This blogpost is part of the international initiative, using #1000Speak on Twitter. It aims to raise awareness of, and promote, compassion, kindness and non-judgementalism as a ‘response’ in life. With so much depressing content in the news, it struck me as a really neat idea.
I wanted to say a little about how Buddhism views compassion. According to the teachings of the Buddha 2,500 years ago, compassion is seen as one of two qualities which are needed to achieve enlightenment. The other is wisdom. The two things work together: compassion arises from wisdom, and wisdom from compassion. For most of us, enlightenment is probably not a life goal. It isn’t for me. But Buddhist teachings are relevant to anyone who is interested in living a life based on kindness and compassion.
Most dictionaries define compassion as the sympathetic awareness of the suffering of another person combined with the desire to alleviate that suffering. Buddhism offers a similar definition but would add a few ideas which I think are important.
The Buddha taught that the most appropriate response to suffering is compassion. It is interesting – and not always pleasant – to reflect on whether in our own responses, this is always, sometimes or never the case. Are we selectively compassionate? To some people but not others? Only when we feel like it? Perhaps compassion is a useful response in all situations, not just those involving suffering. The suggestion is that the more conscious we are of our habitual responses in life – emotionally and behaviourally – the more likely we are to modify them.
In October I went on a meditation retreat in North Wales. The focus of the retreat was on four meditation practices which are all based around the ideas of kindness and compassion. In this blogpost I am going to say a little about the quality which each practice focuses on. This is because each one introduces us to aspects of life which, it is suggested, we might be ignoring or turning away from. At their most basic, they show some of the ways in which we can be kind to each other. Accordingly, they fit in perfectly with the #1000Speak theme.
The four meditation practices focus on the development of: kindness; compassion; sympathetic joy; equanimity.
This involves wishing for the happiness of others independent from our personal interest. We are encouraged to develop and show kindness to ourselves – something which we may find challenging or think is selfish. We are encouraged to wish our friends happiness, our acquaintances and complete strangers, and those we find difficult or who have hurt us.
Most of the people around us are strangers and acquaintances. The idea is that at a human level we are all the same. We all have similar thoughts and feelings and desires. To wish the best to someone we don’t know much, if at all, acknowledges our common humanity. Doing the same to someone who has hurt us in some way is extremely powerful and can be very liberating. It isn’t saying that what the person did was okay. It is saying, I know you are suffering about what happened, as am I, and I wish you health and happiness. It is, of course, important to be kind with ourselves if we are not ready to wish a particular person well.
Sometimes wishing another person well may involve loss. They may be leaving us, emotionally or geographically. It is an example of altruism and love to (genuinely) wish another person well when it is at the expense of our own wants and wishes.
A while ago my mother, from whom I had been estranged for many years, rang me out of the blue to announce that she wanted to die. This phone call was the most difficult one I’ve ever had with anyone in my life – and I had to swallow all my feelings and wish her well, and whatever she wanted for herself. She was dead a couple of days later. I reckon if I can do it with her, I can do it with anyone.
This involves a kind and loving response to the suffering of others and results in the desire to alleviate the suffering by taking action to do things which need to be done. Compassion requires sensitivity and strength.
It can be harder to show compassion than kindness. People often find the suffering of others difficult to handle. It can prompt a number of feelings such as fear, irritation, pain and confusion. Sometimes it is worth getting to know these emotions. If suffering creates fear or irritation – why is that?
We are advised to guard against qualities and attitudes which might resemble aspects of compassion but which are actually very different. These are ‘horrified anxiety’ (which is where the emotion experienced results in a dramatic distancing) and ‘sentimental pity’ (which is where the response may be exaggerated but lack real care or commitment to help). Both of these lack warmth and result from the person being more concerned with his own discomfort than the person who is suffering. At the other end of the spectrum are the people who pretend they haven’t seen someone struggling.
The thing about suffering is that it’s relative. We are all struggling with things in life. When we are tired, or struggling ourselves, it is easy to judge the suffering of others. It is easy to be impatient with them. To tell them how much they have to be happy about. Or how others have it worse. But you can’t shame a person into all of a sudden not suffering. The suffering of another person isn’t about you, or me or anyone other than that person.
And it isn’t always obvious.
3. Sympathetic joy
This is rejoicing in the happiness and good fortune of others. In this situation, if the person has something which we would also like, our response can often be resentment and envy. It can include judgements about whether the good fortune is thought to be ‘deserved’ or ‘fair’.
However, the joy of others is enriching. Our own potential for true happiness is not under threat because another person is happy. In truth, the more we wish happiness for others and tune into it, the more likely we are to be happy.
We can sometimes experience ‘vicarious satisfaction’ instead of sympathetic joy. This is where we aren’t actually pleased for the other person but intellectually celebrate it from a distance. Sometimes there is the self-satisfaction of feeling that we have contributed to the other person’s successes, and perhaps deserve some credit. Alternatively ‘hero worship’ can occur in the face of another’s success. Another response – often resulting from envy or resentment – is to ignore the success or happiness, to pretend not to have noticed, as if denying it will somehow make it not be real.
Where responses arise which do not involve sympathetic joy, it’s important to have compassion for ourselves too. Envy and resentment are natural feelings. We all feel them, whether we like to admit it or not. But they are feelings which arise in response to the thoughts we have about our own lives. The trick is to acknowledge them, to sit with them, to bring compassion to them. And often something more loving emerges.
This involves having positive emotion to all people equally, in other words, feeling equally strongly towards everyone. Equanimity requires the attitudes of love and kindness referred to above, the compassion for the suffering of others, and the joy at their good fortune. In reality we are often kinder to people we know and like. It is more challenging to be equally kind to strangers, to those we do not like and to those who have hurt us or made us angry.
I mentioned above that Buddhism adds to dictionary definitions of compassion. The two main ways in which it does this are by suggesting that compassion should be universal, that is, shown to all people equally, and without any desire for selfish gain.
What I like about these four practices, and the qualities they aim to develop, is that they operate at the level of the heart and not the mind. It is the mind which judges, which thinks unkind thoughts, which discriminates. It is the mind which soaks up the stories we are told when we are growing up, about who we are and how life will treat us. It is the mind which internalises and repeats critical voices.
Do I find all of this easy? OhmygoodnessIwish. Does understanding how some of it works mean I’ve got it sussed? Unfortunately, it’s only the beginning. And is why I go on intense meditation retreats.
Meditation can show us ways to ‘get out of’ the mind into the body and the heart so that we have a place to rest and breathe – and to decide who we want to be and how we want to behave. Then, ‘off the cushion’, it can become easier to respond compassionately to things that happen rather than lurching into a reaction based on judgements and assumptions. However, you don’t need to be interested in Buddhism or meditation to see how important and helpful kindness and compassion are.
Thanks so much for reading my blogpost. Do leave comments or questions if you found it interesting, and please forward it on for others to read. I look forward to reading what other people have written.
(For anyone wanting to look the meditation practices up, they are the Brahma Viharas)
Vicky Newham © 2015. All rights reserved.