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Compassion and Unconditional Love
Compassion is direct awareness of suffering, the “heart that trembles in the face of suffering” (Buddhist definition), and a desire to help end the suffering. Compassion is empathy plus a desire to act.
When we see a dog being pulled off his feet by a choke chain and feel almost as if it’s happening to us, that’s empathy. That feeling, combined with the desire to do something about it, and stop the leash pops for the sake of the dog, is compassion.
Feeling the frustration or fear of the woman who corrected the dog in the first place is also empathy. Maybe she was feeling ashamed and scared because her dog was barking at other dogs, and she was worried that he would get in a fight. She didn’t know what else to do, so she watched a television show that told her to lift the dog up by his slip chain whenever he looked at other dogs. Wanting to help her train the dog without force so that her own needs for safety and predictability are met is compassion.
If we only have compassion for the dog, then our approach to the woman might not be skillful. Without compassion for the woman, we might only take the dog’s needs into account, and thus our proposed solutions are much less likely to work. We might be unkind to her or just suggest a strategy that makes no sense to her.
Compassion is powerful because when we try to see things from other people’s perspectives, we are working WITH people, not against them.
We can also build up more compassion for ourselves. Without compassion, we might see our own behavior from a conditioned point of view and pass judgement on it as Good or Bad. Seeing behavior the NVC way, as an attempt to meet a need, we can still assess our behavior as being healthy or not:
– Does it serve life? (Allow the meeting of needs)
– Does it interfere with our ability to meet needs?
– Does it interfere with someone else’s ability to meet their needs?
We can have empathy for ourselves by really feeling our feelings, and seeing them as information about unmet needs, rather than passing judgement on them. Then we can have compassion by having a desire to end our own suffering, and see that we are just as worthy as anyone else to have our needs met. Note that we are ALL worthy of having our needs met, which is antithetical for meeting our needs in a way that prevents someone else meeting theirs.
When we act with compassion, we take other’s needs into account. That doesn’t mean we meet everyone’s needs. That would be impossible. It also doesn’t mean we have no boundaries. In fact, compassion requires us to put healthy boundaries on behavior, as far as I’m concerned.
Acting with compassion means we don’t behave in a way that prevents someone else from meeting their needs, and often that we do help them meet their needs in some way.
Technically compassion applies to all people, including ourselves, so we really don’t need a separate category of self-compassion, but I think it helps to think about it and do specific practices for increasing self-compassion. With self-compassion, we recognize that were are part of humanity, every bit as worthy of avoiding suffering as anyone else.
A compassionate person doesn’t meet their own needs in a way that prevents others from meeting theirs. That also includes self-compassion: person doesn’t meet other’s needs in a way that prevents meeting their own needs.
Since I am most aware of my own needs, and they matter most to me, I figure I’m the most responsible for meeting my needs. Any needs I can meet on my own, I do, so that I don’t require as much from others. But it’s not possible or desirable to be completely independent. I have a need to help others and they have a need to help me. We did not evolve to be emotionally self-sufficient.
Also called “metta,” lovingkindness is a family of meditations to practice compassion. Love and kindness are sent to others and self in order to practice feeling unconditional love.
What is unconditional love? Well, that’s a big question and I’ll just share what I’ve come to believe it is. You may have another definition of it. First, unconditional means without conditions. So no matter what, regardless of behavior, this love is available. What is love? There are so many definitions of love that it boggles my mind.
My most basic level of love is that I wish for the object of my love to be at peace, to be free of suffering. This is love that I can feel unconditionally. No matter who it is, where they live, or even what species they are, I wish for them to be free from suffering. That applies to self-love, too. I, too, deserve to be at peace and free from suffering.
This is the kind of love that I send out during lovingkindness meditation. Here’s an exercise I like to do.
Start by getting comfortable, either sitting in a chair with both feet flat on the ground, in cross-legged pose, or while walking slowly in an area with minimal obstacles. I’ve actually done this meditation (on low focus) while listening to a friend talk something through with most of my focus. I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you lose track of what the other person is saying, though.
Stay open to any feelings that come up for you. Tears are fine, it’s all fine. No judgement.
- Relax your breathing for 3 breath cycles. For example, breathe in deeply, hold for about the same amount of time, then breathe out slowly.
- Close your eyes (if possible / safe)
- Scan your body as mentioned last week, from the top of your head to your toes.
- Relax into your breathing, letting your thoughts go by. Count your breath in sets of 5 or 10 if it helps you focus.
- Without using words, briefly visualize the beings who will benefit from your meditation.
[You don’t have to think of every single one. Pretty much every interaction you have with others is improved by being more grounded and compassionate.]LOVINGKINDNESS:
- Think of a being you love and whose company you enjoy. It can be a person, dog, or spiritual entity. Someone you are sure that you love.
- Imagine wishing them well. I mentally say, “May you be loved, may you be safe, may you be free from suffering.”
- Imagine a tube from your heart to the heart of the other person, and back. It pumps pure gold over to them, which is your love and it gradually gets stronger and brighter, sending love over to the other person. The return side of that pump is their love mixed with mud (defenses, misunderstandings, conditioned responses, etc.), flowing out of them and into your heart, to be cleansed and returned back to them as pure, bright love. I picture it as a dull gray color on its way to me. So I ‘see’ muddy liquid flowing along to me, getting purified by the warm love inside my heart, and flowing out to them as golden love. The ‘mud’ just disappears, it doesn’t stay in me. If you want to you, can repeat the words of wishing them well, over and over.
- Repeat this until the tube from them to you is also clean, so you can visualize their, pure, unconditional love coming into your heart and right on back to them.
- Next, switch to a person more distant to you, someone you know but don’t feel strongly for, one way or another. Repeat until the pump is clear, only golden in and out.
- Advanced: Repeat with another person who you have a misunderstanding with right now. Or even with someone you really, really have a hard time connecting with. Another option is to repeat this with all beings on earth. We all want to be loved and be happy.
- Repeat with yourself as the object of your love. You can picture it coming right out of you and back or with your inner child as the person with whom you are exchanging love.”May you be loved, may you be safe, may you be free from suffering.”
“May you be loved, may you be safe, may you be free from suffering.”For some people, this is easier than the steps above and for some, it is the hardest. If you have trouble with one of the steps above, you might try this one sooner to see if it helps.CLOSE:
- Return your focus to your body and breath. Allow yourself to notice physical sensation and the sounds around you.
- Open your eyes.
- Take a moment to rest with your sensations before moving
For me, to be “in love” with someone is to be fascinated by their inner world, to be mutually responsible for each other’s well-being. The latter half of that flies in the face of the pop psychology idea of being independent and completely responsible for our own happiness. But this is actually backed by science: we have no choice but to be biologically interdependent with on our partners. The reliable, mutual support of partners paradoxically allows them to be more free. “If you want to take the road to independence and happiness, first find the right person to depend on, and travel down the road with them” (from ‘Attached: the New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love.”)
If you want a guided lovingkindness meditation, there are a LOT of them on YouTube. Here are a few that I particularly enjoyed.
This one is from the Thich Nhat Hanh foundation, with a basic Lovingkindness meditation.
This second one is on the Sounds True YouTube channel (definitely check it out!) about self-compassion. That idea might seem a little ‘selfish,’ but it isn’t. Quite the opposite.
I firmly believe that we eventually treat those close to us in a way that is similar to how we treat ourselves. So one of the best things you can do for the people you love is to learn to be compassionate to yourself.
Another perk of compassion toward myself has been that I feel more safe with myself, and thus more willing to open up and be authentic. By feeling safe, I create an environment in which I can expose my defenses for what they are and see the shining gold of my own heart beneath them.
For example, if I react to something with shame, I can have awareness of my shame and not feel ashamed about feeling ashamed. I just notice it, holding it with compassion, let the feeling happen, without trying to push it away. My shame is sort of a “I hope nobody notices that I am such and such a way.”
Then shame fades naturally and I have space to see what was hiding behind the shame. Sometimes I realize that being that certain way is just a story in my head. I was ashamed for no reason, because it was a false idea of myself. Or sometimes it’s even better; I realize that being that certain way is actually AWESOME but I didn’t realize that when I was 5 years old so I’ve been hiding it away ever since.
For example, I was told in elementary school choir practice that I could be heard above the others. I internalized that to mean that I shouldn’t be heard when singing, and it crippled my singing voice for decades. I’m only now just learning that what I was doing at that point was called “projecting my voice” and that having the audience hear me when singing is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing! Maybe my voice wasn’t amazing. But singing is a learned skill, not a genetic ‘flaw’ or something to be ashamed of. Wow.
Here’s one for kids (of all ages). I find meditation for kids can be really useful for folks that have trouble with the standard meditations.