Recently, while doing a meditation practice based on compassion, I found - much to my dismay - that my focus was anywhere but on my practice. What made it even worse (and even embarrassing) was that I was doing the practice for a friend of mine who had experienced a significant medical emergency.
What happens when we find ourselves so caught up in the habitual patterns of our distractions that our most sincere intention of focusing on another is thwarted by our tendency to get locked into our claustrophobic habit of thinking of ourselves?
From Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts, metta has been translated as lovingkindness, love, and friendship. Metta is knowing deep in our bones that our life is inextricably interwoven with all life, and that because of that we need to take care of one another -- not out of sloppy sentimentality or pretentiousness, but out of wisdom.
Recently, I've been writing a lot on using meditation within the field of nursing and healthcare. Really, besides the setting, which is important since as a nurse I am interacting with people who are suffering and really need my attention and compassion, there is no time like the present moment - wherever we find ourselves - to work with our mind.
Minding the bedside mindfully, aware, and compassionately comes from realizing the changing nature of our thoughts and from turning and returning the mind inward, transforming the stormy arisings of thoughts, emotions, and feelings and recognizing them to be impermanent phenomena like passing clouds in the sky.
Show me a bathroom without a hook on the door, and I’ll show you a bathroom designed by a man.
Here’s an exercise for you Ngöndro students - visualize holding a purse, a laptop case and a scarf in your arms while hovering 2 inches above a toilet seat for a couple minutes. Done? Now visualize reaching for the toilet paper.
At the morning teaching session I fantasized about fedexing Lerab Ling a bunch of stick-on hooks that I would get at Walmart for a dollar. Meanwhile, Rinpoche was telling us that the source of all fear was a mind untamed. As I tried to figure out whether my bathroom beef stemmed from my untamed mind, or did I just need to buy hooks, a man raised his hand. He wanted to learn how to handle the anger of his spouse. Rinpoche dug deeper into the matter, at which point the man told a shocking and very disturbing story.
I ponder this while chugging coffee at 6am at the Gare de Lyon in Paris, waiting for the train to Montpellier to start my meditation retreat.
It seemed like a really good idea on that freezing winter night in New York City, when I booked my spot. Warm, sunny, South of France, (sunny)! Sold! It was great for the next few months as I fantasized at my desk (and bragged to my co-workers) about the amazing retreat I was going on and all the inner peace I was gonna get.
However, now I am actually here, giving up a beach holiday and fruity drinks, for what I am now told is a NOT sunny, NOT warm retreat. So… what the hell am I doing here?
While there are many reasons to practice meditation, one of the main reasons that I have found to practice meditation is to be less distracted and more present, to be more aware of what is going on within my mind and to be more aware of those around me. With an increased awareness of what goes on in my environment, there’s also the potential to become more aware of what is happening to those around me and to attend to those who need my help or assistance. This “compassionate impulse” is a benefit that is not always found in discussions on meditation.
At its heart, a primary reason to practice meditation is to become more of who we inherently are; compassionate, present and aware. The state of non-distraction, which we gradually achieve as we progress in our meditation practice, brings us a mind that is aware of our moment-to-moment life, that in turn brings about a natural state of compassion, recognizing others as being equally as distracted and in need of awareness within their mind.
Developing attention, a step towards compassion?
In the West, we often think that it is simply selfish to be sitting on a meditation cushion. There is so much suffering in the world, how can meditation be of any use to help relieve it?
In this TED talk, Daniel Goleman shows how developing our mindfulness and attention is such a key step towards compassion (see also Erric's post from 28 April).
Daniel is the author of the ground-breaking books Emotional intelligence and Social Intelligence as well as speaker at the Mind & Life Conference and at The Wisdom of Awareness Understanding the mind and transforming the heart through meditation, love and compassion retreat led by Sogyal Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche.
You may have experienced that meditation develops our attention and care towards our own body and mind, well the good news is that it will also develop develop our attention and care towards others. And it can work whether stories of the Good Samaritan did it for you or not.
Can empathy and compassion meditation help reduce stress? This was the focus of a study published last year by researchers at Emory University in the US.
Sixty-one healthy students were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group participated in six weeks of twice-weekly classroom training in a secular compassion meditation while the other group (the control group) spent a similar amount of time in health discussions.
Yesterday, I blogged about Dharma Master Cheng Yen, whose meditation practice has blossomed into a profound, compassionate dedication towards relieving the sufferings of humanity. Hopefully, you voted for her here.
Today, there is a story of compassion from a student in the What Meditation Really Is class that I gave in New York this spring.
Half Baked Buddha
I’ve always had an aversion to insects. So waking up this morning to find a giant gray worm with a billion legs, inside my kitchen sink, was not the ideal way to start my day. I put my coffee mug in the sink as far away from it as possible, and bolted out of the kitchen and off to work. I was sure it would be gone by the time I got back.