Tonight, we will be discussing and practicing the brahma vihara of compassion. Compassion is the resonance of the heart in response to suffering, along with a genuine desire to help. Recently, I attended a virtual Dalai Lama Global Vision Summit about the Power of Compassion. Science reporter and author, Daniel Goleman, led the following guided reflection to help us find our compassionate purpose:
Settle into a comfortable posture.
Center and close your eyes.
Focus on breathing in and breathing out, returning from any wandering thoughts.
Reflection: “What are my gifts? What am I good at?” PAUSE
Come back to the easy, natural flow of breathing.
Reflection: “What do I love doing? What gives me joy? What do I want to do in my life?” PAUSE
Return to sense the rhythm of your in and out breaths.
Reflection: “What compassionate action feels right for me? What would fulfill my purpose? How can I help?” PAUSE
Breathe and center.
Big Reflection: “How can I bring these three together? What can I do that aligns what I’m good at, what I enjoy doing, and what has meaning for me—a compassionate action that would let me help others who are suffering?” PAUSE
You can revisit these reflections whenever you wish to clarify your compassionate
Goleman declared that in today’s divisive world we need compassion more than ever. He referred to an experiment at Princeton Theological Seminary. As part of training to become preachers, some seminarians were assigned practice sermon topics. Half of the students received the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who stopped on the roadside to help a stranger in need. The other half of the students received random topics from the Bible.
Everyone prepared their practice sermons and then, one by one, walked across the courtyard to be evaluated. On the way, each passed a man who was bent over, moaning in pain. Regardless of their sermon topic, students who thought they were late for the evaluation were too self-absorbed and worried about performing to stop and interact with the stranger. Others who felt less rushed paid attention to the stranger. And once they noticed his suffering, they offered to help.
The experiment demonstrated the need for us all to cultivate compassion in our hearts and spaciousness in our minds. Goleman listed some reasons why compassionate responses are so necessary in today’s world. The global pandemic has heightened our sense of vulnerability and changed how we relate to one another. With climate change, increasing droughts, floods and wildfires are leading to mass migrations of humans and animals. There are growing divisions between people of different races, and sharper contrasts between different levels of wealth and education. Due to advances in artificial intelligence, robots are displacing many blue-collar workers and leading to rising unemployment rates. As stress mounts, like-minded people tend to band together and to view themselves as “us.” They feel aversion for “them”—those who look or think differently.
Instead of being overwhelmed by these global trends, we can be motivated to cultivate compassion for whatever suffering we encounter. On his travels, Goleman met a bus driver who had a friendly greeting for every passenger as they climbed onboard. He gave special attention to those who were tired, infirm and elderly. When they deboarded the bus, he wished each passenger a good day. The driver was trained to be a pastor and viewed the people on the bus as his flock. Whatever we do, wherever we are, we can find ways to be more compassionate.
We usually feel empathy before acting with compassion. According to Goleman, there are three kinds of empathy that tap different parts of the brain. The first is cognitive empathy: “I can understand your perspective and communicate well with you.” Yet I don’t necessarily feel compassion for you. The second is emotional empathy. “I know how you feel. I feel it too.” Still, I may lack compassion for you. The third kind is empathic concern—the kind of concern that parents feel for a beloved child—and it is this form of empathy that motivates compassionate action.
Recent research shows that infants as young as two years old have “compassionate instincts.” At the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany, an adult experimenter dropped something in front of a group of observing toddlers and then pretended to have trouble picking it up. Whether the toddlers spontaneously helped or watched someone else help, their pupils dilated to indicate a positive response towards compassionate action.
Over time, as we become busy and preoccupied, we can lose touch with our compassionate instincts. For that reason, His Holiness the Dalai Lama advocates teaching children mindfulness, emotional intelligence, ethical grounding and systems thinking so that we’ll have a compassionate population in the future. He urges us, “Act now even if you don’t live long enough to witness the results of your compassion.”
Metta practice helps us develop our impulse to be caring. It develops into compassionate action. The Max Planck Institute sponsored a study of people methodically expanding their circle of caring with 30 minutes of daily loving kindness practice. At the end of the study, when participants saw photos of people who were badly burned, they did not turn away. In their daily lives, they were able to stay present with distressed people and to help them. The study demonstrates that metta is not simply a mental activity. It translates into who we are and what we do. With a strong foundation in lovingkindness, compassion practice further develops our capacity to respond to suffering.
For tonight, I’ve adapted a guided meditation by Wasfia Nazreen, a presenter at the Global Summit. The theme is compassion for Mother Earth.
Sit comfortably with eyes open or closed.
Begin with a simple aspiration that this meditation may benefit the earth and all sentient beings.
Be aware of breathing in and out, letting the breath pass effortlessly, continuously nourishing us with life force.
The air we breathe comes from Mother Earth.
It’s the most reliable friend we have.
It resets our nervous system, brings calm to the mind and raises awareness in the body.
Notice how your body feels right now. Scan from head to toe, observing any sensations of pain, numbness or ease.
Breathe gently, without needing to change anything.
Be aware of the elements of air, earth, water, and fire in the body.
As you breathe, sense the air entering and leaving your lungs.
Sense the earthy solidity of your bones, the watery quality of blood streaming through your veins, and the fiery heat that warms your heart.
Be grateful for the gifts of life that Mother Earth provides.
May we treat all life and all land as sacred and restore our inner and outer balance.
Now imagine a cord from the root chakra dropping down like an anchor deep into the earth.
With gratitude, send down the cord into Mother Earth whatever does not serve you, including any imbalances in the body and any toxic thoughts or emotions.
This cord keeps us grounded and is always available.
Surrender all trials and tribulations to Mother Earth.
Sense gratitude for how she receives all our burdens with patience and care.
Now visualize a clear bright light surrounding your heart and spreading around the globe, over oceans, rivers, lakes, mountains, plains, forests, jungles, valleys, canyons—our shared home.
Imagine the light bringing healing energy to places of damage, pollution, deforestation, erosion, drought, flooding, and wildfires.
Sending classic phrases of compassion to Mother Earth:
May you be held in compassion.
May your pain be eased.
May you be at peace.
Visualize healing light comforting animals, birds, fish, plants, and trees that have been uprooted, threatened or harmed.
Sending compassionate phrases to all sentient beings:
May you be held in compassion.
May your pain be eased.
May you be at peace.
Let the whole earth be illuminated with the light of compassion.
May we dedicate the merits of this practice to the earth and to all sentient beings.