As the Dalai Lama notes, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy, practice compassion.” So what is compassion? And why should it matter to you?
In both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, there is a practice called the 4 immeasurables (click here for a short recorded commentary by Alan Wallace.) These are heart-centered practices that can help you work with emotions, and are designed to help shift perspective from a “me” centered reality into an attitude of openness 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.
What is Compassion?
Look up the etymology of the word and you’ll find that passion means “to suffer, endure,”, and com means “with” or “together.” So compassion means “to suffer with.” When you value others’ well-being more than–your own, you bypass ego’s habitual routine 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, as is the fact that we are all inter-connected. If you suffer, it affects me. We can’t hold on to anything. Once you realize this, wishing for the well-being of others is the only true way to subvert the system.
Ordinary compassion is the simple wish for others to be happy and free of suffering. We do this easily when we instinctively protect small children or 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.
Developing immeasurable compassion means making the aspiration that all beings may be free of suffering, not just the people in your 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.
Tonglen –the Tibetan practice of exchanging others’ suffering for our own–is a powerful way to work with difficult emotions. If you want a mini version of this practice, try this before you go to bed in the evening:
- Settle the breath and relax the body.
- Call to mind a friend or loved one who is experiencing difficulty. You can also do this practice for yourself.
- Attend to the situation and put yourself in their shoes.
- Feel the difficult emotions without wallowing or pushing them away. Just stay present.
- Release them. You can let the feelings ride out on the out-breath. Notice how that feels, and any new feelings that arise from letting go.
- Don’t worry the negative feelings will get stuck with you–if you want, imagine a sun in your heart that immediately transmutes any negativity into clear, bright light. Then release any residue with the exhale, along with the bright light.
- Dedicate the benefit by saying, “May all beings be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.” (Don’t forget to include yourself)
This can be a challenging practice because ego’s natural tendency is to look out for our own interests first. But who are ‘we” anyway? Are we really as separate from each other as we might think? Taking on others’ suffering is impossible, really. The feelings we feel are our own. So by working with the suffering of others, we are really developing our own resiliency.
Start with small examples where it is easy–or easier–to put others first. Consider letting someone else go first when you are waiting in a line, just to see how it feels. Notice how this shift of attitude affects your own experience.
For me, when I take on others’ suffering through the practice of compassion, I start to realize my own worries are less significant. Stepping out of my own dramas to be there for someone else–even if they never know about it–gives me strength and confidence. Try it for yourself!