Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Art of Happiness 10

A recent photo of my mum in St Mary's nursing home
As any practising Buddhist will tell you, the development of compassion is an integral part of the spiritual path. The Dalai Lama defines compassion thus: “Compassion can be roughly defined in terms of a state of mind that is non-violent, non-harming and non-aggressive. It is a mental attitude based on a wish for others to be free of their suffering, and is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility and respect towards others.” (The Art of Happiness, p. 91)


The word compassion in Tibetan, “Tse wa” comprises, apparently, also a sense of compassion for oneself as well as for others. The Dalai Lama sounds a note of warning for beginners on the road to practise compassion, and that is the danger of confusing compassion with attachment. In fact, he maintains that there are two kinds of love or compassion. The first or lesser kind is tinged with attachment – this is an ordinary type of love or compassion that is partial and biased. There are elements of control, clinging and dependence in this lesser form. But, this is not the type of compassion we need to develop as it is very unstable and can change according to perceived hurts, faults and failings.

No, we must develop a deeper form of compassion, a form that is free from attachment. It has little or nothing to do with whether I like or have feelings for a person. Rather, genuine compassion is based on the rationale that all human beings have an innate desire to be happy and to overcome suffering, just like myself. There is a sense of equality in this form of compassion – you can feel compassion for all, for everyone, regardless of whether you view the other person as a friend or as an enemy. Indeed, this form of compassion is based on the other person’s fundamental human rights rather than on your feelings of attachment or your mental projections. Now, this is a hard thing for us to do in the West as we are so mired in our own projections at the best of times, and indeed the consumerist society promotes such vain projections in order to get our money. Compassion is almost an enemy of the capitalist economy.

So, for the Dalai Lama compassion is of a more universal order, beyond petty attachments of any type – a universal or generic impartial compassion, if you like.

Link with Suffering

The Dali Lama then proceeds to offer another definition of compassion, this time one based on our appreciation and understanding of the suffering of humanity:

In fact, in one sense, one could define compassion as the feeling of unbearableness (sic) at the sight of other people’s suffering, other sentient beings’ suffering. And in order to generate that feeling one must first have an appreciation of the seriousness or intensity of another’s suffering. So, I think the more fully one understands suffering, and the various kinds of suffering that we are subject to, the deeper will be one’s level of compassion. (Ibid., p. 94)

The compassionate person, who practises much, will find a sense of freedom, a sense of abandonment, of being able to let go of all worries and all attachments. Such a person will sleep with ease, and can easily relax and let go. On the other hand, ruthless people can do none of these things. Something is always weighing them down, pushing them on, gripping them – there is a hold on them, and they can never experience the sense of freedom and letting go that comes with the continual practice of compassion. A good example of a person with almost zero compassion would be Joseph Stalin, who chose the name “Stalin,” which meant “man of steel” for himself, rather than his original patronymic Djugashvili. As he grew older, he became ever more rigid and harder, becoming veritably a steel man with zero feeling, facts confirmed by all close to him, including his daughter, Svetlana. He told Khruschev shortly before his death, “I trust no one, not even myself.” How sad, here we have an individual who has ceased to be human.

Science and Compassion

Trunk becoming roots, Reggio di Calabria, giugno, 2010
Dr. Cutler adduces much scientific evidence throughout this book to support the fact that those who are compassionate experience better mental health as well as better general overall physical well-being. Studies have shown that reaching out to help others can induce a feeling of happiness, a calmer mind, and less depression. (See ibid., pp 102-3)

Meditation on Compassion

We can easily meditate on compassion by stilling our body and our mind. As I sit here I become aware of my relaxing body sitting on this easy chair or sitting cross-legged or in any manner where I will be fully aware and won’t fall asleep. I become aware of all the sensations in my various limbs and body parts as I bring my attention from the top of my head to my feet in my sandals. I then bring my attention to the cold air at the bottom of my nostrils as I breathe in and the warmer air as I breathe out. I stay thus, and continue to repeat this exercise until my body and mind are fully relaxed.

Then, I visualize someone I know who is suffering at this moment in time. Having brought their image to mind. I try to empathize with their feelings at this moment in their suffering. I deeply empathize with them and sincerely wish they were without that pain. I strongly wish that this person i have visualized will be free of his/her suffering. I resolve that I will help him or her if I get to meet them sooner or later. Finally, for the last several minutes of this meditation, allow your mind become suffused with the feeling of compassion.

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