Today, a brief summary from Jill on Working with Compassion, and a guided compassion practice.
In the first talk on the The Brahma Viharas for Insight and Wisdom, Jill shared a set of reflections from Caroline Jones and Paul Burrows, that outlined the interrelationship between the four heart qualities of loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity, and that also outlines what it is not – both in terms of the opposite quality (the “far enemy”), and the “near enemies” that sort of seem similar but aren’t.
Jill posted a summary of the reflections here:
As an example, with metta/loving kindness/goodwill – the far enemy is ill will, and for compassion, the far enemy is cruelty. These far enemies are usually easier to recognize because they generally feel unpleasant.
The near enemy for metta can be a conditional friendliness – I’ll be nice to you if… Or there can be what Jill calls “affectionate attachment” – where we are being friendly in order to… The motivation behind these acts isn’t necessarily skillful. If you feel into your own experience, you probably can think of examples of times people have treated you this way, so you can probably sense how this is different from the unbounded heart of kindness.
It’s good to know all these dimensions of experience as we can get clearer in our own intentions and see where we get stuck. “It might not be pleasant, but unless we see it, we can’t do anything about it.”
Compassion’s far enemy is cruelty. You might think of times where cruelty arises – and what I’ve found is I have gotten attuned to more and more subtle forms of cruelty that have expressed. This spring, there were ants in my kitchen again. And I noticed the rage that would sometimes arise when I saw another ant on the wall. While I used to be pretty oblivious to this strain of cruelty, I became more attuned to that rage in the body, and I got to know how painful it is. It’s a process. I’m sure when the ants return in next spring, I’ll still be annoyed, but with attention and care, I think that harmful state of mind will eventually erode so that I can find more skillful ways to respond to the ants.
Compassion’s near enemies are pity and grief. With pity, there can be a sense of distancing or even superiority – oh you poor thing. With grief or sorrow, our hearts might quiver with the suffering of another, but we lose sight of the intention to relieve the suffering, the willingness to help, and the quiet joy that can arise. We can feel swamped and overwhelmed.
Jill brings in a distinction between compassion and empathy. Jill suggests that what’s often called “compassion fatigue” is more of an empathy burnout – where we can start feeling overwhelmed by grief. Empathy alone is not enough – it has to be protected by wisdom and be balanced – like Kuan Yin.
As we practice compassion, we are encouraged to start where it’s easiest and then gradually expand into wider ranges of beings. I like Jill’s analogy of a waterfall. We let the water flow down a cliff naturally until it reaches a basin. Once that basin is filled, it starts to spill over and flows down until it reaches another basin – and once that’s filled it flows down again. So I might start with compassion for my aging dog, who is pacing and panting with the aches in her body. Then when my heart is full of compassion for her, it can overflow into a more difficult being, and so on.
I found audio for the compassion meditation from this retreat was pretty choppy and distracting. I found another of Jill’s compassion meditations that follows the same arc: starting with a dear one who has some slight suffering, and really being with them with our wishes for care and ease – then having that being reflect that care back to us. So you may want to practice with that today:
May we know peace,