Archive for compassion

The Practice of Lovingkindness Meditation

In 2011, I had the good fortune to attend the Spiritual Directors International’s (SDI) Conference in Atlanta, GA.  Without really knowing many of the presenters, I chose to sign up for a three-hour session on what I thought was compassion.  Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who I had experienced briefly at an Academy for Spiritual Formation conference, was the teacher.  The presentation was an eye opener for me to a whole other way of practicing meditation and prayer. 

Rabbi Shapiro presented from his book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice.  One of the practices he taught us was called Metta or Lovingkindness Meditation.  Metta is a Pali word, which can be translated as love. The best translation of this type of love in Christian terminology is agape. It is a love that is unconditional: open and unobstructed.  According to Sharon Salzberg, who is the cofounder of Insight Meditation Society,

Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world.  Practicing metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves.  We can open to everything with the healing forces of love.

Metta has two root meanings; gentle and friend.  It is likened to a gentle rain that, without choosing or selecting, falls indiscriminately.  This reminds me of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).  The practice of metta begins with us gently befriending ourselves.  This is sometimes even harder for us then praying for our enemies.  We are more likely to judge ourselves harshly and not spend much time in self-compassion. With the metta practice, we can uncover the possibility of truly respecting and loving ourselves as part of the human race. 

There are various phrases that meditation teachers use for this practice but the overall flow of the practice is the same.  One begins by taking a comfortable posture, either sitting in a chair, on the floor or lying down.  In metta, we always start by saying the phrases for ourselves.  We focus on our breath and imagine our heart being open and welcoming.  We then say some phrases that are a variation on the following traditional phrases (some alternatives are in the parentheses):

  • May I be free from danger (May I have safety, May I be free from fear)
  • May I have mental happiness (May I be peaceful, May I be liberated)
  • May I have physical happiness (May I be healed, May I be healthy)
  • May I have ease of well-being (May I dwell in peace, May I live with ease)

I prefer to use Rami Shapiro’s phrasing as it resonates with our American life for me. His suggestions are:

  • May I be free from fear
  • May I be free from compulsions
  • May I be blessed with love
  • May I be blessed with peace

One suggestion that Rabbi Shapiro made when we pray for ourselves is to invite a mental image of ourselves as a young child, especially if there is one that is wounded within us.  As we say this prayer, we say it to that child. And then we get an images in a progressive sequence of our teen age self, our middle age self and one of ourselves when we are much older than we currently are, ending with one when we are on our deathbed.  As we say this prayer to each image, we begin to feel the warmth of compassion extending to all various selves we carry within us.  This can allow real healing to take place.

After praying this prayer in a repetitive fashion for ourselves, we move on to say it for a person close to us whom we love or are friendly towards.  Next we extend it to a person we know but not very well, such as the person we buy our coffee from daily.  Lastly, we bring to mind the image of “an enemy” or a person with whom we are currently in a conflict situation.  We say the same phrases to them without anger or judgment but with an open and loving heart.  It can change the attitude we have towards them and thus be a change agent in the conflict situation.  We can also extend this metta prayer to include all living beings and our world. 

This practice has been a life changer for me, especially in the current state of the world that is full of divisiveness and hate.  If I seriously pray with an open heart for those who I feel are “enemy,” I can begin to look at them though other eyes.  I can see them as humans with fears and compulsions.  I can see that their desires are similar to mine: for peace, acceptance, and love.   I will be honest, for some people, I have to repeat this prayer over and over again before I begin to feel a shift in my own attitude.  That is all that I have any real control to change—my attitude.  This practice gives me the spaciousness of heart that allows acceptance of reality.  It helps to connect me to the oneness that connects us all, which I know stems from the heartbeat of God.  It is in that oneness that I know that Julian of Norwich’s statement is true; “all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”

Resources:

Shapiro, Rami. The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice

Salzberg, Sharon. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree/loving-kindness

https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-on-lovingkindness/

https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditation-loving-kindness/

What Makes True Happiness?

IMG_2368A young waitress serving the Dali Lama at a ski resort sat down at the table and asked him what was the meaning of life.   He answered immediately, “The meaning of life is happiness.” He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or…” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What makes true happiness?

What makes true happiness?  That is a good question for all of us to ponder.  This question seems to have many different answers depending on whether we are young or old, poor or rich, depressed or feeling upbeat.  Does it really depend on our situation or age or does it depend on our attitude and approach to life?  If we are focused on gaining material possessions or a great job, does that give us great happiness?  Maybe,  if we are living in poverty.  If this is the way to happiness, how do we reconcile the fact that some of the happiest people are also poor? There are challenges in life due to poverty, chronic pain, discrimination etc. I am not suggesting that these don’t need to be addressed.  However, if these challenges are perceived as overwhelming or take over all our focus, we miss the positive things that occur in our lives as well.  And many of us in the first world, act as if we have extreme poverty when it is far from the truth.  Instead we worry over have the latest gadget or clothes when we have more than enough.

We all need to feel we have a purpose in life.  This is what organized religion has provided in the past for many of the baby boomer generation.  With the advent of scientific discoveries, the ability to know so many facts at the touch of a button, and the picture of earth sent back from space, we have become an untethered people. We are no longer tied to a geographical spot on the map. Expectations no longer limit us.  We expect more and more in everything we do and have. Consumerism is encouraged as a good way to stabilize the economy.  We have lost our purpose of life or at least one that came predetermined for us by our elders or our religious leaders.  We look to our government to give us a national perspective but even this is divide and not to be trusted.  Where can we search for the meaning of true happiness?

How can we adopt the Dali Lama’s suggestion that compassion and a good heart is the road to happiness?  Firstly, we need to focus on having compassion for ourselves; not demanding perfection in everything we do but learning from failures and mistakes with an open and generous heart.   We can learn to laugh at our foibles at the same time not allowing them to define who we are as a person.  Claiming our belovedness as a child of God (or whatever we call the energy that unites all of us and yet is more than just us) can help us to feel secure and worthwhile.

We can  greet each day as it is, allowing it to unfold without expectations of how it needs to be in order for us to be happy.  Suspending judgment until we truly understand and can empathize with people we interact can allow us to feel compassion and openness in our hearts.   We can acknowledge pain with an open heart but not add to it by our thoughts or resistance to the pain.  We can sit with our emotions until we are clear about what action we need to take if any.

I believe we can do all of the above. If we practice doing this each day we will grow into compassionate and open people who find happiness if most of our lives.  It takes practice and humor when we miss the target but we can learn to rewire our brains towards happiness. Neuroscience is discovering how this occurs.  The practice of mindfulness is aiding many people to do just this. Listed below are several good books that have been published on the subject.  I have also included a website. We each are in charge of our happiness and can change the attitude with which we approach our situation and the world.

  • http://www.rickhanson.net/writings/just-one-thing
  • Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, by Rick Hanson
  • Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • The Mindful Way through Anxiety: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim your Life, by Orsillo, Roemer, and Segal
  • The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, by William, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn

 

 

The power to choose is yours

Power to choose“The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings. As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.”      Buddha, Dhammapada

This week in my yoga class my teacher shared a saying that spoke to me and I have been thinking about it ever since.  She said “If you don’t choose your feeling tone, your past will choose it for you.” As I pondered it, I knew that it rang true.  If each day, each moment I am not conscious of what intention I have my life then I can only react out of my unconscious habits.  Those habits have been shaped over my life, most of them being formed in my childhood and early adulthood.

It is the same for all of us.  The past  shaped us and will continue to rule us unless we become more mindful of the new path we desire.  For example, if we are raised in a family where shame was used to control us, we will easily sink into shame  even when others are not intending to shame us.  If we were raised in a very judgmental family, we will be quick to judge others and ourselves, even when we would prefer to be compassionate. This reaction results from our need to be vigilant to such tactics to deal with the environment in the past.  As such, we continually scan for evidence of the same negativity in our current situation.  Our brains are programmed to be aware of any such “threats” that exist, even when there are really only a few of them in the present moment.  Being able to  spot them immediately helped us to survive when we were children.  Our brains are hardwired to notice and  respond to the threats, real or imagined.

If we are to choose a different path, we need to heal the wounds of the past.  One way to do that is by using positive experiences to counter the negative one.  Rick Hanson, in his book Buddha’s Brain*, suggests two methods of doing this.  The first option is to let all the positive experiences that occur in the present  sink into the old pains.  To do this we have to maximize the positive experience. We need to replay it over and over in our mind, making a full colorful “movie” of it to see in our mind’s eye so that we really can get a full body experience of it.  Savor the positive moment.  Let it strengthen and replace some of the negative experiences in the past.  This helps to give us today what we should have received as a child.

The second option is to replace negative material that surfaces with positive emotions and memories that will be its antidote.  For example, if you have felt weak and dependent in the past, let a current experience of strength bathe it with healing.  If hurt from past neglect or rejection in relationships continues to make you feel unworthy, bring to mind where you are loved by other people or God.  Hanson suggests adding a thought such as “I got through all that, I’m still here and many people love me.”  While the memory of the pain will not vanish, using these two techniques will help it to diminish.  It will allow you to move on to the future you desire, rather than have the past choose it for you.

For more information about the use this technique and how it impact us at a neurological level, I refer you to Hanson’s  book.  Cognitive behavioral therapy also has many different methods to help us change our thoughts.  As quoted in the passage above, our thoughts lead to words, deeds, habits and character.  Our feeling tone or our intentions are intrinsically related to our thoughts.  By watching both our intentions and our thoughts we can begin to change our character.  One of the best places for this thought to spring from is from love and compassion, both for ourselves and the world.

* Hanson, Rick and Mendius, Richard, Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom, New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

Compassionate Heart

As I listen to the news lately, I hear yet another story of killing in Syria or Afghanistan.   The reporter then switches to a story about a mass murder at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and I begin to feel overwhelmed by all the violence that exists in our world.  How does one remain open to the suffering that occurs daily without developing a numbness or a cold heart that makes the suffering of others as distant as possible?  Do we just have to “turn the other cheek” and allow the brutal people of the world take over?  How can we remain compassionate, open to the pain of others without letting ourselves become a doormat or our hearts to be hardened into a narrow minded focus that cares only for ourselves and our immediate companions?

And what if in the past someone has abused us or taken advantage of us in an unfair way?  Are we who are striving for a compassionate heart supposed to forgive and forget?  Are we to let them continue to hurt us?  Do we have to continue to relate to them without setting any limits on their behavior?

For answers, I turn to two great spiritual leaders, Jesus and Buddha.  Both urged their followers to have a compassionate heart and to love one another as brothers and sisters.  Jesus is quoted as saying, “You know you have been taught, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you.  When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek.” (Matthew 5: 38-39)

What is meant by this statement?   If we look only at the surface of the statement from Matthew we might think Jesus was urging us to be passive and not resist evil when we face it.  In fact, this scripture has been used to oppress people and keep them in a one down position.  Dr. Walter Wink, in his book, Engaging the Powers, sheds light on what these words probably meant, given the social context of the day. According to Dr. Wink, no one in that culture would use their left hand to strike anyone as it was considered the unclean hand.  So in order to slap the person’s right cheek,  he had to use the back of his right hand.  This gesture was meant to be demeaning to the one receiving the blow.  Masters would backhand slave and Romans would do so to Jews.  If you present the other check, the person must still use his right hand and then he will have to use his fist or palm. That was a gesture used only between equals.  Thus, by turning the other cheek a person would be communicating that he or she refused to be humiliated and must be treated as an equal.  It was a non-violent but non passive response to the other person’s grasp for power.*

Buddha says,”Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another.  Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world…”(part of the Metta Sutta).  How does one cherish all living beings when some seem so bent on perpetuating evil in the world?  According to Sharon Salzberg in her book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “Sometimes we think that to develop an open heart, to be truly loving and compassionate, means that we need to be passive, to allow others to abuse us, to smile and let anyone do what they want with us  Yet this is not what is meant by compassion. Quite the contrary.  Compassion is not at all weak.  It is the strength that arise out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal…Compassion can lead to a very forceful action without any anger or aversion in it.”  We need to be open to exploring the context out of which the negative behavior arises before we judge the person who commits the act.  If we can see what lead up to the behavior, we can hold an open heart towards the person while still not condoning the act.

A practice that has helped me remain more open to others and to develop a compassionate heart is that of metta.  In doing metta practice, we gently repeat phrases that are meaningful in terms of what we wish for ourselves and others.  We always begin with ourselves as any practice of lovingkindness that based on self hatred or depreciation cannot sustain itself.  We are called to love one another as we love ourselves which means we need to love ourselves first.

Sharon Salzberg’s book gives an in- depth look at how to do this practice and the benefit from making it a daily routine.  Briefly, we repeat four phrases that state our wish to  be free from danger, to have mental and physical happiness and ease of well-being.  The phrases I like to use are taken from Rami Shapiro and are

  • May I be free from fear,
  • May I be free from compulsions,
  • May I be blessed with love,
  • May I be blessed by peace.

I always start with myself but then call to mind images of people that I love and state the same phrases for them.  I then move to someone I am having a hard time loving or with whom I have a conflict.   After this I expand it to the world or particular world leaders.   The last step is to pray this for all beings, animal and human.

So, this is my prayer for you, dear reader:

May you be free from fear.

May you be free from compulsions.

May you be blessed with love.

May you be blessed by peace.

*For a more in-depth discussion of this passage and others like it, read Don’t Forgive Too Soon by Denis, Sheila and Matthew Linn

Self-Compassion

    “Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness… The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.”

                                                             Kristin Neff

 I don’t know about you, but I am harder on myself than I am on other people. Not that I don’t judge other people and at times have trouble being compassionate about their situation. That also occurs too frequently for comfort. But even so, I am much harder on myself. I can critique a small incident to death! ” I should have said this, I should have done that” or “I shouldn’t have said that, what was I thinking when I did that!” Those thoughts flow through my head on many occasions. Perfection always seems to be my target but never my accomplishment.  It is hard to accept myself just the way I am, warts and all.

Self-compassion is the key to acceptance. Mistakes are just part of the human condition. When we acknowledge that we are human, we can feel more compassion for ourselves when we fail to live up to our values. Dr. Kristin Neff is a psychologist that has done extensive research on compassion. She found that self compassion is different from self-pity, self-indulgence or self-esteem. She states, “self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal failings can be acknowledged with kindness and do not need to be hidden.”

For more information on what she has discovered and techniques she has found helpful, check out her website.

 In my yoga class, we are focusing on contentment. Contentment doesn’t mean the lack of suffering or pain but the ability to be present to what is, the “now”, and feeling gratitude rather than irritation. One of the main tools for obtaining this is self-compassion. Rather than critique our current feelings or situation, we are encouraged to rest in the knowledge that we are where and who we are supposed to be. Each situation is an opportunity for learning and growing. Each feeling is present for the moment and need not linger if we don’t feed it to make it bigger than it is. Fighting against reality makes it worse. Acceptance is the key to contentment. We must first notice what we are experiencing internally, welcome it rather than fight it, and bathe it in the light of compassion or love. When we do this, we are able to release it sooner.

Mary Mrozowski is the author of a technique that is helpful in doing this. It is call the Welcoming Practice. It has three parts: Focus, Welcome and Letting Go. First, when a distressing emotion or physical pain arises, you focus on what is going on with the sensations in your body. Are your shoulders tight? Do you have a headache? Is your heart pounding? Don’t analyze why, just stay present with the sensations in the body. Second, welcome the sensation by naming it. Say to yourself, “Welcome pain” or Welcome anger” or Welcome fear.” You are not welcoming the outer situation that caused it but only the inner experience of it. With the welcome of the inner experience comes the release of judgment and the beginning of self compassion. Third, when you seem ready to do so, release the feeling and allow it to dissipate. You can say “I let go of this anger or pain.” This release may only be for the moment. It may return. But the present moment is what is important with this technique. If it returns, you can repeat the technique to deal with that moment. There are many resources on using this technique and this link Welcoming prayer will guide you to these.

As we develop more compassion for ourselves, we will also become more compassionate with others and our world. Hopefully, in doing so, our hearts will become large enough to care for the world in the way it needs so desperately right now.

 

Resources

 Centering Prayer and Inner Awareness, Cynthia Bourgeault

Forgiving Yourself: Why You Must, How You Can, Robert Lauer and Jeanette Lauer

Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, Kristin Neff, PhD