Compassion Meditation

Nearly everyone has had the experience of an unpleasant or disturbing emotion that persists so long we wonder when or if it will ever change. We can even forget what it was like to be without the feeling, and may believe it is a part of us - like a body odor. Many times we may find ourselves trying to cover it up, like using deodorant, but with a little time and patience, we can discover the cause and begin to change it.

East Asian Medicine has known for thousands of years that certain emotions are associated with the different body systems. An overwhelming emotion can both create or be caused by imbalance among the systems of the body. Emotion is a handle we grasp and use to change the body and mind.

“It’s all in your mind and it’s never too late to get a new design” - the Kinks

Family, tradition, and region all help create the cultural norm that often determines our emotional response to a situation. It is learned behavior. We do not have to conform, but it can be very uncomfortable to deviate from the norm. We learn at a very young age to have the right emotion at the right time. We model this behavior on what we see others do. In adulthood we seldom question our learned responses, and even become protective of them. So our emotions, which are often on autopilot, are in charge of the complex production line that is our body. 

How does compassion meditation influence our emotions? Compassion is one of the three cardinal virtues, the “Three Elixirs of Happiness,” along with Generosity and Wisdom. Compassion is at the root of positive emotions like appreciation and enthusiasm. When combined with Generosity it produces kindness. When combined with Wisdom it produces understanding. Compassion heads the family of positive emotions and with cultivation this family flourishes and grows. As positive emotions grow they can overpower the negative emotions rooted in the Three Poisons of Anger, Greed and Delusion. There is only so much space in our lives for emotions, and we can decide to fill that space with more compassion.

To cultivate Compassion we first have to know it. Most of us have had some experience of it spontaneously arising in response to a situation or relationship with some being. It is a complex  and profound emotion with enormous range and depth. It soars beyond sympathy or pity and in the process making us much greater than we could have imagined. Perhaps one of the greatest teachings I ever received regarding Compassion was apprehended by considering a sculpture of Kwan Yin. This is the embodiment of Compassion in human form. She sits in a grounded mudra at ease with her face composed in equanimity, as if to say, now what? She is completely present, mindful and patient, respectful.

Now try to call up the sensation of compassion yourself.  Feel it perhaps in your chest, or the center of your being. It may help to recall a time you experienced compassion. That memory can be your object of meditation to begin with. Hold the sensation and let it grow. Start with just a few minutes.

The attention required for this takes a lot of energy. Do not drain yourself. This energy is rooted in the Spleen. The Spleen is part of the digestive system in East Asian Medicine, as opposed to the lymphatic organ of allopathic medicine. Spleen energy can be strengthened through eating yellow foods like squash and beans, by eating slowly and at ease, and by exhaling softly with the sound “Hoooo” in medical Qigong. You can also enhance your Spleen energy by smiling into the digestive system, visualizing yellow, dropping worry and jealousy, and opening to peace.

Compassion must be first applied to yourself, like the air mask in an airplane. Put it on yourself first so you can be part of the solution not part of the problem. Take that sensation or attitude and allow it to wash over and through you. You can imagine it has substance like a color, cloud, blanket or even a bubble. You can turn it into a bubble big enough to engulf you and surround you. You can wrap it around yourself like a comforting blanket. Only after this is completed should you move on to others. And then move first on to those who are easy to feel it for.

This takes time. Weeks, months, years of time. But the substantial benefits begin to accrue immediately and most are retained indefinitely. You can expect improved behavior, health, happiness and unforeseen positive results.

This perspective is offered from several years of studying and practicing the teachings of the Buddha known as the Dharma or Dhamma. Either spelling is correct and depends on the tradition referred to, I have a background in both Mahayana and Theravada and currently practice Jediyana so may use either spelling, the meaning can be the same in a general sense.