Compassion for Self and Others – 7/8/2019

Once a month in IMH sangha, we practice one of the Brahma Viharas or Divine Abodes, which awaken the heart. Tonight we will focus on compassion, called Karuna in the Pali language of the Buddha’s teachings. 

We naturally feel compassion when the heart trembles in resonance with someone else’s pain and suffering. As a companion to Metta or lovingkindness, compassion practice directs loving kindness towards suffering and fosters an attitude of nonjudgmental caring.  

In his recent book, From Suffering to Peace, Mark Coleman writes that without self-compassion, it is hard to feel truly compassionate towards others. Addressing concerns that self-compassion indulges an attitude of “poor, poor, pitiful me,” he cites Tara Brach: “Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance.” 

To illustrate the importance of self-caring, Mark gives an honest account of passing through a dark night of the soul, when he was overwhelmed with emotional painduring an insight meditation retreat. What sustained him was holding his suffering with compassionate and kind awareness. Once he let go of reactivity and stopped resisting the pain, his heart softened. Self-compassion facilitated his transformative process of accepting and integrating unpleasant sensations and traumatic memories. 

In this process, Mark applied three principles from Kristin Neff’s research on self-compassion. First, he recognized that pain, loss, and failure are inevitable parts of every human life. By recalling our common humanity, we feel less alone in our struggles. Second, his mindfulness practice allowed him to witness rather than to avoid or push away painful thoughts and feelings. As we surrender to the reality of our experience—no matter how difficult it may be—our suffering abates. And third, he released self-judgments, bringing caring attention to his wounds. 

Whereas our inner critic blocks growth, kind understanding opens up a path towards healing. Gradually we learn to view pain not as an enemy but as an opportunity to treat ourselves with compassion. When we bring self-care to distressing times, the experience of pain can shift from being unbearable to being tolerable and workable. 

Some of you have read A Silent Cure, in which I describe my own challenging inner journey on a retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Like Mark Coleman, I learned that one benefit of self-compassion is greater compassion for the wounds that everybody bears. 

Aging, sickness and death are part of the human condition. Everyone faces complexities and challenges that are not obvious from the outside. Mark reminds us that it is easy to make assumptions about people based on superficial appearances, such as how they dress or where they live. A beautiful model may struggle with anorexia. A millionaire may feel guilty about inheriting wealth that feels unearned. A military officer whose uniform displays medals for bravery may be dealing with battle trauma. Even the most fortunate, prosperous person must deal with stress, physical pain, health issues, and the loss of loved ones. When we acknowledge how little we really know about other people, we are motivated to give them the benefit of the doubt.

To extend compassion to others who are suffering, we must turn towards what is difficult. While training as a Buddhist chaplain, I practiced attuning to hospice patients—simply witnessing and accompanying their pain without becoming lost in judgments and reactions. In this learning process, my classmates and I explored fears that block our compassionate hearts and examined ways that we turn away from others’ suffering. 

“Am I afraid of being overwhelmed by their distress? Can my heart absorb more anguish?” Such questions initiated my ongoing practice of pausing, breathing deeply, grounding and centering myself, and connecting as fully as possible witheverybody I encounter. As Mark Coleman suggests, I attempt to feel “the whole messiness of their situation.” Only through compassionately accepting my own vulnerability can I be openhearted with others in their vulnerable moments.

Using a guided meditation, adapted from Mark’s book, let’s practice self-compassion and then experience how it naturally moves towards compassion for others:

Sit in a relaxed, comfortable posture. 

Close your eyes, and breathe into the area of your heart. 

Call to mind some kind of stress or pain that you are experiencing currently. 

Your hardship may be physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. Your particular challenge might be a stressful life circumstance or a difficult relationship. 

With kind, caring attention, feel the pain or the struggle in your situation. 

If judgments or other thoughts arise, acknowledge them and, if possible, let them go. 

While holding the pain with compassionate presence, silently repeat the following phrases slowly and genuinely to yourself, as if you were consoling a distressed friend: 

I care about my pain. 

May I be free of suffering.

May I hold myself with compassion. 

Take time to connect with the meaning of each phrase. Don’t seek any particular feeling as you offer these caring wishes to yourself. 

I care about my pain. 

May I be free of suffering.

May I hold myself with compassion.

Now we will move beyond self-compassion practice to extend compassion to others. Letting go of your troubles for the moment, breathe gently into the area of the heart. 

Call to mind a dear person who is currently suffering. Visualize or sense the presence of this person. 

Recall the particular struggles or woes that this loved one is facing. 

Silently offer wishes that express the heart of compassion—a sincere desire to relieve pain. 

Repeat these phrases slowly and genuinely, directing them to this dear person:

I care about your pain.

May you be free from suffering.

May you hold yourself with compassion. 

Letting go of the image or felt sense of this loved one, exhale deeply. 

Breathe gently into the area of the heart. 

Now call to mind a difficult person who is struggling with some hardship. Visualize or sense the presence of a person with whom you have unresolved issues or even conflicts. 

Remember the particular form of suffering that this difficult one is facing. 

Recall that compassion practice can heal the contraction in your own heart in challenging relationships.

When you feel ready, silently offer wishes to relieve the suffering of this difficult person: 

I care about your pain.

May you be free from suffering.

May you hold yourself with compassion. 

Letting go of the image or felt sense of this difficult one, exhale deeply. 

Breathe gently into the area of the heart. 

Lastly, turn your compassionate attention outward to the vast ocean of suffering in the world. Be aware of all those with thirst, hunger, and homelessness, those who seek asylum, those who are sick in body or in mind, those in hospitals or hospices, those who are lonely, depressed or in despair, those who are in situations of violence, those in prisons and in wars…. And opening wide your compassionate heart, include all animals whose habitats are threatened by climate change, all species under threat of extinction, all beings everywhere who are wounded or in pain.

Silently send compassionate phrases out into the world:

I care about your pain.

May all beings everywhere be free from suffering.

May all beings everywhere be held with compassion. 

Letting go of this expansive global vision, exhale deeply.

Breathe gently into the area of the heart. 

At your own rhythm, open your eyes and sense your connection with our sangha, the community that supports our practice.