Let’s face it, compassion is not easy.
Hell, sometimes it is downright hard just to be nice and bite your tongue. So, in light of this, how do we cultivate compassion in our lives? It all comes down to a few steps, although they sound small, they have to be implemented rigorously, and religiously, or else you will just fall back into old habits and behavior patterns.
“Choosing to cultivate love rather than anger might just be what it takes to save the planet from extinction.” ~ Pema Chödrön
It takes a lot of self-reflection to cultivate compassion because the genesis of our anger, or uptightness is rooted in our tunnel vision of direct experience—the fact that we cannot see beyond our own direct experience.
Becoming acutely aware of our actions and reactions will bring us closer to realizing how interconnected we truly are. Although, I will tell you now, that transformation does not come without suffering; however, we all know where suffering comes from… attachment!
Let it go!
Once we understand a bit more about who we are, who we thought we were and how others see us, we can let ourselves go. Bye bye! Allowing yourself to change without resisting it is key. There is no point, everything is ephemeral; everything that is, will cease to be… so let it go. You may enjoy the new you.
Of course there will always be a needle or two that sneaks through your mindfulness armor and provokes an old reaction to spew forth. That’s fine.
This is where we can really train. This is the fun stuff! It is when we are caught off guard, and when we least expect emotional uprisings to overwhelm us where we must cultivate the most change.
Feeling the burning pit of rage that is starting to churn in your chest, moving upwards towards your mouth, and right before it reaches the threshold of your tongue, you breathe in.
Just let the feeling be, undisturbed and not judged. Just see it. Let the magma sit, and examine the burning pit within you. This will create space around this particular provocation. This practice may only buy you a few moments, but those few moments count towards a lifetime of work.
Every time we get a splinter under our nail, we need to allow space to form around it. Be hyper aware of the fact that the uncontrollable is just around the corner, and that space is the only thing that can prevent it from taking you over.
Knowing yourself, and knowing how to disarm your reactions, or at least prolong your moments of complete presence, is only half the battle. Truly you have to be mindful of the world beyond your fingertips.
We all lead very different lives, have very different parents, jobs, etc… Being mindful of this fact allows things to roll off of our backs with ease. For sure, it sucks that some asshole cut you off on the highway.
But, what if that person’s mother is going to the hospital about to undergo emergency brain surgery? How would you react then?
Take a moment and think of a situation similar to that. Think about how if you only knew a small fraction of someone else’s life. How would your actions change? Feel it in your chest, watch the feelings arise and shift within you.
That is what I am talking about.
If we can train to be in this state without foreseeable cause, and implicitly know that everyone is fighting their own battles, we would have the ability to truly change how we interact with people.
Mindfulness is the second key to cultivating compassion.
At least once a day, find a situation wherein you felt pissed off or hurt by someone and then augment your scope with a slice of their reality and observe the changes that arise (or would have arisen) in your behavior. This is the germination of the very deeply rooted seed that will move us towards a more compassionate world.
There are two ways to approach the third key… you can do it because you are have not mastered the aforementioned, or you can do it in addition to the previous two practices. Either is fine, the latter is preferable, since it will deliver the most rewards, but all efforts are worth your while.
The practice of tonglen is often mocked by Westerns because it just seems silly to wish people well and “take on” their pain. That last part usually gets people all up in arms. How do I “take on” someone else’s pain?
To start this practice, simply breathe in while envisioning or recalling someone else’s trauma, suffering, anger, or other pains. Breathe it in deeply. Allow your body and mind to feel scared, or angry, but be mindful of it; do not become encapsulated by it. This brings the fire to your face; it awakens your heart and mind to the fact that the pain within them is the same pain within you.
When you become connected with the suffering of another, you then have a clearer understanding of their motivations. Perhaps now you can realize that their actions, or harsh words are not said out of purely evil intention, but rooted in their own suffering—the very same suffering you are experiencing right now as you breathe in.
Now, let out the breath and send to them well wishing, love, and all the cathartic mediums of expression that you have found beneficial when facing your own pain.
You may not get beyond this step; you may become so overwhelmed with your own reaction to this suffering that you lose yourself—your awareness. That is fine. Try and find your way back.
Now, what we have touched upon in this practice is the fourth step: resonance. Through the practice of tonglen, we must open our hearts to our own greatest fears through the experience of others. Once we can find a level of resonance within us, we are able to better empathize with the other person.
To circle back to the example of being cut off in traffic, breathe in their haste and worry about their mother. How would you feel if your mother were to undergo a very risky and possibly fatal brain surgery? Would you cut someone off too?
There it is!
That pit in your stomach is the exact same pit that is in that asshole’s stomach. He didn’t cut you off because he hated the color of your car, or thought your Planned Parenthood bumper sticker was offensive. Even if he did, who cares?
Now you’ve found your way to compassion. You can do this with everything and return here often. Find and face the suffering within you that is being experienced in the moment with another person.
Be extremely mindful of the fragile states in which we all function.
By touching the soft spots in your soul and emotional psyche with openness and grace, you can change the world.
Your bravery is what will be the catalyst for this mindfulness revolution.