“Compassion and Emptiness” Talk/“Just Like Me” Guided Meditation
Compassion, or Karuna in the Pali language of the Buddha’s teachings, involves resonating with pain and suffering-our own and that of others. As we grow in compassion, we resonate with the tender and painful aspects of life, and we become more accepting of the truth of all suffering and less likely to look away from all suffering, including our own. As we keep growing our natural compassion and develop nonjudgmental caring, Karuna dissolves the boundaries within us and those between us and other beings.
In the past, I have spoken about my own path to compassion being intensely impacted by a year-long caretaking of my father who had dementia due to strokes. For this presentation on Compassion, I want to speak about two sections of our Book Club’s read in February: Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. The two sections of my focus are sections titled “Emptiness” and “Compassion”. These caused me to appreciate compassion in a somewhat different way than I have before.
Batchelor had my attention from the moments I read these two quotes in these sections: “Compassion is the very heart and soul of awakening” and “Insight into emptiness and compassion for the world are two sides of the same coin.” Let’s briefly explore these ideas.
I am not qualified in any way to define or discuss the Buddhist theory of emptiness. My limited understanding is that it often pertains to our sense of self and how this conception called “self”, which we so dearly cherish, has no singular essence and is just a temporary coming together of various aggregates-in other words, it is empty of essence.
With regard to what he means by “emptiness”, Batchelor first discusses our human habits of isolating things, seeing them as separate and absolute, and as having discrete beginnings and endings. These habits are preconditions for our anguish or suffering. On the other hand, he states, noticing how things emerge from and fade back into an unbroken flow of conditions begins to free us a little. We can then begin to recognize how things are not inherently desirable or fearful but instead interconnect and interact, none intrinsically separate from the rest. Batchelor uses as simple examples: when does the sprout cease to be a sprout and become a daffodil; where does the sound of rainfall stop and my hearing of it begin? His point? Things cannot be pinned down, they are not singular, in fact they are empty.
The same is true for each of us. We too have emerged from causes and are composed of diverse and ever-changing features and traits. There is no essential “me” that exists apart from a unique configuration of biological and cultural processes.
He states that dharma practice is concerned not with proving or disproving theories of emptiness but with understanding and easing the grip of self-centeredness that constricts our body, feelings and emotions into a tight nugget of anguish. The more precious the sense of self becomes to us, the more we must guard it against attack, and the circumstances in which we feel at ease become ever narrower and more circumscribed. And so, understanding and easing that self-focused grip is our way out of the anguish.
To experience emptiness, Batchelor states, is to experience the shocking absence of what normally determines the sense of who you are and the kind of reality you inhabit. That shocking absence may last only a moment before the habits of a lifetime reassert themselves and close in once more. But for that moment, we witness ourselves and the world as open and vulnerable.
I had an inexplicable moment of such an experience a few months ago while driving on the freeway. I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular (like what I would do when arriving at my destination or why so many “impossibly inept” drivers surrounded me). For no apparent reason, I looked at other drivers nearby and silently said: “I am you, you are me”, (not “I am like you, you are like me”). It was just a moment, but it felt strangely and vaguely familiar, and I very much liked experiencing the world in this way.
I hope this brief summary of Batchelor’s thoughts on emptiness may have given you some idea of how a light grip on the sense of self and a growing appreciation for a sense of emptiness relate to Compassion.
To begin with the obvious, seeing others as separate and different from us leads often to we humans creating in-groups and out groups and is based on our same natural tendency to create distinct categories. We know that in our evolution creating in- and out- group categories was necessary to recognize predators and enemies. But such categorization in our time leads easily to stereotyping and psychological essentialism of fellow humans. We believe on some level that categories have a fixed, underlying, “true” nature that gives them their identity. Upon careful and thoughtful examination, we can see that members comprising any category are varied, even unique, while also sharing some characteristics.
In his discussion of Compassion, Batchelor notes how our feelings of compassion readily extend to those on one side of an invisible barrier that segregates all those belonging to the domain of “me and mine” from the rest of humanity. Our caring for them is exaggerated by our human desires for belonging and fear of rejection.
But we also know from experience that, just as it is with emptiness, there are times when the barrier between us and “them” is lifted. For as long as these fragile moments last, we inhabit a world where all living things are united by their yearning to survive and be unharmed. As Batchelor states, “We recognize the anguish of others not as theirs but as ours. It is as though the whole of life has been revealed as a single organism.” Reaching out to beings in pain, even unfamiliar ones, is as natural and unself-conscious as my hand reaching out to comfort my injured knee.
Understanding the philosophy of emptiness is not enough, Batchelor tells us. It requires felt experience, and through dharma practice we are able to do more than leave the occurrence of fragile moments of unity to chance. We can continually question the assumption of a fixed and unchangeable self at the core of our experience. We can persistently challenge the validity of the ways in which we define others and loosen the grip in which habitual perceptions of self and others hold us.
The selfless vulnerability of compassion requires the vigilant protection of mindful awareness. It is not enough to WANT to feel this way toward others. “We need to be alert at all times to thoughts and emotions that threaten to steal our open and caring resolve. We need to remember that a compassionate heart still feels anger, greed and jealousy and other such emotions. But it accepts them for what they are with equanimity and cultivates the strength of mind to let them arise and pass without identifying with or acting upon them.” I will repeat that quote for my benefit as well as yours.
Batchelor’s last sentence in his section on compassion is the final quote of his I will share: “It becomes abundantly clear that we cannot attain awakening for ourselves: we can only participate in the awakening of life.”
Practice: Just Like Me Guided Meditation
With that last quote in our hearts and minds, let us begin together the Just Like Me Compassion practice to extend our compassion to those outside our inner circle of caring. Depending upon where you are in your own practice, please bring to mind a stranger or neutral person (someone you may see from time to time but feel neither close to or very distant from) or a person with whom you have a difficult relationship. If you are new to the practice, you should select a neutral person or stranger. If you are advanced in the practice, you may bring to mind someone who is challenging.
Close your eyes if you are willing. As you bring this chosen person vividly to mind, take a deep breath. Become aware of your heart, its warmth and goodness. Continue to visualize this person while you listen to the practice and repeat each line to yourself silently. Use the chosen person’s name if you know it. (Where I say “This person”, you can insert the person’s name)
This person has a body and a mind, just like me.
This person has feelings, emotions, and thoughts, just like me.
This person has experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me.
This person has at some time been sad, disappointed, angry, or hurt, just like me.
This person has felt unworthy or inadequate, just like me.
This person worries and is frightened sometimes, just like me.
This person will die, just like me.
This person has longed for friendship, just like me.
This person is learning about life, just like me.
This person wants to be caring and kind to others, just like me.
This person wants to be content with what life has given them, just like me.
This person wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.
This person wishes to be safe and healthy, just like me.
This person wishes to be happy, just like me.
This person wishes to be loved, just like me.
Now, allow wishes for well-being to arise for your chosen person with these statements:
I wish this person to have the strength, resources, and social support they need to manage life’s difficulties with ease.
I wish this person to be free from pain and suffering.
I wish this person to be peaceful and happy.
I wish this person to be loved . . . because this person is a fellow human being, just like me.
And to close, we can add a final statement to help lighten our sense of self and open to a possible brief moment of emptiness; repeat this silently only if it feels natural or comfortable to try on:
I wish this person to be loved… because this person is me.
Thank you for your practice. As you are ready, please open your eyes.