This is the talk and meditation that Amy gave on Monday, May 19th at the noon mindfulness session on Zoom.
Acceptance is usually meant for what’s happening inside of us-a feeling, thought, experience, or what’s happening outside of us like something we can see, or in what we are going to talk about today, a decision by an authority. Compassion is the acceptance of the person or people to whom the thing is happening.
Compassion comes from Latin meaning to suffer with. When we acknowledge a person’s suffering, we can turn toward the difficulty that is already happening and soften into that experience of difficulty instead of turning away and hardening to the experience or to the actual person involved.
Compassion is like water, flexible, moving around dense objects, and able to sink into even the hardest, driest soils; it can seep in and can change the whole grounding of our relationships or even of our communities. Over time, compassion can round out rough edges and can diffuse intense experiences like blame and hate. Our own action can help us open the faucet of compassion, empathy, acceptance and kindness can flow toward that being that is suffering. Sometimes that being is ourselves, which many people seem to find it difficult to activate compassion for ourselves. And sometimes that being is someone very different from us. We are certainly in a transition as we enter this first stage of returning to more contact with other people and I have been witnessing in myself and others the difficulty that this transition to people being in public more is bringing. We are afraid, and when we are afraid, we are much less likely to offer empathy and compassion.
The Dalai Lama says “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” So what better reason is there than that to practice compassion?
I want to suggest to you today that this is the exact time, if we want peace and happiness in our world, to practice seeing our reactions clearly and cultivate empathy and compassion. Because even if we already generally agree that yes, I agree with the Dalai Lama, compassion is a good thing, then you are still about to be challenged with being out in the world. Because compassion is easy when we feel safe and don’t see how the behaviors of others conflict with our own, but compassion is most difficult when we feel unsafe and when we disagree with simple choices of another in our general space. These are the conditions in which compassion dries up, especially when there is fear.
I am sure you have noticed that in our country right now and probably in your own neighborhood, people have varying degrees of confidence and caution in interacting with others as the COVID virus is present around us. Some behaviors work with some people and some behaviors don’t work with others. Without getting into the minutiae of those decisions--because we could be here all day and if we did and fear would be triggered for some just in the conversation--we can notice our visual images and reactions to even the idea of these behaviors that don’t work for us. I notice how much fear I have, and notice how easy it is for me to be in a judging thought-mind when I think of people who behave in ways that I don’t agree with around this virus. This transition to new rules out there can be stressful for people. A sense of lack of safety, fear are the conditions in which I judge the harshest and in which I can quickly lose sight of the human being I am judging. There may be people in your life who insist on masks and people in your life who think masks are useless. There may be people inviting you to do things you may not feel comfortable with or people refusing your invitations and you may feel hurt. There may be people in your very same household who practice distancing differently than you that may cause you to feel unheard or even outraged. This is a very stressful time to be in relationship with any other human being who is not exactly like us!
1)Today we will practice compassion by starting with an intention of empathy.
2) We’ll relax the body, use the breath to slow down thinking, and open to a person you will come across in your life with whom you might disagree about some aspect of COVID-related behavior. This person will also likely might benefit from acceptance in the form of empathy and compassion. Certainly, the world will benefit from your putting empathy and compassion out there.
Of course, as we practice empathy, we always want to be aware not to compromise our safety, so I am not advocating letting someone off the hook that is doing something dangerous to you and this is where we get into ambiguity, with COVID spread prevention, so we have to navigate the grey area with caution. And if that grey area a feeling of potential unsafety, is where you notice yourself staying, then it may be enough to work with bringing empathy and compassion with yourself, to help create the conditions of your own safety. So this might be the content of your journey today.
3) We’ll invite our bodies into a position of paying attention, and we’ll sense into the body, noting the breath, the breathing itself that your body is doing, the movement and sensation in the body. And sensing into seeing someone that challenges your way of being in some small way. A person not behaving according to your values, for example. Sensing into the experience while also reminding yourself of your ability to keep yourself safe physically and emotionally. Returning to the senses as much as you need to to be grounded. Sensing into the hesitation, the resistance….remembering that you and this person are different and there is a distinction between what this person feels, thinks and does and what you feel, think and do. Empathy is not agreement. It is not approval. You can practice empathy and compassion without waiving your rights…. And sensing into your own clarity, with a distinct boundary around it that does not have to be compromised to empathize with this person. What you think, feel and sense will be taken away by opening to notice. Your inner experiences will not be erased by offering compassion to this person.
4) Once you have sensed this clarity, this security in your own self, turning attention toward the mental image and moving picture that you have of this person. Noticing as much as you can about the other person’s body and movements: their stance, gestures, small actions. Being careful not to analyse these actions, just noting them as if to mirror them, imagining what it would be like to move the same way, gesture the same way, even to have the same facial expressions. Seeing yourself in your mind doing some of their same movements. We do not have to understand this person to offer them compassion. We can allow that a person deserves kindness just because we share this planet, that we are related as humans and that we will be better off if we bring compassion.
5) Sensing the person’s feelings by watching their face and eyes carefully and by tuning into your own feelings and into your body and breath. If you are in touch with your feelings, you are not far from perceiving someone else’s feelings. If you are relaxed and attentive, you will likely be able to perceive a bit of what they are feeling. You might have to return to the tenet that you and this person are separate people and you don’t have to take what they are feeling on as yours. Rather, you are communing with what they are feeling. And you are vast enough and safe enough to commune with another’s experience. Perhaps some of this person’s experience reminds you of your own?
5) When you are ready to move on, imagining what the person is thinking based on what you know of the person’s temperament, personality, upbringing and personal history, their orientation to the world and the latest COVID-19 news. You might also imagine what they might be thinking based on what you know about vulnerabilities and hopes. Maybe asking yourself what this person is feeling, wanting, fearing, craving. What this person thinks they caused or deserved, or what they think might happen..staying in your own beginner’s mind because you don’t know, but can imagine and open to the possibilities. How can you tell if empathy is arising? What changes in your body or your emotions or thoughts can you notice? How distant or close do you feel to this person? Just checking in with that experience.
6) You might imagine a conversation opener that could take place between you. Something like, “I understand that you think that it is high time we reopen the bars and restaurants and you worry about your friends who own businesses that are in deep financial trouble and you feel worried.” or “I imagine that you want to be able to go out to eat because you miss your life as it was and you feel sad at that.” or “I understand that you are scared of your loved ones getting sick and you don’t want anyone to spread this virus and you are afraid.” Imagine how that conversation might go if the other person is as empathic and open as you are.
7)You can also receive empathy yourself, if you want it. It can be uncomfortable to experience empathy because it brings an intimacy that can make us feel at risk. This is tough when we have been hurt and believe we are safer at a distance. And also because over the last thousands of years, our human brains evolved to avoid the risks in certain encounters. It’s normal to be wary of getting close to others, but safe closeness can also bring peace and happiness. So, reminding yourself of your intention for empathy and opening to the flow of it toward yourself as well. Sensing into that others can empathize with you without you losing your wholeness or the healthy boundary between them and you.
Perhaps you can remember the experience of being with someone with whom you feel safe and loved...soaking in those feelings of warmth, open heartedness...letting your own goodwill naturally arise.
Now, with that loving person’s warmth still being felt, you can bring that person that you’ve been working with, who is different from you on something, into the circle of that open heartedness and warmth.
And then you can offer well-wishes as we do, just making them up as you go: may you be safe, may you be free of worry, may you live a life rich with purpose, whatever you want to offer to that person that brings compassion. Your well wishes are for the human being in your attention, not for their belief or actions.
Checking back in with the body now, staying grounded and secure in our own senses here….tuning in to our breath when we need it…maybe even bringing this same compassion for ourselves as we evoke these well wishes...may I be safe, may I be free of worry, may I live a life rich with purpose...
We are all united in our suffering. This pandemic has changed all of our lives and we all experience the uncertainty and the impermanence around us. May we be safe, may we be free of worry, may we live a life rich with purpose. And spending a few more final minutes saying whatever well wishes you have for this person, even if it’s difficult.
Checking in with the body to acknowledge the experience there. Letting your patience hold you, recognizing that this practice of bringing compassion to those you fear takes effort and repetition. We are being asked to grow and sometimes there are growing pains. May we live into our intention for happiness...may we not shy away from the tough stuff...may we be happy.