The Buddha taught compassion as one of four Brahma Viharas. The Pali word Brahma means “heavenly” or “divine,” and Vihara means “home” or “abode.” Thus compassion, along with lovingkindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity are called The Four Divine Abodes. These are said to be the most beautiful and powerful states that human beings can experience. The Four Divine Abodes are natural states of the human mind and heart, yet they are often obscured by our conditioning, habits, and difficult emotions. The Buddha said that to reflect often upon these states, and to engage in meditation practices to strengthen them, is to enter into a process of deep spiritual transformation. Those who do so will over time establish love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity as their home. The Four Divine Abodes promote individual happiness and support peace and happiness in the world. 

Compassion is an opening of the heart in direct response to suffering. The Buddha named birth, illness, aging, and death as the four types of suffering experienced by every human being. Suffering also refers to physical pain and discomfort, and to emotions and mind states that preclude coexistent happiness and well-being. Common examples are sorrow, fear, anger, hatred, greed, jealousy, aversion, confusion, anxiety, disappointment, shame, and guilt. These states afflict us from within and cause personal suffering. They also manifest in our relationships and in the world, creating all types of interpersonal and communal suffering. Although the Pali word dukkha is most often translated into English as “suffering,” other common translations point to the comprehensive meaning of dukkha: illness, unhappiness, neuroses, discomfort, pervasive unsatisfactoriness, or perhaps most simply, stress. 

Compassion arises when we meet pain or suffering with love. The Pali word karuna, which translates into English as “compassion,” literally means “the trembling or quivering of the heart in response to a being’s pain.” Over the years I have grown to appreciate the two parts of this definition. First, “the trembling or quivering of the heart” so beautifully describes how compassion is based on a strong feeling of connection and empathy. It means we recognize our commonality as human beings. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “All human beings are the same – made of human flesh, bones and blood. We all want happiness and want to avoid suffering. Further, we all have an equal right to be happy. It is important to realize our sameness as human beings.”

Related: The Gateway to Compassion

The second part of the definition of karuna, “in response to a being’s pain,” means that since every person is a being, we are called upon to meet not only another’s suffering with love, but also our own. The Buddha said, “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere.” When we are suffering, we are as much in need of our compassion as is any other being, and we are equally deserving of it. As Jack Kornfield teaches, “Compassion blossoms only when we remember ourself and others, when the two sides are in harmony.”

In order to offer compassion to ourselves we must know that we are suffering. This isn’t as easy as it might appear. When we experience sudden, intense, unexpected, or prolonged physical or emotional pain, it definitely grabs our attention. We know we are suffering. But according to Buddhist psychology, every moment of life when happiness and inner peace are absent is a moment of suffering. When I’m rushing, impatient, irritated, frustrated, anxious, angry, fearful, bored, sad, or jealous, when I’m filled with desire for something I want that I don’t have, or feel aversion for something I do have that I don’t want, I am suffering. When I’m reliving a painful experience from the past or imagining a future one, I am suffering. In the fast pace of life, and with strong habits of not wanting to experience the unpleasant, multitudes of moments like these go by without my full attention. Although I may be vaguely aware that I’m unhappy, I tend to attribute my unhappiness to other people and external circumstances. In these difficult moments, I habitually abandon my inner world and focus my attention outside myself, complaining about or perhaps trying to fix what appears to be wrong. I miss innumerable opportunities to become intimate with my physical and emotional discomfort. I learn nothing new about my suffering, and fail to meet my own pain with compassion.

The Buddha’s injunction that we extend compassion to ourselves requires that after recognizing our suffering, we respond to it with love. This takes courage and commitment. It means not looking away, not seeking distractions when offered the opportunity to be present for our own pain. In the words of Joanna Macy, we learn to “sustain the gaze.” To recognize our suffering and respond to it with compassion is a gradual process, and it must be done with sensitivity and care. As we develop our internal resources, we may also need reliable external support – a good friend, an experienced meditation partner or teacher, a skilled therapist. This is not a path we need to walk alone, and it can at times be unwise to attempt this type of healing as a solitary endeavor.

When practicing compassion as a formal meditation, the traditional phrases are “May I be held in compassion. May my pain and sorrow be eased. May I be at peace.” If freedom from pain and sorrow seems impossible because of physical illness or other circumstances, we may need to experiment to find more resonant phrases. For example, “May I care for my body just as it is,” or “May I meet this suffering with tenderness and love.” We choose a certain length of time for formal compassion practice, and after settling the body and mind, say the phrases over and over silently to ourselves. Alternately, we can repeat the phrases a few times at the beginning and end of our usual breathing meditation practice. As we repeat our chosen phrases, the words themselves become the object of our attention. We return to the words, and the meaning beneath the words, each time that our attention is pulled away by other things. We can also insert these phrases into any moment of the day, saying them silently to ourselves as we engage in ordinary activities.

In traditional compassion meditation there are six directions, or categories of people to whom we offer our expression of caring, and there is a specific order. We begin with a person we know, someone who is experiencing significant pain or suffering. From there we move to ourselves, then to a benefactor, a dear friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, and finally, to all beings everywhere. We are instructed to begin with a person we care about who is actually suffering because this will enable our natural compassion to arise more easily. However, we can change the order as we wish, taking on greater challenges as our skills grow. We can decide whether to work with one direction of compassion practice for weeks or months before moving on to another, or choose any combination as our compassion practice for a period of time.

The ability to offer compassion to oneself is the pre-requisite to being able to offer compassion to others. If I run from my own pain, or habitually meet it with denial, aversion, distraction, or even self-pity, I will have little option but to react to the suffering of others with denial, aversion, distraction, or pity. All these reactions are based on fear and separation, whether from oneself or others, whereas compassion is based on love and connection, both to oneself and to others. Pema Chödrön explains that our own painful experiences are our greatest resource for compassion practice. “If you can know it in yourself, you can know it in everyone. This practice cuts through culture, economic status, intelligence, race, religion. People everywhere feel pain – jealousy, anger, being left out, feeling lonely. Everybody feels that exactly the way you feel it. The story lines vary, but the underlying feeling is the same for us all.”

Mirroring the suffering in our personal lives, the world is equally full of pain and suffering. As Miriam Greenspan writes, “Look into the pain of the world and you find your own private pain writ large. Look into your heart and you find the broken heart of the world.” Every news report delivers tragic examples of human suffering in the form of hatred, violence, greed, injustice, and oppression, as well as destruction of animals, plants, and the earth itself. In just one glance, we confront so much individual suffering and the broken heart of the world.    

Although I might wish to protect my children from painful personal experiences, and shield them from the suffering that abounds in our world, neither is possible. I know that the deepest protection they can have is the ability to meet pain and suffering with an open heart. This is not an easy undertaking, but with conscious training, it is possible. Joseph Goldstein writes, “Love and compassion grow when we see that there are really no viable alternatives.” Among my greatest challenges as a parent is to help my children understand that there really are “no viable alternatives” to meeting one’s own and others’ suffering with compassion. This is a process of creativity and flexibility, inquiry and discussion, privacy and sharing, success and frustration, tears and laughter. Ultimately, I hope my children learn that shutting down to suffering inevitably exacerbates our pain. This is because in shutting down, we deny ourselves the healing love and connection that flows from an open heart. Franz Kafka poignantly describes how this works. “You can hold back from the suffering of the world. This is something you are free to do. But perhaps precisely this holding back is the only suffering you might be able to avoid.” In my experience, this is equally true whether the suffering I am trying to avoid is out there in the world or right here inside myself.

I observe with interest how my children respond to human suffering. When my son Emilio was about 12 years old and enrolled in Jewish Religious School in preparation for his B’Nai Mitzvah, he told me that he would be visiting the New Haven Jewish Home for the Aged the following Sunday.  His class of approximately a dozen young adolescents, with their two college age teachers, would spend the morning with the elderly residents of the home.  He said that he wasn’t exactly sure what they were going to do there, but the plan was to arrive prepared to read stories and tell jokes.  His class would be divided into groups of four or five students, and each group would be paired with a small group of residents.  It sounded like a worthwhile activity, an example of the Jewish practice of performing Mitzvot, or good deeds, for others.

The following week when Emilio returned from Religious School I asked him how the visit went.  He said it was fine, and then went on to describe it in some detail.  He arrived with his classmates and teachers, and as planned, they divided into small groups and met the residents with whom they would spend the morning. He was with three or four classmates and one teacher, and they gathered with a few residents in a corner of a large social hall.  After introductions and friendly small talk, Emilio’s group began to read their stories aloud, interspersed with a few rounds of jokes and riddles they had prepared in advance.  Emilio told me that in the middle of all this, one of the women residents in his group began to cry, softly at first, and then more audibly.  He said that he, his fellow classmates, and their teacher all fell silent.  I listened closely as he continued.  “It seemed like everyone was embarrassed and no one knew what to do so there was this awkward silence, while the woman cried and everyone else stared at the floor.”   With heightened curiosity, I asked, “What happened next?”

In a matter-of-fact way, Emilio answered, “I decided someone needed to do something, so I stood up, walked around to the back of this woman’s wheelchair, put my hand gently on her back, and asked her, ‘Are you ok?  Why are you crying?’  She said that she was grateful for our visit and happy that we were reading to her.  But it also made her very sad, because she remembered how much she loved to read when she was younger, and due to progressive blindness, she could no longer read.”  As I began to imagine the pain of her loss, Emilio continued.  “I just stood there for a minute or two, rubbing her back and telling her it was ok.  Soon she seemed a bit better, so I went back to my chair.  We continued visiting with them until it was time to leave.”

I felt Emilio’s concern for the woman grieving her lost eyesight, and I enjoyed the sweetness of my son’s reaction.  I sensed he knew that his response to her sadness, although natural and unassuming, was also very kind.  As I continued to think about Emilio’s experience in subsequent days and weeks, and imagined the scene he had described, its significance began to shift in my mind.  I realized how beautiful and precious it is when human beings move in closer to suffering, instead of moving away.  Emilio’s experience reminded me of a phrase in Tara Brach’s book “Radical Acceptance:  Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.”  In the chapter about working with fear, there is a section entitled “Leaning Into Fear.”  This phrase struck a chord in me the first time I saw it, and has remained with me ever since.  Although the phrase is about fear, I know that fear is but one example of suffering.  Substituting “suffering” for “fear,” here is what Tara Brach says.  “Leaning into suffering does not mean losing our balance and getting lost in suffering.  Because our usual stance in relating to suffering is leaning away from it, to turn and face suffering directly serves as a correction.  As we lean in, we are inviting, moving toward what we habitually resist…leaning in can help us become aware and free in the midst of our experience.”  

When I consider these words, time stands still.  I feel the “leaning into,” kinesthetically as an impulse toward forward movement in my torso, mentally as a softening in the mind, and emotionally as an expansion in the area of my heart.  The words “leaning into suffering,” are a gentle reminder for me, serving as the very correction they seek to describe.  The image these words evoke brings me back again and again to the bittersweet love I feel when I move closer to another’s suffering, and when another being comes closer to mine.  This is compassion, the heart that trembles and quivers as it opens to suffering.  In this light, I am inspired by Emilio’s decision to stand up and move toward the woman crying in her wheelchair.  I know that my son’s gesture is one of millions of similarly ordinary acts of compassion exchanged throughout the world every day.  If we could train ourselves to reflect more continuously upon these natural expressions of the human heart, our happiness would grow, and we would discover anew the strength of our interconnection with all living beings.

Read more by Beth Roth 
The Joy of Generosity
The Buffet Retreat
A Bedtime Ritual
Blessing Our Children
The Fragility of Silence
Karma and the Tonka Truck
Right Speech Reconsidered

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield
In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Healing the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan
One Dharma by Joseph Goldstein
Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön

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