Sunday, March 23, 2008

Cultivating Happiness: Compassion

Part 4 of 6

In previous posts on cultivating happiness we've looked at Attention, Relationships, Loving Kindness. This week we'll take a peek at Compassion.

Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity are collectively known as "The Divine Abodes. Knowing a little about them can help us notice them when they arise and then begin to cultivate them so that they appear more frequently in our lives. (We'll look at Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity in parts 5 and 6 of this series.)

Identifying Compassion

Of the four Divine Abodes, Compassion can be quite tricky. Because it's so often linked to the Buddha, we've all heard the word.

Let's begin with a look at the word "compassion" itself. We can analyze compassion by dividing its prefix, "com" (which means with) from its root, "passion," (which means feeling). We see that compassion means "Feeling with" with someone else.

Compassion is not some rarefied feeling that you have to be spiritually developed to feel. We all feel it. Last week I mentioned that parents often feel Loving Kindness for an unborn baby. Similarly, parents feel compassion when their toddler stumbles and gets hurt.

Compassion's near enemy is pity. Feeling sorry for someone isn't compassion. Nor is wanting someone to feel better because their pain is making us uncomfortable.

Compassion's far enemy is contempt or cruelty, not caring or even seeming to enjoy another's plight.

Cultivating Compassion

We can invite a lot more happiness into our lives by widening this circle of compassion. Cultivating compassion helps

Here's what's worked for me. I repeat these phrases in the morning. I'm cultivating the intention to be more compassionate:

"May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering."

My Spouse
"May my wife be free from suffering and the causes of suffering."

My children
"May my kids be free from suffering and the causes of suffering."

My Teacher
"May Mr. Wilson be free from suffering and the causes of suffering."
(insert the name of your favorite teacher here)

My Parents (They don't have to be alive.)
"May my mom and dad be free from suffering and the causes of suffering."

My Siblings
"May my sisters and brothers be free from suffering and the causes of suffering."

Other Relatives
"May my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, be free from suffering and the causes of suffering."

Difficult People
I use these same phrases and fill in the names of friends, neutral people, and difficult people. (I have found that applying these phrases to the most difficult people in my world is really, really, really challenging. But I think it is exactly what Jesus meant when he said, "Love your enemies.")

I finish with all beings:

"May all beings everywhere be free from suffering and the causes of suffering."

Stabilizing Compassion

As unnatural as it seems, moving towards suffering paradoxically makes us happier. I don't get it completely, I just know it works.

When we try to practice compassion, we're taking the rocky road. (Feeling with someone when they're happy is the subject of next week's topic.) Compassion takes us to the other end of spectrum of feeling: feeling with others who are suffering. Compassion is about moving towards those in distress, pain, and anguish.

You might wonder, "How can moving towards suffering make us happy?"

When I began as a kindergarten teacher I didn't like getting closer to suffering. Then as now, I wanted my class to be happy. I liked to put my energy towards the happy happenings in my class; I tended to turn a cold shoulder to difficulties. I think part of my resistance came from my own lack of confidence in my ability to adequately help.

The breakthrough came from my older sister, a preschool teacher, who suggested that knowing what to do relieve suffering was extra. Just "being there" is all that's required.

Applying that advice, I began to get better acquainted with the situations in my class that were causing kids to be unhappy. I discovered that questions help. Learning about the suffering was the key.

Many times I've walked up to a wailing child who's just fallen down on the playground and gotten a scrape and simply asked, "Show me where it hurts." When they show me I describe what I see avoiding any words of judgment.

Without providing anything, really, beyond openness and attention, the wailing usually stops. The child calms and quiets down. He or she is soon ready to get up to play or to get a some first aid.

This approach works whether it's an ordinary scrape or something much more serious, like the death of a parent. I don't need answers, just questions, attention given to the present moment, openness to what I see, and confidence that whatever needs to be done will become apparent.

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