Opening our hearts to difficult people
In last week's article we took a look at loving kindness, the first of early Buddhism's four heart-opening practices. Usually those practices are called the Brahmaviharas (see last week's article for the origin of the name!), but actually in the early Buddhist discourses they're far more often referred to as 'the heart's limitless release', and they're also referred to as apramana - 'boundless' or 'immeasurable'.
This 'limitless' quality is also clear from the way the practices are described in the early texts, e.g. in this excerpt from Majjhima Nikaya 127:
And what is the limitless release of the heart? It’s when a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world — abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.
The implication here is that these qualities extend equally in all directions - and to all beings. Yes, even that one person who drives you up the wall. Which sounds pretty difficult! So this week we'll take a look at how we might go about this. But first, I'll say a few words about the second Brahmavihara, karuna, because if we can get a clear idea of what karuna is and isn't, we may catch a glimpse of how we can genuinely extend this quality to all beings in a boundless way.
Compassion and its far and near enemies
Whereas metta has a whole range of common translations, karuna is pretty much universally translated as compassion, except in some very old translations where the (deeply unhelpful) term 'pity' is used instead. In the rest of this article, I'll use 'compassion' to refer to karuna, and define the term 'pity' slightly differently to distinguish it from compassion.
So what actually is compassion? The Latin root of the word is com-, 'with', and -passion, 'pain' (as in 'the Passion of the Christ'). So 'compassion' literally means 'to be with pain'. And that's not a bad definition, but it does need a little nuance.
Compassion in the Buddhist sense is the recognition that suffering is a universal human experience, and the earnest desire that that suffering be relieved. (Its opposite, or 'far enemy', is cruelty - the desire to inflict suffering on others actively.)
We know from our own experience that life sucks from time to time - maybe often, maybe not so often, but it's a rare (probably non-existent) person instead who can say hand on heart that they never experience pain, unhappiness, irritation, frustration, fear or grief. And - at least in those moments when our heart is open - we feel a natural wish arising that that suffering be reduced or eliminated. The key to the Buddhist practice of compassion is to recognise that all suffering is deeply unpleasant, and it would be better if it were alleviated, no matter whose it is.
So far, so straightforward - but we have to be a bit careful, because it's easy to fall into one of a couple of near enemies of compassion.
One - as I've already hinted - is 'pity'. When we pity someone, we feel sorry for them, but in a way that puts them over there, somewhat beneath us. Pity is a quality that separates me from you, whereas compassion actually brings us closer together - I see that you suffer in just the same way that I do, and it would be just as good in the grand scheme of things for your suffering to be relieved as it would for mine. So if there's any sense of superiority, contempt or judgement in the attitude we're bringing toward someone else's suffering, we may well have gone astray into pity.
Another near enemy is an unhealthy empathy for someone else's pain - we don't simply recognise their pain and experience the desire to relieve it, but we actually start to take on their pain ourselves, to the point that we can become overwhelmed. People who work in caring professions often speak of 'empathetic burnout', where the constant exposure to the suffering of others gradually overloads their own capacity to handle pain. If we're going to make our compassion truly boundless, we simply can't feel the entire world's suffering - it's far too much. We need to find a stable footing in the face of all that misery, so that we can be of service rather than simply being crushed by it. We'll talk more about this 'stable footing' in a couple of weeks, when we get to equanimity, but for now it may help to emphasise the 'desire to help' side of compassion as opposed to the 'recognition of suffering' aspect. If compassion practice simply makes you feel bad, it's gone slightly off course; rather, we should feel a motivation to help in response to the suffering, and focusing on that motivation can help us to stay with compassion rather than sliding over into pure empathy.
A final near enemy is very similar to one of metta's near enemies - a deliberately ostentatious kind of 'compassion', where we do good deeds at least in part to be seen as someone who does good deeds, as a badge of social status, or as a way to feel superior to others and maybe shame them for not being as compassionate as ourselves. Needless to say, if this kind of stuff is coming up, the practice has gone badly astray. We can actually end up here if we overemphasise the 'wanting to help' side of compassion at the expense of the recognition of the shared nature of suffering. True compassion causes us to recognise our commonality with all beings, rather than placing us on a pedestal above everyone else, bestowing our generosity from a position of safety. If you find that compassion practice is actually distancing you from others (perhaps as a result of taking my advice in the previous paragraph and focusing more heavily on the urge to help!), shift the emphasis more to the recognition of the universal nature of suffering.
At this point it might sound like compassion practice is really difficult, with huge pitfalls on either side and a very narrow path to walk in the middle. In practice, however, it isn't as hard as it sounds (although that doesn't mean it's easy). It can take some time to identify and disentangle pity, empathy and compassion, but keep at it. You can be a fair way off to one side (too much empathy or too much pity) and still find the practice valuable, and over time you'll develop a finer appreciation for exactly what's going on in your practice, and will be able to tread the path with more care and subtlety. Developing an appreciation of emptiness and non-duality can also help, because compassion's near enemies are all related to dualistic perception and the sense of self which drives so much of our behaviour. As we see that we aren't so separate from others as it first appears, compassion becomes much easier and more natural, and the problems of empathy (over-identifying with another's suffering) and pity (under-identifying with another's suffering) tend to fall away. So hang in there!
OK - now that we have a clear sense of what compassion is, it's time to return to our earlier question: how are we supposed to make compassion truly 'boundless', without any preference for friend or foe?
Breaking down the barriers
Traditional Buddhism offers us a step-by-step technique to help us make our compassion (and the other three heart qualities) boundless. We begin with a person (or other being) for whom we can feel the quality quite easily; then we move to ourselves, then to a friend, then to a neutral person, then to a difficult person. Finally, we open up to all beings everywhere.
The idea is that we start with the easiest possible situation, to get the emotion up and running clearly, and then move through a sequence of people, progressing from easier to more difficult. (As we discussed in last week's article, however, for many people today sending compassion to themselves is not easy at all - if you're in that category, please check out the Three Flows of Compassion that I describe in that article.)
At first, it's very natural to find it much easier to send goodwill or compassion to a dear friend than a bitter enemy. But, if we keep at it, over time something remarkable happens - we start to 'break down the barriers' that close off our hearts to our enemies, and we begin to find compassion flowing more evenly in all directions.
That being said, some people can be really difficult at first. Fortunately, traditional Buddhism also has some specific remedies for the most difficult people - so clearly this is not a new problem! Let's take a look at a few of the approaches that the old texts recommend.
1. Try to find something positive in the person.
OK, so they annoy the heck out of you... but maybe they're kind to their kids; or perhaps they have a totally excessive attention to detail which irritates you no end, but at least that means they're conscientious in their work. Can you find any redeeming quality at all in the person?
2. If they have no redeeming qualities at all, can we at least have compassion for how difficult life must be for someone with no redeeming qualities at all?
This step can really help if you've already spent a fair bit of effort trying and failing to find a redeeming quality - it can even inject a moment of humour into a meditation practice that has potentially become a bit serious and grumpy by this point, helping the heart to relax just a little. But if this doesn't work either, there are some more suggestions...
3. Recall that by continuing to resent the person, you hurt only yourself.
It's sometimes said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die. This person may not even have any idea that we dislike them this much - yet here we are, raging and stewing in our meditation, filling our minds with negative thoughts about them. By continuing in this way, we harm only ourselves, so maybe we should stop!
4. Deconstruct them.
If none of the above has worked, we can try another technique that seems a little weird at first, but can really help. We deconstruct them into parts, to try to identify exactly what we're so annoyed by. Let's say this person makes us angry. Are we angry with their teeth? Their hair? Their eyeballs? Their lymph nodes? And so on. Metaphorically dismantling a person into their constituents in this way can help to diffuse our negative mood quite effectively.
5. If all else fails, reflect on the benefits of compassion practice, and how we're missing out on those benefits by continuing to hold a grudge.
But what are the benefits of compassion practice? You'll have to wait until next week's article to find out! Or, better yet, give it a try, and find out for yourself... See you next week, and may you be free from troubles of body and mind in the meantime!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.