Developing Compassion

Developing Compassion

In both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, there is a practice called the 4 Immeasurables (Brahma vihara.) These are heart-centered practices that help the spiritual aspirant work with emotions, and are designed to help shift perspective from a “me” centred reality into an attitude of love and acceptance. When you engage these practices to develop loving kindness (maitri), compassion (karuna), empathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upeksa) you essentially train the heart and mind to be happy.  As the Dalai Lama notes, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy, practice compassion.” This week’s practice is centered on the second of the 4 immeaurables,  developing compassion.

What is Compassion?

Compassion means to suffer with. Passion from past participle stem of Latin pati means “to suffer, endure,”, and com means “with” or “together.” When you put others’ well-being before your own, you bypass the egoic stance of holding on tightly to your own experience and trying to get what will benefit only you. Ironically, this release of grip is what brings about true happiness. Because here’s the thing: impermanence is a fundamental truth. We can’t hold on to anything. The sooner you recognise that, the better. Once you realise that your experience is constantly in flux, wishing for the well-being of others is the only true way to subvert the system.

Developing Compassion

Ordinary compassion is the simple wish for others to be happy and free of suffering. We do it when we see an animal hurt on the side of the road. We naturally feel for any being who is suffering, if we are paying attention. Developing compassion is a practice of evoking this mental muscle on a regular basis, through wishing others well.

Immeasurable Compassion

Developing immeasurable compassion means making the aspiration that all beings may be free of suffering, not just the people in our small circle of loved ones. This means extending out your compassion to limitless beings throughout time and space, including Hitler, Osama bin Laden and perpetrators of hate crimes. This is no easy task at the beginning. It is easier to start developing immeasurable compassion with beings who you can relate to. Start where you are are and develop the practice slowly. It can help to remember that everyone was a small child once, and had a mother who loved them, if even only for a moment. Every sentient being wants to be happy. Some of us just get more misguided than others.

Your practice:

Tonglen is a powerful practice to help work with suffering. If you want a mini version of this practice, try this before you go to bed in the evening:

  1. Settle the breath and relax the body.
  2. Call to mind something from the day that evoked suffering.
  3. Attend to it.
  4. Feel it.
  5. Release it. Notice how that feels, and any new feelings that arise from letting go.
  6. Dedicate the benefit by saying, “May all beings be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.”

This can be a challenging practice because ego’s natural tendency is to look out for our own interests.  Start with small examples and work up from there.

How did you do? Leave us a comment below!

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