Creative Compassion, Compassion Houston Week – 4/23/2018

As a complement to Vipassana or Insight meditation, which helps to clear the mind, we have been practicing the four Brahma Vaharas or Divine Abodes to open the heart. The Buddha taught these heart practices in the Pali language of ancient India: The meaning of Metta is loving kindness, Mudita is sympathetic joy, Upekkha is equanimity, and Karuna is compassion.

Compassion practice directs loving kindness towards suffering and develops an attitude of nonjudgmental caring. Compassion goes beyond our like or dislike for a person who is suffering and our judgments about the causes that have led to that suffering. It entails opening to the universal nature of suffering itself, recognizing that all human beings suffer from wanting reality to be different from what it is. We naturally feel compassion when the heart trembles in resonance with someone else’s pain and suffering.

All of the Divine Abodes have “near enemies,” which may be mistaken for the virtues being practiced, but which do not truly release the heart. The main “near enemy” of compassion or karuna is pity, which communicates, “That poor person. I feel sorry for people like that.” With pity, we feel different or separate from those who are suffering.

True compassion recognizes another person’s suffering as a reflection of one’s own pain. Karuna allows us to feel a mutual connection with life’s sorrow. Compassion shares suffering and wishes to alleviate it.

Another enemy of compassion is despair. Karuna does not involve immersing ourselves in someone else’s suffering to the point of anguish. With compassion, a tender heart is ready to respond to one’s own or another’s pain without being overwhelmed with empathy, resentment or aversion. Compassion is an antidote to indifference and withdrawal.

One of the books I have read during my chaplaincy training is Making Health Care Whole: Integrating Spirituality into Patient Care. The authors, a doctor named Christina Puchalski and a nurse named Betty Ferrell, refer to compassion as “spirituality in action.” They explore creative ways to address the needs of patients who believe that the current health care system lacks compassion.

Christina and Betty remind us that the Latin roots of the term “compassion” are pati and cum, meaning “to suffer with” (p. 57). This definition of compassion asks that we share in the experience of those who are suffering by putting ourselves in their place. Thus we learn to see suffering as a universal process that is part of life.
In agreement are the three authors of a collaborative book, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life. They elaborate: “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, [and] to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion means full immersion into the condition of being fully human” (McNeill et al, 2005, p. 4).

For caregivers, compassionate action requires an altruistic process of understanding and setting aside their own desires, distractions, and judgments so that they can be fully present with others’ needs. Compassion is a spiritual practice, a way of being in service to others, and an act of love (p. 59).

In 2005, a researcher named Lynn Underwood conducted a series of interviews with Trappist monks, who are renowned for their daily practice of compassionate, “other-centered” love. Lynn discovered that the monks practiced radical acceptance—of self, others, and reality. These Trappists were aware of their own emotions, so that they could listen deeply and be present for other people’s needs. Some monks confessed that selfishness, fear, and striving to be liked or to look good were obstacles to providing compassionate love. Their spiritual discipline entails honest self-examination in order to serve others compassionately.

In my own experience as a chaplain intern accompanying terminal hospice patients, I am learning how to stay present even when I feel helpless. A few weeks ago, while a patient, Tom, was moaning in pain, I listened and matched my humming to the pitches of his voice. As the humming morphed into the familiar song Dona Nobis Pacem, Tom gazed into my eyes, calmed down, and closed his eyes to rest.

During my next visit, however, Tom was struggling with such distressing auditory hallucinations that he could not listen to my words. Assuming that I could help soothe him again, I attempted to orient him to reality, asking, “Are you aware that I’m with you now?” The patient reacted by explaining to his invisible visitor, “Martin, a minister wants to talk with me. Can you wait?” My presence appeared to add to Tom’s distress. He turned towards me, and said, “I can’t concentrate on what you’re saying because I have to deal with Martin.” All I could do was to sit at Tom’s bedside in silence and pray that he would die peacefully and free from suffering.

In her book How to Live Well With Chronic Pain and Illness, Toni Bernhard points to a crucial connection between patience and compassion. As she deals with ongoing, debilitating physical symptoms, she makes a conscious effort to tolerate and accept delay, difficulty and annoyance.

Toni noticed that when she is impatient, she suffers and adds stress to both body and mind. For her, developing patience is a way of treating herself with tender compassion. By practicing mindful attention, she realized that patient self-care leads naturally to equanimity, an even-tempered, peaceful acceptance that life does not always conform to our preferences. From building a foundation of self-compassion, Toni brings a more compassionate presence to those whose lives she touches.

Even though our own challenges may not entail chronic illness, we can consciously cultivate similar creative ways to bring kindness and compassion to ourselves and others. Toni notes that the phrase “in kind” means “in the same way,” which implies that when we are being kind, we are treating others in the same way that we would like to be treated.

Maya Angelou declares, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” In the early 1990s, while Mark was serving as a college dean at Yale University, he invited the Dalai Lama to visit the campus. A highpoint of the visit was a formal luncheon hosted by the president of the University. During dessert, the Whiffenpoofs, the most selective Yale a cappella singing group, filed into the dining room and stood in a semicircle facing the head table where His Holiness sat next to the president. The singers had mastered the musically-challenging Tibetan national anthem in the Dalai Lama’s native language. As he listened, the exiled leader of Tibet was moved to tears.

Accustomed to entertaining visiting dignitaries, the Whiffenpoofs usually conclude their perfomances with a rapid exit. But when they headed for the doorway, the Dalai Lama surprised them by leaping up from his seat and running to intercept them. In turn, he thanked each of the singers, who were visibly touched by his gratitude and kindness. After the Whiffenpoofs departed, His Holiness asked to meet with the cooks and table servers to thank each person for their service.

Despite arising each morning for four hours of intensive Buddhist meditation practice, the Dalai Lama describes his religion as “very simple. My religion is kindness.” Compassion entails using kindness creatively as a universal form of communication, being friendly, caring, and considerate in our interactions.

*To help us cultivate compassion, I’ll guide you through a meditation adapted from Jack Kornfield’s book The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace.

Close your eyes and sit in a quiet and centered way.
Breathe softly, and sense your body, your heartbeat, and the life within you.
Feel how you treasure your own life and wish to take care of yourself in the face of sorrows.

Now bring to mind someone you love.
Picture this person and sense your natural caring for this dear one.
If no image comes, simply sense a caring connection resonating in your heart.

Let yourself be aware of this person’s measure of sorrow and suffering.
Sense how your heart opens to send good wishes, to extend comfort, and to share pain and meet it with compassion.

This is a natural response of the heart.
To help it open and soften even more, repeat to yourself the following phrases, while you visualize the face of your loved one:

May you be held in compassion.
May you be free from pain and sorrow.
May you be at peace.

After your heart feels connected with this beloved person, turn your attention to yourself and the measure of sorrows you’ve been carrying.
Sense your heart and be aware of offering yourself the same kind of tenderness you’ve been directing towards the person you love.
Recite to yourself the following phrases:

May I be held in comapssion.
May I be free from pain and sorrow.
May I be at peace.

Notice when self-pity, detachment or irritation arise, and try to let those mental states pass away without judging yourself.

After practicing sending yourself compassion, shift your focus to the image of a benefactor—someone who has been a mentor, teacher, or guide to you during both joyous and difficult times.
Be aware of the benefactor’s difficulties and sorrows.
From the most tender place in your heart, repeat the phrases:

May you be held in compassion.
May you be free from pain and sorrow.
May you be at peace.

Letting go of the image of the benefactor, bring your attention to the image of a neighbor or to a neutral person, someone you don’t know well—perhaps picturing someone sitting in our circle tonight.
Remember that everyone has a measure of joy and sorrow in their lives.
Visualizing this neutral person, repeat the phrases:

May you be held in compassion.
May you be free from pain and sorrow.
May you be at peace.

Now we’ll practice cultivating compassion for a difficult person, someone with whom you have unfinished business or who is hard for you to forgive.
Imagining the face of this difficult person, remember any hardships and sorrows he or she is carrying.
With your heart as open as possible, repeat the phrases:

May you be held in compassion.
May you be free from pain and sorrow.
May you be at peace.

Finally, let your heart become a transformer for the sorrows of the world.
Imagine breathing gently in and out of your heart.
With each inhalation, breathe in the pain of living beings; let their sorrows touch your heart, where a purifying fire transforms them into the light and warmth of compassion. With each exhalation, wish all living beings well:

May you be held in compassion.
May you be free from pain and sorrow.
May you be at peace.