Compassion as an Intentional Practice

Photo by Enver Rahmanov.
Photo by Enver Rahmanov.

Why practice cultivating compassion? Is it just another fad?

I had the privilege of spending three days with the Dalai Lama earlier this year. Whenever, I have met him over the past five years, I am moved by his presence, his humility, his humor and his compassion. His message is simple and direct. It is a message of cultivating loving-kindness, compassion, and warm-heartedness. This message is beyond religion. It is about transforming the mind, and nourishing our self and others.

As a child, the Dalai Lama had a very warm and loving relationship with his mother. He remembers his mother would lovingly carry him on her shoulders. Being the playful child he was, from his perch on her shoulders, he would playfully pull his mother’s ears—pulling her right ear when he wanted her to turn right and pulling her left ear when he wanted her to turn left. It was fun and she played along. He remembers his mother’s warmth, love, and their playfulness together with great fondness, joy, and humor.

Early experience plays an important role in the way we relate to others in later life. However, as the Dalai Lama says, the qualities of warm-heartedness and compassion for oneself and others can also be cultivated by anyone through intentional practice. What is needed is an intention to practice, a motivation, and a desire to develop these qualities of mind. And determination and resoluteness to keep up the practice.

As existential thinkers, we believe that early experience is important, but it need not be deterministic and make us victims of early experience, or that we are doomed to be determined by early experience. We value choice, intention, connecting with what moves us most, resoluteness, and determination in the face of the givens of existence. As existential thinkers, we also recognize the co-created nature of self, of reality, of relationships, and the part that we play in relating with others.

The question we need to ask of our selves is: “Do we wish to live in a kinder and more compassionate world?” Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” Conflict is a given. He also said we have choice in how we respond to this conflict.

When conflict is a given, then why choose to practice loving-kindness and compassion as an intentional practice?

Here is an almost unbelievable but true story that the Dalai Lama recounted. A Tibetan monk had been incarcerated in a Chinese Gulag for many years. When he was finally freed, on meeting him, the Dalai Lama asked him about his experience and asked if at any point during his long detention, he felt he had been in danger. To which the monk replied, “Yes, on two or three occasions, I felt I was in danger.” When the Dalai Lama asked if his life had been in danger, the monk replied, “No, I mean I was in grave danger of losing my compassion for those who were torturing me.”

Listening to this narrative, many among us were struck with disbelief and moved to tears.

As the Dalai Lama pointed out, the practice of compassion helps build our resilience against trauma. It certainly did for this monk.

Compassion is recognizing suffering, feeling for the suffering of others with them, and wishing for the alleviation of their suffering. Compassion practices extend to all sentient beings irrespective of their differences with us, such as religious beliefs, race, nationality, social status, gender, or even whether someone is a friend or someone has harmed us. It extends even to animals and plants. It is unconditional. Loving-kindness is a practice of wishing goodwill—wishes of freedom from harm, wishes for wellness, good health, contentment, peace, happiness, joy and ease for all beings. Practices of loving-kindness and compassion cultivate openness of heart and mind, and unconditional love and respect for all beings. However, practices of loving-kindness and compassion always start with making these wishes first for ourselves, and then intentionally including all sentient beings in extending these wishes to them unconditionally. In experiencing inner loving-kindness, compassion for ourselves, our heart and mind open towards others.

This monk had kept alive practices of compassion even for his tormentors. Such ways of thinking is foreign to us in a world where images of conflict, war, violence, hatred, and revenge fill news bulletins, and our television screens on a daily basis. Compassion practices never make news! Do they have a place in today’s world?

The starting point of these compassion practices is the self. From the workshops and courses I have facilitated over the past several years, I have found that many people find it difficult to offer wishes of loving-kindness and compassion to themselves. This awareness of how difficult it is to offer kindness and compassion to oneself becomes an important realization. It opens up choice and the possibility of intentionally choosing to include oneself in wishing oneself kindness and compassion. If we wish to live in a kinder and more compassionate world, we need to start with our self. The rest follows. We start with ourselves, but we don’t end with ourselves. The experience of mindfulness and compassion practices often bring surprising changes in the way people begin to relate to themselves and others.

While mindfulness illuminates experience as it emerges moment by moment, and its practice makes space for it to be embraced in nonjudgmental awareness, loving-kindness and compassion practices (chosen intentionally) help us generate a mind and heart of unconditional love and compassion.

Richard Davidson, a neuroscience researcher from the University of Wisconsin, tells us that the practice of unconditional loving-kindness and compassion meditation can have a powerful effect on the brain. Such practices produce powerful gamma waves, indicating a compassionate state of the mind. Similarly, Daniel Siegel shows in his book on interpersonal neurobiology evidence from his research that the practice of mindfulness meditation has a powerful effect on the brain. Mindfulness meditation gives rise to integration of the different systems in the brain, giving rise to neural integrations and the felt experience of harmony.

Of course, practices such as unconditional loving-kindness and compassion and mindfulness meditation are intentional practices. They require choice, intention, motivation, inner desire and resoluteness of practice. They can’t be practiced as an imposition from some figure of authority.

The good news is anyone who chooses to practice mindfulness and loving-kindness and compassion practices can do so. The focus is on intention, choice and practice as an ongoing process and practice. It is not about achieving perfection.

The good news doesn’t stop here. The repetitive nature of these practices has the effect of growing neural connections in the brain and changing the brain itself as the brain is neuroplastic. In other words, what happens in the mind affects the brain. The mind can change the brain. But its greatest significance is in changing our relationship to our self, others, and the world—a relationship that is kinder, more compassionate, more connected, warm-hearted, and more peaceful.

We see and experience ourselves, others, and the world differently. But first we start with ourselves.

— Jyoti Nanda

Today’s guest contributor, Jyoti Nanda, is a practicing Chartered Counselling Psychologist (Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, HCPC) and Existential Psychotherapist (UKCP, BACP), as well as a long-term practitioner of meditation in more than one tradition. She teaches and practices Mindfulness and Existential Therapy in Guildford and London, UK. Her website is www.mindfultherapy.co.uk.

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