Brahma Vihara: Compassion in Action 03-02-2020

Tonight’s Brahma Vihara practice focuses on Compassionate Action. Mindfulness leads naturally to compassion as we become aware of the burdens each of us carries and realize that we share a measure of pain with everyone else in the world. During the past weeks, I have been paying attention to simple acts of compassion that counter divisive and polarizing tendencies in our country. 

When mechanics attend to my car at Montrose Car Care, I usually converse with Janae, the receptionist. Although she works hard to earn a living, she is friendly and enjoys being of service to others. Several weeks ago, as we watched heavy rain falling outside, she expressed compassion for unprepared pedestrians who were being soaked. Janae bemoaned the fact that she had run out of extra umbrellas to hand out. Upon inquiry, she reported that whenever she goes to a department store, she purchases half a dozen inexpensive umbrellas and stores them in her car. When it rains, she keeps her eye out for passersby who are being drenched and dispenses umbrellas as long as her supply lasts. It’s obvious that she takes pleasure in these compassionate acts.

Like Janae, my friend Denis is fulfilled by helping people in need. Denis was so moved by the plight of homeless people in Houston that he wanted to understand in his own experience how it feels to sleep without a roof over his head. He spent a night in a sleeping bag on a sidewalk near a group of people who were huddling together for warmth. Afterwards, he started collecting donated blankets to distribute on chilly nights to those who are shivering outside. 

Mark’s nephew Clay practices compassionate action regularly. When he heard that bright light from new streetlamps outside our bedroom were waking me up at night, Clay offered to measure the dimensions of our windows and to order blinds that would block the light. He interrupted his busy schedule as a realtor to install the blinds. After we expressed gratitude, he said that his life flows more smoothly when he is engaged in helping others. 

The January 2020 issue of United Airlines magazine includes an uplifting story about a pilot whose compassion led him far beyond his job description. In the Phoenix airport, a 75-year-old grandmother named Gloria approached a pilot before he boarded their delayed flight to Chicago. She asked if they would arrive in time for her to catch a connection to her hometown of Milwaukee. Captain Seth responded that there was still a slight chance. But the plane landed at midnight, long after her connecting flight had departed. Gloria was stranded in Chicago until the next flight to Milwaukee in the morning.  

Just as she was reconciling herself to spending the night near an empty gate at the airport, the pilot deboarded the plane and smiled at her. Even though he was tired, and his own home was nearby, Captain Seth offered to drive Gloria to her apartment in Milwaukee, 70 miles out of his way. She accepted his compassionate offer, and the trip allowed them to bond as friends. When they arrived safe and sound, Gloria hugged the pilot and called him her guardian angel. Her gratitude energized Seth on his homebound drive. 

Compassionate acts do not have to be dramatic. One of my far-flung friends wrote me that she was feeling discouraged and longing to be reminded of her better attributes. I enjoyed the process of writing her an essay entitled “Lovable You,” describing in detail her many skills, talents, and positive qualities. 

Sometimes all that is called for is to listen with compassion. At a local Whole Foods grocery store, a sociable Spaniard named Raúl stocks vegetable and fruit shelves. We converse in Spanish while he helps me choose melons and papayas that are just ripe enough to eat. One day I noticed that he looked exhausted. When I asked about his health, Raúl admitted that he was suffering from an ear infection and had developed tinnitus, a hissing sound in his ears that kept him awake at night. Sensing my concern for his wellbeing, he decided to make a doctor’s appointment. Raúl thanked me for listening and claimed to feel more hopeful about alleviating his symptoms. When I saw him recently, he flashed me a thumbs up sign to let me know that all was well again. 

*Take a moment to recall a compassionate act that you initiated, observed, or received. Turn to a partner and exchange memories of compassion in action. 

Acting with compassion stems from cultivating a compassionate heart. A guided meditation practice adapted from Jack Kornfield’s A Lamp in the Darkness aims to awaken the heart’s natural inclination towards compassion:

You may close your eyes and sense your body supported by the earth, in a centered and grounded way. Notice your heartbeat. Acknowledge the fragility of life and how we often try to protect ourselves in the face of sorrows. 

Begin the practice of generating compassion by bringing to mind a person dear to you.  As you do so, feel love and caring arising spontaneously within you.  Now remember the struggles, sorrow, losses and hurts that this loved one has experienced.  Be aware of how your heart naturally inclines to extend comfort and to soothe the pain. 

Sense or picture the beloved person, and repeat to yourself the following phrases:

May you be held in compassion.

May your pain and sorrow be eased.

May you be at peace.

Allow your compassion to deepen. Now imagine that this same loved one is gazing at you lovingly, recognizing the measure of sorrows that you carry in your life. 

Try to see yourself through that beloved person’s eyes, honoring your struggles, losses, betrayals, injuries, fears, and times of confusion.  

Imagine this dear one repeating the same phrases on your behalf:

May you be held in compassion.

May your pain and sorrow be eased.

May you be at peace.

Now recite to yourself:

May I be held in compassion.

May my pain and sorrow be eased.

May I find peace. 

Let the spirit of self-compassion grow in you.  

Sense how you carry a lamp of wisdom and compassion within your own heart.  If it’s helpful, you may place a hand on your heart.  Trust that you will navigate through your difficulties with dignity and a capacity to love.  

Know that you will survive. 

If the practice feels difficult or if you feel overwhelmed or lacking in compassion, avoid judging yourself.  Hold whatever your experience is in kindness. Breathe deeply and continue to plant seeds of compassion, for yourself and others.  Remember that you’re not trying to fix the pain of the world but only to meet it with a compassionate heart. 

When you are ready, extend your compassion to others you know, including people in this circle. Become aware of their difficulties, burdens, and measure of sorrows.  Repeat simple phrases of compassion for them:

May you hold your sorrows and struggles in compassion.

May you be held in compassion.

May your pain and sorrows be eased.

May you find peace. 

If it feels right, you can expand your compassion to include not only those who are easy to love but also those who are difficult.  Offer compassionate wishes for people, animals and all beings that suffer. 

May you be held in compassion.

May your pain and sorrows be eased.

May you find peace. 

Imagine your heart as a purifying fire that can transform the suffering of the world into the luminosity of compassion.  And finally, bring compassion back to yourself.  Hold yourself with a spirit of compassion and repeat silently:

Just as I wish well for all those around me, may I too be held in great compassion.  

Feel this compassion in every cell in your body, in every part of your being. 

May my sorrows and struggles be held in compassion.

May my pain and sorrow be eased.

May my heart be at peace. 

As Jack Kornfield reminds us, “Suffering doesn’t belong only to you. It’s the dance of conditions.  You can’t choose the music, but you can choose how you will dance.”