THE PRACTICE OF COMPASSION
City Retreat | Berkeley Shambhala Center
I'd like you to start with where you already feel compassion. Currently I feel that's the most effective place to start, where you already feel it. I always mention that when Trungpa Rinpoche was teaching about compassion, he would awaken the feeling of compassion, ignite it or awaken it by thinking it of an experience he had when he was a very young boy in Tibet. He looked down from the top of the monastery and saw people stoning a puppy to death, and he couldn't do anything because he was too far away. He said what made the image all the more painful is that they were laughing and having fun doing this. All he had to do was think of that, and then the feeling of the bodhichitta began to flow.
That's where we would start this practice, with what is a second step on the sheet. But we'll start with that as the beginning. You would think of someone in this category. Then you would wish that they could be free of suffering and the root of suffering. Now this is very interesting. Suppose, for instance, I find that when I do this for the animals in the laboratories, it's very straightforward. I just want them to not be in those experiments. I just want them to be out of there. It's completely practical. That might be the situation with what you've been thinking of as well.
Sometimes, though, more frequently as I go through my life, it's psychologically a little more complicated. People often say to me, for instance, when they wish for themselves or a loved one to be free of suffering and the root of suffering, and then they say, I don't know if I really mean that. Then they say, I understand the logic of this. You say, "I learn so much from suffering, I'm not sure I really want myself to be free of this particular anxiety I'm feeling now because I'm out of work, or whatever it might be, because I learn so much from it."
I think it's very helpful, when you're doing this practice for yourself and for others as you move through the list. It might be very straightforward, like the laboratory animals. You just want them out of that situation, and so you know what you wish for them. But at some level we're always talking about the root of the suffering. It's often at the level of psychological distress. For instance, if someone is dying or someone is very ill and I think of them and I wish them to be free of suffering and the root of suffering. Part of that is not wanting them to be in physical pain.
Actually the more I do this over the years, I really want them to be free of fear, fear of the pain, fear of all the spinoff from the illness. I want them to be free and I want myself to be free of all this spinoff. Do you know what I mean by spinoff? It's like we're ill or our house has burned down, we've just lost all our possessions or we've lost a loved one or so forth. And if we stay with the raw material, we will find the bodhichitta in there. We'll find the soft spot, the tenderness in there. The open space is in there. However, I wish for myself and all of us to be free of all the resentment and the anger and the terror going on and on and on that we do around everything that happens to ourselves.
Somehow the root of suffering is how we escalate the suffering, how we make the suffering more intense by going on and on and on about it with our habitual reactiveness. In some sense, not to get too complicated or psychological, but often what we're wishing for people is that they be free of their fear of what's happening to them, or their depression about what's happening to them, or their bitterness and anger about what's happening to them. You see what I'm saying? Because sometimes what's happening to them, we actually can't, it can't be changed. We might wish that it could be changed, but we're not trying to do this practice to get into kind of wishful thinking or, like, if we just aspire enough that everything is going to be all right. Because in life there's so much not everything being alright, you know. So somehow it's more like...
There's this old adage that it isn't so much what happens to us, but how we react to what happens to us, that we're working with with a spiritual path. When we wish for people to be free of suffering and the root of suffering, at some level we're wishing them to be free of all the spinoff. I don't know how else to say it.
Sometimes I call it fabrication or escalating it. Trungpa Rinpoche in this talk that I've often mentioned called "Working with Negativity," it's a chapter in The Myth of Freedom by Chgyam Trungpa Rinpoche, talks about that there's nothing wrong with negativity, but our problem is negative negativity. By which he means, there's nothing wrong with the essential arising of any emotion or life situation, for that matter. But where it gets problematic is what we make of that, how we make matters worse with how we work with our mind: resentment, bitterness, blame, and on and on.
Wishing to be free of that kind of really self-imposed loneliness, self-imposed suffering that we create with our minds. The fact that our house burns down is not self-imposed. The fact that we get an illness isn't self-imposed. What we do with that and how that escalates into such intense misery and feeling of separateness and feeling of aloneness and alienation. This, we do this with our minds. We do it to ourselves. We torture ourselves.
So we begin with where it's already flowing. That's step one. And we say, "May this one be free of suffering and the root of suffering."
In step two, we do it for ourselves and we say, "May I be free of suffering and the root of suffering."
This in an interesting one, because ideally you just zero in on a place where you're really stuck and where you are driving yourself crazy or where there's a real suffering in your life. And you wish for yourself to be free particularly of making matters worse, this spinoff.
Sometimes you can't find anything. This is rare, of course (laughter). If that's the case, Ken McLeod [see Wake Up to Your Life ] actually suggests that you think of yourself having a great loss or having an illness, and then wish yourself to be free of that suffering. Personally, I think it's most powerful to really connect with something that's already there and notice the effects of wishing yourself to be free of that particular suffering and the root of suffering.
Root of Suffering
Maybe at this point you don't have a clear idea of what the root of suffering is, and I'll talk more about that. But let's just say, for the purpose of doing this practice this week, think of the root of suffering as this tendency to make matters worse, this tendency to buy into the same old story lines and the same old blaming and the same old resentment mind, bitter mind, judgmental mind, self-pitying mind, whatever it might be. The tendency to make matters worse being the root of suffering. Because, as I say, even if what your suffering is is that you have a genuine great loss, the root of it turning into debilitating suffering is what we do with that, how we spin off from that. Am I making this clear?
The third step would be to awaken compassion for a friend. As I said on Saturday, a close friend or family member, so choose one that actually is suffering in some way, has pain of some kind, and turn your attention to them and wish for them to be free of suffering and the root of suffering. If you get into this place of "I''m not sure I really want them to be free of this because it causes it to grow" and stuff, then go deeper. At the level of their depression or their rage or their self-denigration, we would all want for our close friends and relatives to be free of that kind of spinoff.
Try to make it as real as possible and sending compassion by connecting again with the original feeling of compassion, and then directing it toward this individual, and encouraging it by saying the words. And they'll either be a natural feeling there that you might classically call compassion, but some sense of really feeling for them and really wishing, aspiring, longing for them to be free of suffering and the root of suffering. And there's a sense of being there with them at the level of mind training.
Also notice the effect because it may be any kind of feeling of blocking it. Remember what I said. The bodhichitta is there in that feeling of blocking or "I can't do it" or whatever it might be. The bodhichitta is there if you go into it and experience underneath the words. This is our practice.
Then we move on to neutral people. Since we don't know that much about them, I find that when I get to the neutrals that I actually do make up stories about them (laughter), because I don't actually know, although we might think we know. And for the purposes of doing the practice, that's okay.
For instance, the neutrals are just people we don't know, say, in this room or on the streets, who aren't particularly looking like they're suffering terribly. But we turn our attention to them and we say, "May this one be free of suffering and the root of suffering," in terms of making worse for themselves. And we might think, you know, if they've had a loss or someone dear to them is ill or if there's been a catastrophe in their life of some kind, natural catastrophe, the house burning or if there's been a theft or there's anything that would cause suffering, may they be free of the root of suffering, of escalating around this issue. Just wishing, however this happens for you, wishing for them to be free of suffering and the root of suffering.
Then again, notice the effect. That's an important part of the practice.
If it's a free-flowing feeling of compassion, usually you just experience that. Keep saying the words and even saying more words if you want to kind of bring it out more. They often say it's like sunshine on a flower, causing the feeling of compassion to grow and flourish, causing the bodhichitta to flourish and expand.
If you feel blocked, just going into that and finding the bodhichitta there, it may not feel like bodhichitta to you. It may feel like hell to you. I'm telling you, even if you don't experience it as such, just a few seconds of feeling of closedness is very, very powerful. Pointing you in a revolutionary direction, very unpredictable direction, a very extraordinary and transformative direction.
Then you do it for the difficult ones. You think of the difficult person or people and you wish for them to be free of suffering and the root of suffering. Now, a very interesting thing often happens here. You can really get into wishing them to be free of suffering, because you think if they could be free . . . basically you want them to be the way you want them to be, you know (laughter). Could they be free of their lousy personality so that I could feel better? (Laughter) This you might call not quite compassion. It's more like justifying your dislike of them by using a compassion practice.
And the other thing is, of course, being glad that they're suffering (laughter). Hard to face, but true. When we really dislike people, maybe we're well awareŃ or maybe we'll get more in touch with it by doing this practiceŃ but there's a lot of rejoicing, almost, about their misfortune. Because basically they hurt you and you want them to suffer too. So you're glad when you hear that things aren't going well for them. And you feel pretty unhappy when you hear that everything is fine for them. Those kinds of feelings come up about people that we find difficult. So, rather than feeling bad about that just notice that that's what happening. Have a sense of humor. Whatever it is, let the words go and notice the effect.
Sometimes with difficult people, I find it is also quite helpful to actually imagine different scenarios for them. I have actually cooked up some real genuine compassion for some of the very difficult people in my life by beginning to think of, for instance, something happening to one of their children or something that I know that, if that degree of misfortune happened to them, I wouldn't be glad, that I would really feel compassion for them. So you can use your imagination here if it helps you to feel some kind of compassion for someone who your heart is shut to, a difficult person.
In other words, you find the person or people and you encourage this feeling by saying the words, "May they be free of suffering and the root of suffering." And then you notice the effect. Then you expand the whole thing by moving onto the next stage. So we keep expanding it in this way, and just notice what happens.
The sixth step is to have all five there together: yourself, and in my case a laboratory animal, and myself, a close friend or close family member, and a neutral person or people, and a difficult person or people, all together. And see if you can have a sense of sending the compassion to all five. May all of us, this little group, circle that we've become, may all of us be free of suffering and the root of suffering.
Sometimes people like to go one by one and just look at each one, or whatever. And again, it goes through the same process of contacting the original feel and encouraging it by saying the words as you direct it towards these.
Then you extend it out to all beings.
This is the seven-step practice. I would like you to do that at least twice during the week, because it takes quite a while. And you would sit for a period of time and then you would do this seven-step practice and then you would sit a little bit at the end. And so to do it twice. If once is all that's possible, okay. But at least once. Twice would be better and, of course, more would be better if you have the time.
There are alternate ways you can do it. You can simplify it in any form. But one of the ways its simplified is four steps, where you start where you already feel compassion, then you do it for yourself. So I would say, "May the laboratory animal be free of suffering and the root of suffering," and then, "May I be free of suffering and the root of suffering." And "May you be free of suffering," and you can be anyone you want it to be.
Then "May all beings be free of suffering and the root of suffering." So those four steps. And then the simplest of all, three steps, is "May I be free of suffering, May you be free of suffering, May all beings be free of suffering."
Each day do this practice, but you can do it in any kind of modified form. You can skip any of the seven steps. People often like to skip the five-together step. But you do whatever you want. That will be your homework for this week.
Photo by Ana Elisa Fuentes.