Sunday, 5 December 2010

Loving-Kindness & Compassion (Pema Chödrön)

This is fourth in the series of Chödrön-based teachings accompanied by Chopin. Previous episodes introduced bodhicitta, three lords of materialism and learning to stay. This one is about spreading joy and alleviating suffering.

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May they not be separated from the great joy, devoid of suffering.

May they dwell in great equanimity, free from passion, aggression and prejudice.

This is the chant of the four limitless qualities, also known as the four immeasurables. We can transform this to our own personal version. What seeds we sow are up to us. The aspiration practice of the four limitless qualities is a particularly powerful way for us to sow seeds of well-being in ourselves and others. These four are:
(1) loving-kindness, (2) compassion, (3) joy, (4) equanimity.

We begin by acknowledging where we already feel love, compassion, joy and equanimity. We locate our current experience of these qualities, however limited, in our love of music, empathy with children, joy on hearing good news, and equanimity when we are with good friends. We learn how it feels when one of these qualities is stuck, and and how it feels when it is flowing freely. We never pretend that we feel anything we don't. Rather, we make an aspiration. This is different from making an affirmation, which hides how we really feel about ourselves. We aren't trying to convince ourselves of anything, and we aren't trying to hide our true feelings. We are expressing our willingness to open our hearts. We are aspiring to tap into the boundless qualities of the heart for the benefit of ourselves, others and all sentient beings.

Peace between countries must rest on the solid foundation of love between individuals. (Mahatma Gandhi)

For the formal practice of loving kindness, metta or maitri, we traditionally begin with ourselves and expand outwards in seven stages. Sometimes people find that too hard. It's important to include ourselves, but whom we start with isn't critical. Just locate that ability to find good-heart and cherish it, even if it ebbs and flows. Before we begin the aspiration practice, we sit still for a few minutes. Then we begin. The seven stages are 

(1) ourselves, (2) loved ones, (3) friends, (4) "neutral" persons, (5) those who irritate us, (6) all of the above as a group, and, finally, (7) all beings throughout time and space.

Thus, we gradually widen our circle of loving-kindness. It's fine though to take just one stage and work with that for a while. It may also be important to put the aspiration for happiness in your own words which has meaning for you. For some, happiness is not what they want, but realising one's fullest potential, or speaking, thinking and acting in a way that expresses fundamental well-being, or… it's up to you.
The people who irritate us are those who inevitably blow our cover. Through them, we might come to see our defences very clearly. Before Atisha brought the bodhicitta practices from India to Tibet, he was told that the people in Tibet were universally cheerful and kind. He was afraid that if this was the case, he'd have no-one to provoke him and show him where he needed to train, so he brought along his Bengali tea boy who was as skilful at showing him his faults as his guru. The joke is that he didn't need that Bengali servant because there were plenty of annoying people in Tibet.
Making the aspirations is like watering the seed of good-will so it can begin to grow. In the course of doing this we'll become acquainted with our barriers – numbness, inadequacy, scepticism resentment, righteous indignation, pride and all the rest. We make friends with our fears. Unconditional good heart towards others is not even a possibility unless we attend to our own demons. Everything we encounter thus becomes an opportunity to train. The sixth stage is also called "dropping the barriers", the seventh "universal peace". A simplified form of the practice has just three steps: "May I enjoy happiness and its causes. May you enjoy happiness and its causes. May all beings everywhere be happy." At the end of the practice, we drop all words and wishes and come back to the non-conceptual simplicity of sitting meditation.

The practice of compassion is similar, but this time we begin with our ability to be genuinely touched by suffering. It involves learning to relax, move gently towards what scares us, to stay with emotional distress without tightening into aversion, to let fear soften us rather than harden into resistance. As for loving-kindness, we might wish to make a list of those who evoke these feelings in us, and again we begin after a short meditation with an aspiration that feels genuine and not sentimental or contrived. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests "May I be free of anger, … fear and worries. May I not fall into a state of indifference or be caught in the extremes of craving and aversion. May I not be the victim of self deception."

As before, we then work outwards. The fourth stage of the "neutral" presents an interesting challenge. Many of us come to this point of the practice and go numb. We say the aspiration, but can't connect to people we don't know. We might be shocked to find how indifferent or even fearful we are towards so many people. When it comes to the fifth stage, we must remind ourselves that habits of fear, anger and self-pity are only strengthened if we continue to buy into them. The most compassionate thing we can do is to interrupt these habits. Instead of always pulling back and putting up walls, we can do something unpredictable and make a compassionate aspiration.

Sometimes the only way to make the practice relevant is not only to make the intention, but also to act on it… in the checkout line, at the breakfast table, at the office. When I practice the aspirations on the spot, I no longer feel so separated from others. A teacher once told me that if I wanted lasting happiness, the only way to get it was to step out of my cocoon.. When I asked her how to bring happiness to others, she replied, "Same instruction."

Source: Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You. The music was Chopin's "Trois Ecossaises" and his Op. 10 No. 3 played on the violin.

The blog originally appeared on Buddhist Travelers.

No comments:

Post a Comment