness to loved ones, a neutral person, a difficult person and to all beings everywhere, Metta practice begins with:
May I be peaceful and happy.
May I be healthy in body and mind.
From inner and outer harm may I be safe.
From all suffering may I be free.
At the start of each day, I set an intention to be kind to myself and to others. At the end of the day, it is helpful to pay attention to the fruits of our kindness and compassion.
Alain de Botton, founder of the School for Life, writes about monastic chanting as a daily reminder of a wise, loving and caring spiritual path. His view of love is full of humor and compassion:
We have this ideal of what love is and then very unhelpful narratives of love. But if you say, “Love is a painful, poignant, touching attempt by two flawed individuals to try and meet each other’s needs in situations of gross uncertainty and ignorance about who they are and who the other person is, but we’re going to do our best,” that’s a much more generous starting point.
Now let’s do a guided compassion exercise:
Please choose a partner.
Sit face-to-face with closed eyes.
If you wish, you may place a hand on your heart to calm and comfort yourself.
Start meditating, and notice how you feel sharing the meditative field with your partner.
Now imagine what your partner is feeling. Be aware of any stories arising.
Open your eyes and look carefully at all the features and details of each other’s face.
Close your eyes and consider that just like you the other person has experienced joy, sorrow and suffering. Just like you, the other person longs for loving care and attention.
Still with eyes closed, start transmitting compassion to your partner.
Repeat the following phrases:
I care about your suffering.
May your suffering be eased.
From all suffering may you be free.
Sense your heart filling with compassion.
Tune into receiving the compassion that your partner is sending you.
Feel gratitude in your heart.
Slowly bring the compassion practice to an end.
At your own rhythm, open your eyes.
Express thanks to your partner.
As we return to the group circle, are there any comments or questions about the guided compassion exercise or about the Dharma talk?