Practice Circle: Cultivating Compassion


This is to be done by one skilled in aims
Who wants to break through
To the state of peace:

. . . As a mother would risk her life
To protect her child, her only child,
Even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
With regard to all beings.

Khuddakapatha 9, trns Thanissaro Bhikkhu

When Practice Circle meets on Sunday, December 10, at 6 p.m. Pacific, 8 Central and 9 Eastern, we will practice cultivating the treasure of a compassionate heart. In preparation, I thought I’d repost this article from 2013. You can join our online practice group here.

In the Sankhita Sutta of the Angutara Nikaya, a monk begs Gotama to teach him the dharma “in brief,” so he can remember it. The first thing Gotama teaches him is the “brahmaviharas”, my favorite translation of which is “sublime abidings” : metta, or “loving kindness”, karuna , “compassion,” mudita, usually translated as “sympathetic joy” and upekkha, “equanimity.” These four sublime abidings, and the four Foundations of Mindfulness, are the sum of what Gotama presents as his “dharma in brief.” As in the passage quoted above from one of the earliest sutta collections, the cultivation of these qualities of heart and mind are presented as a foundational practice for achieving the goal of the path.

Notice that three of the four sublime abidings are relational in nature. In the Sankhita Sutta, Gotama presents them as a kind of layer cake, with loving kindness at the base and compassion growing out of it. This makes sense: as we cultivate kindness toward someone, we will naturally become more sensitive to their suffering, and want to do something to help. We will also become sensitive to their joys. Gotama puts equanimity, the ability of the stable mind to accept whatever comes to it without stress, at the top of the cake. Being at peace, he seems to say, means being at peace with other people. Given that equanimity is also a quality that later suttas attribute to advanced stages of meditation, in this teaching it is clear that Gotama considered the cultivation of kindness and compassion to be among the most powerful kinds of dharma practice.

In the Brahmavihara Sutta, also in AN, he explains why:

“What do you think, monks: If that youth, from childhood, were to develop the awareness-release through compassion, would he do any evil action?”
“No, lord.”
“Not doing any evil action, would he touch suffering?”
“No, lord, for when one does no evil action, from where would he touch suffering?”

When our minds are suffused with compassion, we don’t harm others; and when we aren’t living in conflict with those around us, our minds are at peace.

The roots of the English word “compassion” mean “feeling with,” feeling in our own bodies and minds the suffering of others. Neuroscience reveals that this is actually what happens; our nervous systems are designed to recognize the signs of emotional expression in other people, and to reproduce those emotions in our own bodies. When that moment of recognition of someone’s suffering happens, our natural response is to want to help. Read the news on any given day and you’re likely to find at least one story of someone putting themselves in great inconvenience and suffering, perhaps even risking or sacrificing their own lives, for the sake of others. Our species has survived because, despite all of our drives toward selfish fear and desire, our recognition of our bond with other people tends to win out.

Neuroscience also confirms something else that Gotama taught us millennia ago: that we can cultivate our compassionate response, and that when we do so, it becomes stronger, more stable, and more available to us in our interactions with other people. Imagining the suffering of others, we activate the same brain circuits that come into play when we experience someone suffering. When we practice in ways that engage those neural networks, we strengthen them and make it more likely that they will fire when we encounter suffering in the world.

Try this. Spend a few minutes relaxing into your awareness of your body in the present moment. When your mind and body are calm, imagine someone you care about who is having a hard time. Visualize their face and the details of the difficulty they are experiencing. Notice what is happening in your body, especially around the chest, the throat, the face. Let your awareness come as deeply as possible into these feelings. Now imagine you can send a helpful wish to that person for whatever they need. Mentally send that wish in whatever words seem appropriate: “I feel your suffering. I wish that you could be free from suffering and be at peace.” Imagine this person can receive your wish and the help you’re sending. What happens in your body, heart and mind as you do this?

Now imagine all the people in the world who are suffering just as this person you care for is. Reflect that they all suffer, and that they all wish for happiness, health, safety and peace. See if it’s possible to send that same wish to all the people, all over the world, who are suffering in this way. What is happening in your heart space as you connect with the suffering of all these people?

Of course, using our imagination to summon feelings of compassion isn’t the same thing as actually helping others. But so often, when we do encounter a suffering person, our response is to withdraw. We might be afraid of how we will respond in a difficult situation; we might want to protect ourselves from being hurt or taken advantage of; we might fear embarrassment if we do something wrong, if our help is ineffective or not accepted. These are powerful defensive reactions. Only if we can trust our hearts in such situations will we overcome the ego’s defensive fear and act compassionately. Practicing to cultivate compassion will help us go with our hearts.

Most of us have no problem feeling sorry for other people when they are in pain. But true compassion comes from a deep, embodied recognition of our shared humanity. In order to accept other people on that deep level, we have to begin by accepting our own humanity, by having compassion for our own suffering. For most people, that’s a real challenge. We are so used to seeing ourselves as wrong, bad, inadequate, and undeserving, that the very idea of offering ourselves compassion sets off waves of resistance.

In the same way that we can practice cultivating compassion for others, however, we can cultivate it for ourselves. Dr. Dan Siegel proposes that what we are doing in such practices is accessing the “resonance circuit” – the connection between the emotional centers and the information processing centers of our brain that lets us attune to the emotions and intentions of others – and using it to attune to our own intentions and emotions. In this way we can build our capacity to accept, forgive, and feel compassion towards ourselves.

Once again, take a few minutes to bring yourself to a place of stillness and relaxation. Bring to mind and heart a difficulty in your life; let yourself imagine the details fully, what’s most difficult and scary about that situation, and observe what happens in your mind and body as you do.

Now bring to mind a person in your life who has given you love and acceptance: a parent or grandparent, a friend, a teacher, anyone who opens your heart as you think of them. Imagine them sitting before you, looking into your eyes, and see the expression of kindness and love on their face. Imagine that they can see everything about your difficult situation – all your pain, and any way you feel responsible for causing or deserving the suffering you feel. Imagine they can see it all, and out of their kindness and love for you they accept and forgive it all, and want you to be happy and peaceful

Sense into what is going on in your heart as you visualize this loving person offering you compassion. If you feel a glow of love and compassion in your heart space, allow your awareness to rest there, to become suffused with that feeling. And then, as best you can, let the image of that person fade from your awareness, and recognize that it is your own heart that is the source of this compassion, and your own heart that is receiving it. Finally, see if you can extend that feeling of love and kindness to others who are suffering in the same way you are. Can you imagine what it would be like to have a limitless heart that could embrace all those people with compassion?
If you practice this way regularly, you may come to see that Gotama’s teaching, that sounds so grandiose, is actually a possible and a beautiful way to live:

That disciple of the noble ones — thus devoid of covetousness, devoid of ill will, unbewildered, alert, mindful — keeps pervading the first direction with an awareness imbued with compassion, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth. Thus above, below, & all around, everywhere, in its entirety, he keeps pervading the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with compassion— abundant, expansive, immeasurable, without hostility, without ill will. He discerns, ‘Before, this mind of mine was limited & undeveloped. But now this mind of mine is immeasurable & well developed. And whatever action that was done in a measurable way does not remain there, does not linger there.’