DT- Compassion as a Way of Life (Zoom retreat–1/24/20)

In this talk about compassion, I will draw on some lectures and guided meditations from last fall’s virtual Global Summit in honor of the Dalai Lama. Thupten Jinpa, a Tibetan professor who translates for His Holiness, observes that to live compassionately brings us happiness and enhances our relationships. The basic reality is that all beings suffer and want to be free from suffering. When we are in touch with our common humanity, we understand that just like us, other people suffer and seek happiness. The more we trust our interdependence, the more easily we transcend self-interest and feel fulfilled by caring about others.

During a recent hospice chaplaincy visit, I felt compassion as I listened to the life review of a man whom I’ll call Rodney. Although he liked attending Bible school in childhood, he became a hard-drinking naval engineer and drifted away from church and family. By 2008, Rodney was unemployed, alcoholic, and had tested positive for HIV. After surviving two suicide attempts, he had a powerful sense that God was watching over him. Rodney stopped drinking, started attending AA meetings, and reconciled with his family. He trusts that God has granted him forgiveness. Now, despite his body wasting away, Rodney is at peace and unafraid to die. He believes that he will be reunited with his deceased parents in heaven. My compassion for his failing body is mixed with respect for his devout faith and courageous ability to transform his life. Meeting Rodney has enriched me.

Thupten Jinpa points out that it is an act of self-compassion to extend compassion to someone else. Now happily married with two children, he remembers deciding to disrobe after thirty years of monastic life. He was nervous the first time he arrived in lay clothes and with a full head of hair for an audience with the Dalai Lama. His Holiness set him at ease with gentle teasing about how handsome he looked wearing pants and then said, “I’m sad that you are no longer a monk, and I know that you made this decision after serious thought.” Compassionately sensing his friend’s vulnerability, the Dalai Lama was able to see beyond his own deep commitment to monastic vows and to release Thupten to live a lay life. As a result, their mutual trust and respect continue to deepen.

Although we have a natural reservoir of compassion, we tend to reserve it for a small circle of people. When we are stressed or reactive, we forget our compassionate nature. Through training the mind, we can expand beyond our usual boundaries and make compassion part of our daily perspective. In Thupten’s words, “When we open our heart to someone, an inner door opens. There is no self-agenda and courage grows. We feel joyful and empowered.” As we pay attention and repeat this process, compassion becomes a habit and an active force in our lives.

Thupten’s advice is to appreciate our social nature and to cultivate and nurture our relationships with people. He cites a Harvard longitudinal study demonstrating that satisfactory, meaningful relationships are the best predictor for happiness and longevity. In Western cultures like ours, which tend to emphasize independence and self-reliance, loneliness has become a serious social problem. Developing compassion is the best antidote for loneliness and fear.

We cannot use will power to make ourselves be happy; we can only create the conditions for happiness to arise. If we live consciously, mindfully, and compassionately, happiness arises naturally. As Thupten says, “In this way, we serve the purpose of being human.”

According to Buddhist teachings, human existence is like a jewel or a gem. If we don’t bring out the value of that jewel, it is worthless. We gladden our existence with kind intentions, with compassionate gestures, and with memories of our acts that have benefited others.

*Thupten recommends a guided meditation to recall kind actions:

Sit comfortably and close your eyes.

Let the body relax and the mind be alert.

Focus on simple act of breathing in and breathing out.

Let your mind rest on your breath.

Think of a moment when you extended kindness to someone.

It could be a simple moment of smiling at a friend who is going through a rough time or listening to someone with full attention.

Reflect on how that felt in your body when you were expressing that beautiful part of your nature…

You may recall a feeling of purpose and a sense of expansiveness.

Recognize that this is a natural quality that we have in us that expresses who we are as a human being, the ability to connect with another person and to step outside the narrow confines of self, to make a difference in someone’s life, in whatever way, big or small, to bring comfort and assurance and even hope to someone.

Let us celebrate this quality that we naturally possess.

Notice how you feel in your body, mind and heart…

When you are ready, slowly open your eyes.

The Dali Lama’s joyful spirit radiates from his compassionate heart. He teaches, “Whenever possible, be kind. It is always possible.”  In 2010, His Holiness wrote Towards a True Kinship of Faith: “To all people, religious and unbelieving, I make this appeal. Always embrace the common humanity that lies at the heart of us all. Let your heart be softened by the balm of compassion, reflecting deeply on the needs and aspirations of yourself and others. Let not differences from the views of others come in the way of your wish for their peace, happiness, and well-being. When we see another person, let us feel our basic affinity. In this place there are no strangers. All are brothers and sisters in their journey through life.” 

Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, director of the Dalai Lama’s Center for Ethics and Transmittable Values at MIT, says that His Holiness reminds us what one person can do with a compassionate life; if thousands of lives became a reflection of his embodiment of compassionate presence, imagine the world we could co-create. We can each ask ourselves, “What kind of presence do I want to express in the world?” Apart from how we speak or act, we can transform ourselves from within so that we transmit serenity, kindness and peace. We can move beyond occasional do-gooding or caring transactions to make compassion our way of living.

Priyadarshi reminds us that, “Compassion can move us beyond tribalism and simply surviving to a civic sense of kinship that allows us to experience interconnectedness. Compassion fuels our ethical imagination about bettering our world.” He insists that it is urgent to instill and impart an ethical vision of what our world could be if it were less selfish, fearful, polarized and tribal.

This ethical vision is not so much about being religious or spiritual as it is about humans learning to flourish—not at the cost of nature, but in his words, “truly co-flourishing with other creatures in our ecosystem.” We need to understand what values are essential for a healthy and harmonious world and what behavioral changes would enable those values to thrive. Along with improving health care and addressing poverty, we must treat one another kindly, fairly and respectfully.

Imagining a reservoir of compassion that moistens our brittle minds, Priyadarshi asserts that, “Compassion is as essential as breath [and] should be as natural and effortless as breathing.” He concludes that, “Treating others the way we want to be treated ourselves is fundamental to [restoring trust in our] civic society. Systemic compassion will reduce the level of rage [and] despair that we are experiencing in the world today…. Compassion is its own reward. It is both a tool and a result of leading a good life…. As we focus on healing the planet and looking at collective wellbeing as one of the measures of progress in our society, compassion is essential.”

*We’ll end with a meditation that Tenzin Priyadarshi practices each day:

Take a comfortable posture and close your eyes.

Be aware of your inbreath and outbreath.

Rest your mind in this gentle rhythm of breathing in and out….

In a quiet state of mind, sense compassion arising within you.

Let compassion take the form of reddish golden light like a beautiful sunrise.

Let it permeate your entire being so that no part of your being is apart from compassion.

Let your mind and body be filled with reddish golden light.

Imagine this light becoming more vivid near your heart chakra.

Experience the warmth of compassion.

Imagine that you are surrounded by loved ones—friends, family and anyone you care about and who cares about you.

Acknowledge their presence in your life and visualize some of their faces.

Imagine sending out rays of compassionate light from your heart to touch the heart of each loved one. Imagine them happily receiving the light and sending you their good wishes.

Accept those good wishes and rest in a state of joy and friendliness.

Imagine being surrounded by strangers, people you meet in passing.

Let rays of reddish golden light emanate from your heart to touch the heart of each stranger.

Imagine them happily receiving the light and sending you their good wishes.

Accept those good wishes and rest in a state of joy and friendliness.

Imagine being surrounded by people whom you dislike.

You may have harmed them, or they may have harmed you.

If they have harmed you, imagine that they are asking to be forgiven.

If you have harmed them, ask for forgiveness.

Forgive them and imagine being forgiven.

Acknowledge their presence in your life.  Send forth from your heart rays of light filled with compassion to touch the heart of each person.

Imagine them happily receiving the light and sending you their good wishes.

Accept those good wishes and rest in a state of joy and equanimity.

Take a moment to observe the intricacy of this network of lives that have touched yours and that you have touched. Recognize the interdependence of all things and connect with a sense of gratitude for all that exists.

Turn your awareness back to your heart—sensing the light of compassion growing clearer and more vibrant until light dissolves into every cell and pore of your body.

Be aware of your breath.

When you are ready, open your eyes and be present.