Compassion Practice adapted from Noah Levine’s Against the Stream

On the first Monday of the month, we have been practicing, one by one, in turn, the four Divine Abodes or Brahma Viharas, which characterize an awakened heart: love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Tonight let’s extend heart-opening experiences of Compassionate Houston week by focusing on compassion, called karuna in the Pali language of ancient India.

We naturally feel compassion when the heart trembles in resonance with someone else’s pain and suffering. Compassion practice directs loving kindness towards suffering and develops an attitude of nonjudgmental caring.

As we practice, I will use an adapted version of a guided meditation in Noah Levine’s powerful book, Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries. Noah is the founder and leader of a California-based sangha called “Dharma Punx.” During his childhood, he reacted to his parents’ painful divorce by becoming an angry rebel. Engaging in street fights, he abused drugs, heavily tattoed his body, and scrawled graffiti on public monuments.

Noah’s antisocial behavior landed him in jail, where he felt suicidal despair. His father, Stephen Levine, who was a reknowned meditation teacher and a friend of Jack Kornfield, suggested that Noah might find some inner peace by practicing mindfully in his prison cell. Noah credits insight meditation practice for saving his life and the Brahma Viharas for softening his heart. He realized that it takes great discipline and courage to train the mind and heart to rebel against mainstream society, with its orientation towards greedy acquisition and violent divisiveness.

Gradually, Noah turned away from rageful outer reactivity and towards becoming a peaceful inner warrior. After attending many long retreats and practicing forgiveness for others and for himself, he undertook Jack Kornfield’s rigorous four-year training a Spirit Rock to become a Dharma teacher. As a way of making amends for harm that he had caused to himself and others, Noah has been transmitting the Dharma to fellow “punks,” who are seeking relief from struggling on the streets or in prisons and drug rehab centers.

Four colorfully tattoed and multiply pierced millenials, wearing trademark leather jackets emblazoned with ”Dharma Punx,” sat nearby me on a month-long retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I was impressed by their dedicated practice and sensed that their lives depended on it. May Noah’s transformative story inspire us to practice compassion with similar zeal now:

Sit comfortably and allow your attenditon to settle into the present-time experiene of the body. Relax the eyes and jaw, softening the belly, and lowering the shoulders.

Reflect upon your deepest desire for happiness and freedom from suffering. Be aware of your heart’s longing for truth and well-being. With each breath, sense in the heart center how much you wish to be free from harm, to be safe and protected, and to experience compassion for all beings.

Slowly offer yourself compassionate phrases, with the intention of uncovering the heart’s caring responses. Let go of expecting to feel compassion instantly. Sometimes we are struck instead by our lack of compassion or by judgments of a resisting mind. Other times, the mind gets lost in stories, memories or fantasies. Simply return to the practice. Be as friendly and merciful with yourself as possible. Notice what is happening, and continue to repeat the following phrases like a mantra or a statement of positive intent.

May I care about those with suffering and confusion.
May I respond with mercy and compassion to pain.
May I be filled with compassion.

Allow the mind to relax into the reverberations of each phrase. PAUSE….

Now bring to mind someone who has inspired you with their great compassion towards you or others. Recognize that just as you wish to be cared for and understood, this benefactor too wants to be met with compassion. Begin offering the benefactor sompassionate phrases:

May you care about those with suffering and confusion.
May you respond with mercy and compassion to pain.
May you be filled with compassion.

Release the image or felt sense of the benefactor’s presence, and return to the sensations and emotions of the heart, breathing softly into that area.

Then bring to mind someone whom you do not know well, someone who is neutral, whom you neither love nor hate—perhaps someone you don’t know at all, a person you passed on the street or saw waiting in line at a store. Understanding that the desire for freedom from suffering is universal, begin offering that neutral person phrases of compassion:

May you care about those with suffering and confusion.
May you respond with mercy and compassion to pain.
May you be filled with compassion.

Release the image or felt sense of the neutral person, and return to the heart’s sensations and emotions.

Now extend compassion practice to include family and friends towards whom your feelings may be a mixture of love and judgment.

May you all care about those with suffering and confusion.
May you all respond with mercy and compassion to pain.
May you all be filled with compassion.

After sending compassion to the mixed category, bring attention back to your breath and your heart.

Then expand the practice to include the difficult people in your life and in the world—those you have put out of your heart or those towards whom you hold resentment. Remember that all beings wish to be met with compassion—even those who act in ways that are annoying, unskillful, violent, confused, and unkind.
With an intention to free yourself from hatred, fear and ill will, allow someone who is a source of difficulty in your life to be the object of compassion practice:

May you care about those with suffering and confusion.
May you respond with mercy and compassion to pain.
May you be filled with compassion.

Now slowly expand the field of compassion to all who are sitting around you, to all who live in Houston, to all those in Texas, in the USA, and in this hemisphere. Let your positive intention to meet everyone with compassion spread out in all directions everywhere.

Imagine covering the entire world with these positive thoughts. Radiate an open heart and a fearless mind to all beings, including those being born and those who are dying. With boundless and friendly attention, repeat the phrases of compassion:

May all beings care about suffering and confusion.
May all beings respond with mercy and compassion to pain.
May all beings be filled with compassion.