7.5 mins read.
It might be tempting when faced with the possibility of this escalating into World War 3 to go to the extremes of either freaking out or pretending it is not happening. But there is another way to approach such sorrow and danger, and it is compassion.
This might seem counterintuitive – surely if I open my eyes wide to this suffering, which is what compassion involves, I’m going to freak out even more?! I can only take so much horror and then, to save my sanity, I surely need to switch over to a comedy on Netflix? Interestingly enough, however, that is not what happens at all. Compassion is the way both to accept what is going on without getting overwhelmed or ignoring it and to become an inspiring part of the solution.
Find a way in
When meditating on compassion, it’s good to find a personal way in by starting with people we already care about, not to focus straightaway on the immense mass of suffering humanity. That way our heart is open and doesn’t just close down.
In our meditations we’re advised to imagine that we’re sitting in the middle of all living beings, with our current mother on our left and father on our right. Around them is our family and karmic circle from this life, and around them is everyone else who exists – although we obviously cannot see them clearly, we feel that nobody is excluded. We focus in on one or two people until our heart genuinely moves, and then take it from there, in our own tailor-made meditation.
I thought I’d share as an example the meditation on compassion I’ve been doing lately since the invasion of Ukraine, which started on the day I arrived in Europe to visit my parents. Sitting on the red chair next to my mother’s bed these past two weeks, I already have her to my left and my father sitting on his new sofa to my right. Beyond us I imagine the family, carers, community, country, Ukraine, human world, animals, all realms — all my kind mothers and fathers.
For auspiciousness and ease, they are all appearing in human form; and we can imagine that they are meditating with us. They all have indestructible Buddha nature — we can focus on and feel some hope about that. I am only one person, they are countless – my own sufferings already feel less significant through this calculation.
Before getting started on compassion I like to feel I’m in the presence of Buddha. (If you’re in another spiritual tradition, the same applies to whichever holy being you have faith in.) Buddha is surrounded by countless enlightened beings. We are connecting to a vast pure universe that is the nature of universal love and compassion, appearing as these amazing holy beings who are radiating love, compassion, and kindness towards us, showering us with blessings. We allow ourselves to step into an experience that is joyful, entering into a relationship with beings who are completely beyond suffering and pain.
I take a moment to feel happy to be alive and also to remember that this may be my last day, so let’s make the most of it. Four-minute warning or not, this external world will soon enough be dissolving away like a dream, so what is most important? The answer is what we do with our minds.
It seems that our world at the moment is particularly unstable and dangerous, so where is our real refuge and how can we truly help others? Venerable Geshe Kelsang says that a good heart always produces good results. The supreme good heart is bodhichitta and to develop this we can meditate on compassion.
I first think about the situation of my parents, followed by my biological family and the family of carers living here with us – and I consider not just their current difficulties but the sufferings they’ve had to experience for way too long already, since beginningless time. I contemplate this until I develop the wish for them to be free.
Then I contemplate the plight of those in my community — including the people I interact with regularly — until I find their suffering unbearable.
Then I think about the sufferings of all the other human beings on this planet, particularly right now those in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, until I have the strong wish to free them not just from their present agonies but from the sufferings of all their impure lives.
Even worse suffering is experienced by animals, including the billions of factory-farmed animals killed every day.
I will bring in examples as a way in, as needed – whether it is the Russian soldier who shot his own leg so he wouldn’t have to fight or Oreo the cat who died today in the tumble dryer or the sick and disabled calf I saw cast aside to die, a “by-product” of the meat industry.
The suffering of hungry ghosts is even worse, and that of hell beings almost unimaginable, and it goes on for a terrifyingly long time. Also, many human beings are headed there, including those engaged in acts of hatred and slaughter, so they too are objects of compassion. Hating them just makes us part of the problem.
Without rushing, I let my compassion expand naturally to take in all of these beings and meditate in my heart on this wish to free them from their suffering permanently. In The New Guide to Dakini Land, Venerable Geshe-la says:
We need to develop this compassionate wish again and again until it arises spontaneously, and continuously influences all our thoughts and actions.
I personally have overlooked this instruction way too often, lapsing back into self-cherishing or just a concern for one or two people. When I make this effort to fill my mind with compassion for everyone, even the compassion for my nearest and dearest becomes stronger. That’s how it works. I am also freer from the pain of attachment and frustration.
Compassion needs to be the new normal – if enough of us are doing this, not just our own life but our whole world is going to transform. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to do this, obviously. Compassion is a powerful tool for every one of us. If we pray with concentrated compassion, we can change hearts and minds.
We can stay meditating like this for as long as possible. If you want to go onto further stages of Buddhist meditation, here they are:
Based on this wish to free others, we then develop a strong proactive decision called superior intention. As Venerable Geshe-la goes on to say:
Compassion induces a superior intention. Realizing that simply wishing to free others from suffering is not sufficient, we make a definite decision to act to free them ourself.
The supreme good heart
What is it going to take to free them? How can I free my parents? My community? The people in Ukraine? How can I free animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings? What do I need to do?!
If we contemplate this, we will probably conclude that I can’t free them if I remain ordinary and deluded. Therefore, there is no more time for self-cherishing. To liberate all living beings from their suffering I must first attain enlightenment myself, realizing my fullest potential. Only then will I have the power to bring lasting peace and happiness to all other living beings. In this way we generate the precious mind of enlightenment, or so-called aspiring bodhichitta.
At this point we can stabilize and enhance our compassion and love even further, if we want, with the beautiful prayer of the four immeasurables:
May everyone be happy.
May everyone be free from misery.
May no one ever be separated from their happiness.
May everyone have equanimity, free from hatred and attachment.
With immeasurable love, we imagine and pray that everyone in the world possesses happiness and its causes, which are loving, peaceful minds. With immeasurable compassion, we imagine and pray that everyone in the world becomes free from suffering and its causes, the delusions, by developing concern for others. With immeasurable joy, we imagine and pray that everyone experiences the unchanging bliss of enlightenment. And with immeasurable equanimity, we imagine and pray that everyone’s loving concern embraces all living beings without partiality.
With this we can also, if we wish, now generate what’s called engaging bodhichitta — deciding to get going straightaway on our journey to enlightenment by practicing all the stages of the Bodhisattva’s path. For as long as we keep this decision in our heart, every single action we do becomes a cause of our enlightenment, creating huge amounts of good karma.
With compassion we are at peace
Someone’s copy of The Atlantic dropped into my letter box by mistake the other day, in which I found this excellent article, How to Want Less, about why we will never achieve satisfaction on the hedonic treadmill – in centuries of human history, in all cultures, no one ever has. We will experience infinitely more enjoyment, meaning, and satisfaction from developing love and compassion than we will ever get from the pursuit of worldly attainments.
In daily life …
One last suggestion — when we next approach the TV or internet to look at the latest news, instead of doing this out of morbid curiosity we can make sure we have a heart of love and compassion. Then instead of being fuel for our aversion, fear, or depression, what we see or hear will be fuel for our virtuous minds. We will be part of the solution, something the world very much needs us to be.
Changing our world and ourselves through compassion
Caring for others and helping ourselves
That was a very useful read, thanks for that!
My pleasure 🙂
I’m glad to hear it 🙂
i enjoyed for some reason your putting these words together (the whole article actually!) in the heading: WITH COMPASSION WE ARE AT PEACE. simple, expansive, rich, universal and inviting to abide there. thank you always. xo
Thank you, i’m happy you enjoyed it.
Should the 3rd line of the four immeasurabls be “May no one ever be separated from their happiness,”?
Oops, yes, of course! Thank you.
Much love to you and your mummy and daddy.
When I first read this – “May everyone be happy.
May everyone be free from misery.
May no one ever be separated from their suffering.
May everyone have equanimity, free from hatred and attachment.”
I was struck by the 3rd line – “May no one ever be separated from their suffering”. I though “isn’t that supposed to be “may no one ever be separated from their happiness?”
Then I thought I wanted to write you and say you might consider editing it. I wondered if that would be the compassionate action to make.
It occurred to me that no, pointing out what seemed to be an error was not the virtuous compassionate action to take.
Instead the compassionate thing to do would be a several fold exercise in compassion, taking and giving, and transforming a poison into medicine.
A compassionate action to take would be in my own mind. I thought instead of seeing this typo as an error it would be much better to think “In this beautiful article what looks like an error in editing is really a gift to contemplate.”
It would be virtuous to see that line as written as an opportunity to simply take it as it is by means of compassion. To think “what can I do with this in my mind to make it not about suffering but about happiness? What can I do to not harm or pain to the editor by pointing it out but instead turn it into something I could give by means of love?”
I thought further “isn’t this like so many things I can do nothing about but need to live with? Is this no different from the things I perceive to be wrong, unjust, unhelpful, or just plain stupid and can do nothing about except accept them and move on?”
But I could do much more with this than merely move on. I could transform it into something that would strengthen my wish for bodhisattva. I could consider suffering as necessary to gaining happiness.
Without suffering I would never have anything to contrast with happiness. I would never be able to recognize happiness if it weren’t for having experienced suffering. Just as salt and sugar contrast each other so do too suffering and happiness. And I happen to like both salt and sugar (-;
So suffering can be seen as a gateway to happiness. Why would I ever want to be separated from the gateway to happiness. In effect suffering and happiness are aspects of the same thing. Namely enlightenment. So happiness and suffering are equal with respect to enlightenment. And I sincerely strongly wish for enlightenment.
Now I have transformed a poison into medicine. I’ve received a gift, a blessing, and a step or 2 further down the path.
And how could I use this realization to benefit all living beings? How could I give it by means of love? By taking the time and having the courage to write this note to you. That’s how.
So thank you! It is perfect just as it is and I’ve discovered that for the benefit of myself and others.
Love always and thank you!
Chicago KMC member
I love what you did with my typo! It shows that everything can be Dharma if we bring our wisdom to it.
But I have still changed it, lol.
I really enjoyed your new article “Compassion, the new normal.” A very well needed and stimulating article.
There is so much pain in people’s hearts.
It would be interesting if you wrote an article on the relationship between compassion and hope. And how these unite in bodhichitta. And how bodhichitta is strong and powerful because it has both compassion and hope uniting within it.
I’ve had an even better idea, please will you write it!