Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Some preliminary exercises for generating compassion

Here are some brief meditations for cultivating compassion. They have been adapted from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan meditation teacher, who writes, “The power of compassion knows no bounds.”

Realizing that others are the same as you
When you’re having difficulty with a loved one or friend, look beyond your conflict and the role this person plays in your life, and spend some time reflecting on the fact that this person is a human being just like you. She has the same desire for happiness and well-being, the same fear of suffering, the same need for love. Notice how this meditation changes your feelings for her and affects your difficulties.

Putting yourself in another’s place
When you encounter someone who’s suffering and you don’t know how to help, take some time to imagine yourself in this person’s position. What would it be like for you if you were experiencing the same problems? How would you feel? What would you need? How would you like others to respond? Notice if you have a clearer sense now of how to help this person.

Imagining a loved one in place of another
Instead of putting yourself in the place of someone who’s suffering, you may find it even easier to generate compassion if you imagine that someone you love deeply is experiencing the same difficulties. How would you feel? What would you do to help them? Now transfer these feelings to the person who’s actually suffering, and notice how it changes your appreciation of the situation. (Not only will this meditation cause no harm to your loved one, assures Sogyal Rinpoche, she may actually benefit from having compassion directed her way.)

Dedicating the merits
When you know what compassion feels like, you can practice dedicating the value of all your positive actions to the well-being of others. In particular, you may want to follow the traditional practice of dedicating whatever virtue or merit may accrue from your meditations to all beings everywhere. You can do this simply by expressing the intention in words of your own choosing, accompanied by a heartfelt wish that all beings be happy and free of suffering.

How to Transform Suffering with Compassion

When you’ve become proficient in opening your heart and extending love to yourself and others, you may want to experiment with compassion, which is simply another form of love. (Or you could just start here and leave lovingkindness till later.) When you’re moved by the suffering of others and feel a spontaneous desire to help relieve their pain in some way, you’re experiencing the emotion known as compassion. Unlike pity, compassion doesn’t separate you from others or make you feel superior. Quite the contrary: In the moment of compassion, the walls that ordinarily keep you separate come tumbling down, and you feel others’ pain as though it were your own. You may be reluctant to cultivate compassion because you’re afraid of being overwhelmed by the enormous suffering that surrounds you. After all, the world is plagued by violence, poverty, and disease, you might argue, and there’s only so much you can do about it. But the truth is, the more you allow yourself to experience compassion, the less overwhelmed you actually feel! If you just want to use meditation to improve your life, you don’t have to bother reading this section (although I’d like to suggest that you can improve your life immeasurably by opening your heart to compassion). But if you want to extend the benefits of your meditation to others — and become a more compassionate human being in the process — then I couldn’t recommend a more helpful set of practices. Begin by cultivating compassion. Then, if you want, you can experiment with using it to transform the suffering of others in your own heart. Though these practices may be simple, they’re extremely effective for dissolving the clouds that hide the heart.

Allowing life to keep opening your heart

As you go through your day, you no doubt encounter moments when you feel a spontaneous rush of love or compassion. Maybe you glimpse a homeless old woman pushing a shopping cart or hear a dog howling unhappily or see the face of a starving child or a grieving mother in some faraway place on the evening news, and your heart goes out to this being in compassion. Or perhaps someone does something unexpectedly kind for you or a good friend reminds you that she loves you or you gaze into the eyes of someone you care about deeply, and you feel love and gratitude welling up in your heart.
Instead of rushing on to the next moment or pushing the feeling away uncomfortably, you can take some time to close your eyes, meditate on it, and allow it to deepen. Life has the capacity, all by itself, to keep opening your heart, if you let it. Your job is merely to gently extend those moments until they gradually begin to fill your life.