There is a lot of suffering in the world right now, and also difficult things happening in our lives, and this is all present here, the world suffering and our own individual suffering.
And it can be very difficult for us to know how to be and how to respond to all this suffering. it can feel overwhelming.
Our meditation practice provides a space for us to be with all the suffering, a space where all emotions are welcome, where we can honour what is true for us, and practice bringing our compassionate presence to it. Compassionate presence if healing. it is grounding and helps us find a wise response in the face of suffering, so it does not pull us down.
Compassion is the response of the heart in the face of suffering: the heart radiates love out and when it meets suffering, compassion arises.
The practice of Compassion
The practice of compassion can help us to get in touch with the suffering and the pain of others, without becoming overwhelmed.
What is compassion ?
Compassion literally means to suffer together, it is the feeling that arises when we encounter suffering and we feel the motivation to relieve it, it includes the desire to help. Empathy, which is a precursor, refers to our ability to take the perspective of another and to experience their emotions.
It is interesting to notice that the arising of compassion feels good and when we act out of compassion it feels good. Biologically, our bodies secrete oxytocin the bonding hormone, and the pleasure centre in the brain lights up. Compassion arises in our frontal cortex, and it allows us to include others, have a felt sense of each other, and to be generous. In terms of evolution, compassion is considered to be a key adaptive strategy that enables us to rise above self-interest and sense our belonging to the whole net of life. This capacity is already in very young children. So it is innate and biologically based, and it can also be cultivated, like mindfulness.
It has profound implications for our sense of identity, as it shifts us from an egoic identity focussed on the “how I am doing” and “what I need”, to a sense of belonging and collaboration with others for the flourishing of the species.
The blocks to compassion
Compassion gets challenged by our old habits of reactivity and the fight flight freeze response in times of stress. We become fixated on meeting our own needs for safety and satisfaction, we are driven by the limbic part of the brain, and no longer open to information from the frontal cortex. We become tight and contracted and others become an object to us, or as Tara Brach puts it, “unreal others”. They are objects that bring us more pleasure and satisfaction, recognition, give us something, or they are objects that are threatening us and can cause us to suffer.
Sadly, the stress of our fast-paced culture exacerbates this regression to fight flight freeze. For many of us there is the squeezing feeling of not having enough time and it keeps us in fight flight freeze, and cuts us from our capacity to feel compassion for others. The more stressed and hurried we feel, the more others become unreal. And even the earth itself becomes unreal, an object that we can violate.
How do we realise our connection?
So the critical inquiry is how do we shift from this fight flight freeze mode where others are unreal to realising our connection and the realness of others?
It is a practice and a training and it takes many rounds. There are two major steps in the cultivation of compassion:
- It begins with mindful presence, letting oneself recognise and be touched by pain, to be willing to turn towards the suffering and to be touched by it. It is counterintuitive, as our conditioning is to turn away from something unpleasant. We have the intention to lean in, to turn towards and be willing to be touched.
- The second step is then to respond in some way with care, and it can be many things, from prayer to active service.
The first step of turning towards activates the networks in our brain that are sensitive and can respond. And you see it happening collectively in times of crisis, when people help each other spontaneously. We lean in and ask the question “what it is like for you?”, “where is it hurting?”. It awakens the mirror neurons that can really register what it is like for the other person. If the people suffering are at a different place in the social hierarchy or from a different race or religion, it takes even more intentionality to lean in and ask these questions.
The second step is then to respond in some way with care, and it can be many things, from prayer to active service. Our response will vary according to our capacity in the moment, and that’s okay. we can use our wisdom to know what is right for us. We “do what is ours to do”, we don’t try to do more or we might get overwhelmed.
What if it is too much?
Sometimes people worry that the suffering will be too much and they will get overwhelmed “I am already too thin skinned” “I am already overburdened” “I can barely handle it”. If the vulnerability is too much, it is appropriate and wise to resource, to ground oneself in the body and the breath, to sense the space that’s here. In times like today, when we are exposed to so much suffering, it is especially important to practice self-care and self-compassion.
When it feels too much, the psychoetherapist Chris Germer from the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion recommends to connect with your breath and just focus on the in-breath, and let one in-breath after another be just for you, allowing yourself to be nourished by one in-breath after another.
And then when it feels right to you, to begin to use your out-breath to send something good to others who suffer, but in the same time allowing every in-breath to be for yourself and then when it feels right, offering an exhale to others. Allowing just the right ratio, the right balance to be for you. Breathing in for yourself as much as you like and then whenever it feels right to let an out-breath be for others.
The meditation teacher Jack Kornfield reminds us that it is not the small self that has to hold all the suffering. he invites us to breathe out the pain into the larger space that can hold it, like the great sky that has room for all different weather systems, or the great ocean that has room for all the waves. And the second step of compassion is also to offer care, and in the moment that you help, that you offer a prayer or a hug or a smile, it creates more space and room for the suffering to flow through.
Compassion starts with small things
You might reflect for yourself, what in my own life calls for more kindness and compassion?
Start with little things. Sometimes it has to start with ourselves, with the suffering inside of us. We choose something that allows the tenderness that is born into us to flower and be reborn. In our meditation group, as we’ve practiced together, there have been moments when someone has shared something difficult, a struggle, or difficulty they carry, and we all have experienced this feeling of compassion towards that person, this sense of connection and caring, and wanting to help. It’s their difficult time, but it’s our difficult time to be held together.
As the Buddhist meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote:“Since I was a young man, I have tried to understand the nature of compassion. But what little compassion I have learnt has not come from that form of understanding, but simply from my actual experience of suffering. It is part of who we are.”
Tara Brach, Radical Compassion
Chris Germer, Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart
Thich Nhat Hahn, Being Peace