compassion

Airport Insecurity

Airport Insecurity

Flying provides a steady stream of frustrations: the crowded isolation of DIY check-in, the sock-footed walk on eggshells through TSA, the hypervigilant tracking of an elusive ETA.

All the inevitable discomforts of air travel make it a fertile attentional fitness opportunity. I’ve been developing a strategy that transforms the situation from hell into heaven. Okay, maybe more like a really productive purgatory.

To Be Fully Alive

Double-crested Cormorants traveling over Lake Champlain, July 6, 2014

Excerpt from "The Pursuit of Happiness" by Phillip Moffitt:

Herein lies the paradox common to mystical teachings in most spiritual traditions: In order to be fully alive, you also have to die. When you cling to the past or future, believing you are holding onto something precious, you are denying what is sacred about life. Your life, with its unique pains and joys, can only be reconciled in your surrender to the truth of your experiences as they arise one moment after another, never fixed, always moving. A beautiful sunrise, a baby's smile, a broken heart, cancer, the loss of love; open fully to the experiences of your life in all their mysterious manifestations. Meet each of these moments with compassion, loving-kindness, and your very best response. Then let loose of each in turn, for however beguiling in their beauty or their horror, they are truly only life dancing."

Read the entire essay...

The Important of Kindness and Hush

The Important of Kindness and Hush

"There's a thing when we're children we experience. It usually exists in libraries and it's called the hush. Like this magic world called Hush. There's not many places now to find hush. Somethimes I really do think if every person would experience hush—even if they almost have to force it on themselves for a while—just the bird, just the wind, nothing else, hush—there would be less violence." 

Strengthen Emotional Warmth

Strengthen Emotional Warmth

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about mindfulness strategies is the way some core internal obstacles can be unraveled without necessarily needing to solve a related narrative puzzle.

Qualities of Mind are Skills We Can Cultivate

"Evidence for the connection between happiness and attention is found in neuroscience: attentional control is located in the pre-frontal cortex. Those with a weak pre-frontal cortex also have an inability to inhibit their limbic system (to control their emotions).  Most major mental health conditions are associated with a weak pre-frontal cortex.

Neuroscience has also found evidence for 'experience-dependent neuroplasticity.'  In other words, our brains change with experience.  We get good at (and grow thicker neuronetworks to support) the mental activities we engage in repeatedly. The most powerful way to change your brain is not medication, but behavior, and in particular, mental behavior.

With physical exercise, we can tell which muscles have become the strongest through exercise. Our strongest mental habits are the ones most easily activated, that are quickly and effortlessly available to our consciousness...the good news from neuroscience is that positive qualities of mind such as attention, kindness, and compassion are skills we can cultivate through practice and training. Contemplative studies point to an array of these practices to grow new mental habits."

~ Carrie Heeter, from "Why A Neuroscientist Would Study Meditation," Jan. 12, 2014

See also: Britton Lab

Bombarded

Excerpt from "Joan Halifax on Compassion's Edge States and Caring Better," On Being, Dec. 26, 2013:

TV Screens Wall (Photographer: Athewma/Flickr)We are subjected to distressing images through our mediabombarded. So we enter into a state of moral distress and futility. We see that something else needs to happen. Children need to be protected, we have to stop rape and violence toward women in the Congo, and we feel this profound moral conflict. And yet we can't do anything about it and we enter into a state either of moral outrage or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just, you know, don't want to deal with it or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness or freeze. I think a good part of the globe is going numb. 

I think what we're seeing is not actually compassion fatigue, but empathic distress where there's a resonance, but we're not able to stabilize ourselves when we're exposed to this kind of suffering. When we are more stabilized then we can face the world with more buoyancy, we have more resilience. You know, we've got more capacity to actually address these very profound social and environmental issues. So that's why I call these things edge states because they really call us to our edge... A near enemy to compassion is sorrow and that's that sorrow, that's me getting wrecked by the picture of the child in the newspaper so that I can't actually help them.

The theme of compassion has been important in Western culture and it certainly is important in Eastern culture, but it's a kind of fuzzy word. Antoine Lutz and Richie Davidson and others have been finding that certain areas of the brain light up when people are in states of compassion, and that they feel amore acutely the experience of another's suffering, but also they let go of it much more quickly.

From The Emotion MachineOne of the features that the neuroscientists have discovered is an area of the brain that's associated with the capacity to actually distinguish self from other. In other words, if there's such great resonance when you're in the presence of suffering with the other, you go into empathic or over-arousal. If I'm sitting with a prisoner on death row or I'm sitting with a person suffering from intractable pain, I can feel this resonance. I can sense into their suffering, but I also have simultaneously this insightit's that person suffering and this is me. I'm not experiencing it in reality. It's true, but it's not...

From my point of view, the experience of grief is profoundly humanizing and we need to create conditions where we are supported to grieve and where we're not told, "Why don't you just get over it?" "Or, "It's time" or such as that. We in our lives experience one loss after another, and it can be loss of a breast, loss of a loved one, a child going into adulthood, which is a way of loss for many parents, loss of identity, loss of capacity.

My own experience of aging is that there are capacities I had ten years ago that I no longer have, and I have to reflect upon those losses. And, of course, the loss that all of us will face in anticipation of death. It is something that brings great depth and meaning into our lives and also helps us to articulate internally our priorities. What is really important for us? So for me as a human being and not identified as a Buddhist or a woman or a Western person, but as a simple human being, I value the experience of grief. 

Listen to the produced or unedited conversation...


See also: 

Practice Like a Devoted Mother

Jack Kornfield's response to the question, "What in Buddhism have you changed your mind about, and why?" Tricycle Magazine, Summer 2008:

I have changed my mind about a hundred things. Effort in meditation is one example. I used to think that to become free you had to practice like a samurai warrior, but now I understand that you have to practice like a devoted mother of a newborn child. It takes the same energy but has a completely different quality. It's compassion and presence rather than having to defeat the enemy in battle.

Here’s another thing: I used to think that sitting in meditation was enough, that it would really change everything in your life in a whole and complete way. For a few people, it might work out that way, but in general, it ain’t so. For most of us, meditation is one part of a whole mandala of awakening, which includes attention to your body, attention to your relationships, attention to right speech and right livelihood. 

I used to think that deeper, better meditation and practice was happening in the centers in Asia than what we could teach here in America, and that for the real thing you had to go to Thailand or Burma or India or Tibet. Many of us who studied in Asia used to think that, and maybe some still do. But now, when I go back to Asia, I realize that beautiful deep practice is happening in Burma and Thailand and India and Tibet, and the same beautiful deep practice is happening here, and I think, “Oh, that was just a delusion I had.”

Read other responses to this question...

Standing Strong Together

"The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one...We can't really expect to find an answer when we're still afraid of the question....The only way we're going to beat a problem that people are battling alone is by standing strong together."

~ Kevin Breel, from "Confessions of a Depressed Comic," TEDxKids@Ambleside 

See also: 

 

Would You Treat Them Differently?

If you could stand in someone else's shoes... Hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently?

This is an effective reminder of how little we actually know about the people we peripherally encounter in our lives. It resonates with the consistent indifference I experienced when navigating the medical system after I broke my shoulder. The shortcoming of this strategy is that it implies that we would all soften our hearts if we really knew the specific details about what others are going through. But what if we can't know? What if there isn't a drama driving the disinterest? What if the grouchy person you encounter is simply bored or even a bully? 

What if we take this recommended approach a step further? Instead of needing to discover or create a backstory in order for us to erode these social and emotional walls, what if we simply remind ourselves that we can never truly know the subjective experience of another person and that regardless of what we're able to observe on the surface, we're all driven by the deep desire to be safe, happy, healthy, and comfortable.

From this perspective, we reduce the risk of accidently tipping over into pity and comparison. It's easy to shift from feeling sorry for ourselves into feeling sorry for someone else. This approach comes with a side of guilt as we feel badly for feeling bad when we discover someone who is worse off than us. It can be powerful to feel our own feelings while also acknowledging that others are busy feeling theirswhich have nothing to do with us. 

There is some liberation in not having to crack the code of other people. Each encounter with a stranger provide an opportunity to gain a bit of intimacy with how our own thoughts and feelings mingle together to create tiny fictional portraits. We have an impressive ability to project our fears and insecurities onto the canvas of strangers. And when these impression resonate—look out. We assume they are true and act accordingly. 

Intimacy with our thoughts and feelings means simply becoming more aware that the suffering we imagine others to be going throughor the evaluations of their actions at allis a little "reality show" that we produce from a private, mostly subconscious palette of emotionally-flavored sensations in our own bodies along with the verbal and visual details percolating in our minds. 

Of course, the approach I'm describing would be nearly impossible to communicate with an emotionally moving video. This is one of the challenges of sharing attentional fitness techniques. In order to illustrate them in action, we are forced to use specific examples. But any example we use carries an emotional valence. What we're really trying to communicate is the cultivation of an ability to emphasize the composition of experience in contrast to the default preoccupation we have with the narrative content—especially our evaluation or interpretation of the content. 

In this approach, the situation of the other doesn't matter. We try to relinquish the requirement of a valid story before considering our common humanity. In this way, we are trying to develop an empathy that is not dependent on a set of conditions. This might sound like indiffierence, but it feels paradoxically like a much more generous and honest version of empathy. One that isn't so fragile that it instantly collapses when in our personal opinion, the backstory doesn't justify the behavior. 

How would we treat each other if we accepted that we don't have access to every backstory and that we're all driven by the same basic desires regardless of the obervable evidence? 

The Ego Will Be Asked to Open to Something Larger

"The ego wishes comfort, security, satiety; the soul demands meaning, struggle, becoming. The contention of these two voices sometimes tears us apart. Ordinary ego consciousness is crucified by these polarities. Again, the paradox emerges that in our suffering, in our symptoms, are profound clues as to the meaning of the struggle, yet the path of healing is very difficult for the apprehensive ego to accept, for the ego will be asked to be open to something larger than itself."

~ James Hollis, from Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up

Feeling Slightly Out of It Most of the Time

Feeling Slightly Out of It Most of the Time

"actually, it may be that just being yourself as a human being means feeling slightly out of it most of the time. And that a form of enlightenment is to understand that you'll never feel quite at home in the world and you're not meant to, because your sense of compassion for the rest of creation and for others depends on your understanding of exile — how far a creature, especially a human creature, can feel from true parentage, from their true inheritance, from their true home."

~ David Whyte

It Calms My Mind

"My brother’s screaming, my mom’s cussing, and I’m meditating."

~ Sam, Atlanta elementary school student who applies his mindfulness skills to difficult situations like being stuck in traffic. From "Brain Imaging Illuminates Neuro Basis of Meditation," by Carrie Gann, ABC News, Nov. 22, 2011

 

See also:

A Little Tolerance for Ourselves and Others

Duality of Mind “Instead of waging war on himself, it is surely better for a man to learn to tolerate himself, and to convert his inner difficulties into real experiences instead of expending them in useless fantasies. Then at least he lives, and does not waste his life in fruitless struggles.

If people can be educated to see the lowly side of their own natures, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and to love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more tolerance towards oneself can only have good results in respect for our neighbor; for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustice and violence we inflict upon our own natures.”

~ Carl Jung, from Two Essays on Analytical Psychology