Empathy as A Way of Life: Compassion (Karuna), The Second Brahma-Vihara

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On to my second post about the Brahma-Viharas. You can read the first one on loving-kindness here. Now I will turn my attention to compassion… 

Most of us want to turn away from suffering. I can instinctively do it at times. Just in front of my apartment, for example, there is a homeless encampment. Two dirty mattresses, strewn with garbage and beer cans, rest on the ground where a homeless couple sleep. The man talks to himself and scratches his scraggly beard. He is often sipping on a beer or smoking a cigarette or maybe it’s weed. There is the smell of shit and piss around too. It’s not pleasant.  When I walk by it, sometimes my inner Karen will come out. “We can’t have this in our neighborhood!” I then feel a sense of shame for my liberal bourgeoise mindset. “What is wrong with me?” I ask myself. But most of the time, I just walk by and go on with my day. This attitude is endemic to big city living, the so-called “bystander effect.” New York City feels enormous. It is one of the aspects that makes it so attractive to people. But because it is so enormous we have to block out much to go on with our daily lives. 

But what if we didn’t turn away so much? What if we practiced a sense of empathy for all those who suffer around us? You may ask, “why should I?” I understand the question well. We have busy lives. Most of us have empathy for our friends, family, and maybe our pets but not always room for more. But what if that limited view limits our potential for growth and happiness? 

Learning to Have Compassion

Buddhism tells us that our limited view of love and compassion works against us. It gives a separated sense of self. There is the “I” and there is the “them.” “I” should fear the people on the street because “they” are a threat. Some of this is our human organism’s natural defenses against real and perceived fear. We are really good at seeing threats as a species. It’s why we’ve been able to thrive. But this defensive mind can separate us and make us disconnected from all. 

This is where compassion kicks in. Compassion can be defined in several ways. My definition is simple enough: the wish to alleviate suffering in others. It is acknowledging that suffering is felt by all beings, and that is worth our attention and empathy.  Compassion is an instinct most of us have but usually isn’t cultivated in American society. Our society is highly individualistic. In many respects this is wonderful. We have a world where people can choose their unique path in life that more rigid societies do not allow. But this sense of “I” as an individual backfires for a lot of us. In particular with the rise of social media, suddenly we feel inadequate and in competition with others. We feel empty and inadequate. This has led to a rise in anxiety and depression, especially among younger people. 

What is the antidote from this overwhelmingly individualistic culture that makes many of us feel empty? I would suggest compassion is the way to start. And like all spiritual endeavors, it begins with you. What does that mean? It means learning self-compassion first and foremost. There are lots of ways to develop this. One of my favorites is this simple self-compassion break. I would suggest not to gloss over this step. Many of us don’t think we deserve self-compassion, and it needs a lot of patience and time to disintegrate our walls and find a sense of empathy for our struggles. But it is needed to move forward. 

After some time, you can move on to a bigger piece of the pie: the rest of humanity. There are many practices for this, including the ever-present loving-kindness meditation but my personal favorite is tonglen. Tonglen’s premise is very simple. When you feel “stuck” you breath in the painful feeling, and breathe out a sense of compassion. You do this for yourself first and foremost. It is a practice that can be done on the spot, and I find incredible helpful when I’m going through it. 

But tonglen can be extended too to all beings. I try and practice on my walks in New York City. A homeless person on the street who is chattering to himself can seem like a threat or subhuman to some and easy to ignore for others. But what if we can open our hearts to them? What if we can breathe all the pain they’ve and lived with, all the confusion and suffering they experience daily? And what if we can breathe out a sense of compassion toward them?

This all sounds very noble and idealistic, I know. And maybe you can’t see the point in doing it. But think about the times in your life when you’ve really helped? In my experience when you expand your sense of love and empathy beyond yourself and your loved ones, you start to grow in bodhicitta, the enlightened mind. And with a new sense of self, everything feels just a little bit lighter and you’re just a little bit happier. It’s not a bad way to live. And suddenly instead of seeing the world through a lens of anxiety and fear, everything can be imbued with compassion, empathy, and love. It can be transformative.

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