"The traditional definition of compassion from Pali, the language of the original Buddhist text, is the trembling or quivering of the heart in response to pain or suffering. Some Buddhist schools say the teaching has two wings, like the wings of a bird, and they are wisdom and compassion. Compassion is something we develop concurrently with the development of wisdom. Compassion is the natural response of clear seeing or understanding."
Empathy or Compassion?
A Reflection and Writing Practice:
You may have already explored the subtle differences between empathy, and compassion. If you sense into them now you may feel right away the contrast between them. The thing is we don't always take the time to quiet down and become aware of which we are occupying when life is arising in real-time.
As you feel into the descriptions below, you might take out your journal and reflect on some experiences you have had with each, what they felt like, how you felt, etc. Remember, there is no judgement necessary with your reflections, just self-awareness. Becoming more aware of the difference helps us develop in emotional and spiritual intelligence, and can set us up to be better prepared as future situations arise.
Empathy - Empathy can be thought of as the capacity to feel how people feel and even to see it from their side. Tara Brach suggests that much of the burnout we have called compassion fatigue is actually empathy fatigue. All feelings are important and useful, however, when we are in a constant state of empathy, like being stuck in high gear, there is a tremendous burden on our entire being. This is especially true if we are trying to metabolize not only our own stress, but the stress of others. In part, our physical bodies take a tremendous toll, when our limbic system is overstimulated, potentially leading to illness such as adrenal fatigue, anxiety, and depression. For people who are particularly sensitive to the energies of others, or are doing difficult and emotionally demanding work in the world, learning about boundaries and self care can be key. If you are interested in exploring boundaries further (and probably all women and girls especially should), one of my favourite books is Protection & Boundaries by Pixie Lighthorse. You can click on the image to hear her reading several of its practical chapters.
Compassion - At its essence, compassion is empathy coupled with a desire to help or ease another's suffering. It is empathy turned in to action. As you feel into this slight shift in concept you might sense how essential empathy is in helping us acquire understanding, and how the next natural step is to do something with our new understanding. Perhaps compassion feels good in part because it is like a release valve for our heart. To sense suffering and simply sit with suffering suffering suffering can create a toxic and unsustainable inner environment. With compassion, our practice is to gain wisdom through empathy and then shift gears and do something with it, even if it is simply in seeing the suffering of others in a different light. Compassion, whether in grand or small acts, can have real and meaningful effects, without being drown or paralyzed by the enormity of suffering. This can have the effect of filling our cup by giving us a sense of empowerment to enact change in the world without feeling solely responsible to fix it. Additionally, as Sharon Salzberg suggests, compassion allows us to get our selves out of the way so we can see more clearly the plight of another, independent of our own suffering. In this way, compassion frees us from suffering as much as it benefits the 'other'. Here is a short clip of an interview with HH the Dali Lama touching on this teaching.
You might also read this article by Buddhist monk, Matthew Richard, called From Empathy to Compassion in a Neuroscience Laboratory.
Two Levels of Compassion
(Excerpt from The Wisdom of Compassion, by HH the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan)
"There are two levels of compassion. One level has more to do with biological factors. This compassion needs no training. No need to get help from wisdom. It is spontaneous. Like compassion from mother to their children, or compassion between relatives - at least those relatives that show you a positive attitude. These are biological factors, and very much dependent on others' attitudes."
For the Dali Lama, compassion or a feeling of closeness at this level could quickly turn into resentment and hatred. This is because it is tinged with attachment and desire. Romantic love, for instance, is often associated with self-centered emotional needs. When the going is good, we tend to exaggerate and over-emphasize our partner's good qualities. But when feelings or circumstances change, disappointment and a sense of betrayal are often the result. This kind of love is motivated more by personal need than genuine concern for the other.
The Dali Lama cautions that our negative emotions are often impulsive, not based on an accurate reading of the situation. Our overly emotional responses hinder our ability to behave rationally and constructively. Positive emotions, however, are grounded in a realistic way of seeing and are conditioned by wisdom. True compassion, therefore, is not coloured by emotions. It is a firm commitment that remains rock-solid even when we are confronted with hostile behaviour.
The Dali Lama now gave an example of his own prejudices when he was a small child. Whenever he came across two dogs fighting, his heart invariably went out to the one getting clobbered. He had to work hard to suppress his instinct to kick out at the stronger one. When he got older, he realized that his behaviour showed a clear bias, a clear discrimination, in his practice of compassion.
"Now, second level of compassion is beyond that, it is based on understanding and respect. It's not dependent on the others' attitude. We disregard, pay less attention to how others treat us. We are mindful they are human beings, and they, like us, have feelings. I want happiness. I do not want suffering. Because of that, I have the right to work on eliminating suffering. But the other seven billion human beings have the same right. In today's interconnected reality, my future depends on others. So I have to take their interest ultimately as my own interest."
"When others are passing through difficulties, we must respond because we have a sense of concern for them. So this is genuine compassion, second-level compassion. It is stable and unbiased. It is oriented to the person, to someone who, like us, feels pain acutely."
As the Dalai Lama has said, it does not matter whether people are beautiful and friendly or unattractive and hard to get along with. The bottom line is that they are human beings, just like us. And like us, they crave happiness and do not want to suffer. Moreover, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is not less than ours. If we can internalize this universal truth, we should automatically feel empathy for them. It is through habituating our minds to this all-encompassing altruism that we develop a sense of responsibility for others. We ingrain within us the wish to help others overcome their difficulties. For the Dali Lama, this aspiration is uniformly applied to all, without discrimination.
"Genuine compassion means we treat everyone same," continued the Dali Lama. "We develop understanding and warm-heartedness even to our enemies. This is true compassion."
Benefits of Practicing Compassion
There is a lot of scientific research and spiritual teachings alike that explore the benefits of practicing compassion on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual dimensions of our selves. Here are just a few:
Being able to give language to what you’re feeling and learning to express emotions;
Having a toolkit available to solve problems;
Being able to use compassion and empathy to see the other’s point of view;
Learning to practice self-compassion;
Connecting with yourself and others from your true self;
Not being afraid to ask to have your needs met;
Not being afraid to ask for clarification when you don’t understand something;
Becoming a more resilient person;
Experiencing the gift of truly listening to each other.
The image below also covers a few mores of the basics....
What is it like being you?
In case you haven't already listened to this talk, or aren't familiar with Tara Brach.... I super appreciate her teachings and ability to simplify complex concepts. She shares all of her talks free via her podcast. This one is pretty brilliant in its exploration of compassion.
Compassion Imagery Meditation
Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lay for a few moments, and close your eyes. Begin by tuning in to the rise and fall of your breath. Bring your awareness to your physical dimension... your emotional dimension.... your mental dimension.... and your spiritual dimension, tuning in to each slowly, as they are in this moment. Bringing your awareness to your heart center, invite into your heart space, the intention that you set for your creative and spiritual journey over the next 7 weeks. Imagine your heart expanding and opening in response to this intention. Sit for several minutes as you invite in your imagery. When the process feels complete, give thanks, and begin to write and sketch as many details as possible in your journal. You might include how the image made you feel, sensations that may have accompanied it, colours, messages, etc. Repeat this process as needed.
* It is important you don't put pressure on your self to either get your image right or even get it right away. Staying soft and receptive in your efforts will be helpful in your practice of receiving insight. Also, when you start to listen, there may be many images that want to come through.... like a queue you didn't even know was forming. Keep in mind you can repeat this painting process as many times as you would like, so simply pick one of the images that feels most meaningful and start sketching.
Next week we will begin to put imagery on to our canvas. This means we will need to have a sense of the base image that we will begin to paint out over the next 6 weeks. We don't need to know everything all at once, but it is much more easeful if you have a place to start when you arrive to class. Ideally this imagery will have already begun to come to you through the visual imagery meditation posted above, but if it hasn't fully arrived, not to worry. Continue to sit with it over the next week.
Sometimes this is a place where painters can feel pressure to come up with the 'right' image, or find themselves censoring or denying the imagery that shows up in their meditation. Just keep in mind that it is a base starting point, and that it will evolve and take on a life of its own that it may not yet have in your mind's eye. Trust is all that is required right now.
Sketching Like a Pro...
The difference between people who sketch like a pro and people who don't, is almost entirely practice. If you have a tendency to think that you have limited drawing ability, begin this practice by gently choosing to withhold judgement for a few minutes. Most of us were given very few opportunities to practice drawing, or maybe you even had someone tell you your drawings weren't good at some point. These past experiences no longer need to be true for us conscious and creative beings. Through practice, opportunity and belief in ourselves, we are about to prove that we can learn this skill too.
For those of you who might be visualizing a person or a being of some sort in your painting, I have recorded a short video to walk you through the process of learning to draw a face, Do not be intimidating at the prospect of taking on a face. When the painting process is broken down, both sketching and painting, it is really quite simple, and I am happy to walk you through it. You may also choose to use your own face as inspiration. Studying your face can be a powerful exercise. Take a photo of your face in the position that best emotes what you are trying to convey, and use it as a guide as you make your sketch. I once did a sketch of myself overlaid with a sketch of Frida Khalo... so fun!
Once you have your initial sketch, or page filled with symbols, imagery and words that you saw in your meditation, we can begin to consider composition and draw a second draft of your vision to begin to organize some of the information.
Composition is essentially the way that you would like to pull your imagery together into a visual story on your canvas. To do this, first consider the orientation of your image. Does it make sense to be painted landscape (horizontal) or portrait (vertical) and shift your paper accordingly. If there is a central image, decide how much space and in what area of the paper it will go. Don't worry if it feels like your central image is taking up most of the space.... Big can be powerful. And there is always enough room to create small vignettes or visual landscapes around the central image.
Next, begin to play with adding any additional images or symbols that may have shown up. If you aren't sure how to draw these symbols at this point, you can simply acknowledge them in your sketch by marking a light placeholder space where they might go in relation to the central image. I thoroughly enjoy this part of the process... with eraser and pencil in hand I often move or change the composition several times on paper before it really feels alive and I know I've got something. As I notice something in my sketch that wants to shift in some way, be it small or larger detail, it re-informs the rest of the composition and everything seems to want to shift accordingly. Remember that sketching can be easeful and joyful if you allow yourself an easeful and joyful space within you to sketch from. And if it doesn't feel easeful... no problem.... this is good too... you might then practice noticing your internal stories as they arise and give your inner artist a little hug each time you notice your inner judge at work.
If you are sketching something for the first time and don't really know what it looks like, do what artists do and make a study of it. Google image will provide you will near anything you will need.... a wolf, mountains, flowers, buildings. Sketching is really the practice of noticing detail.... noticing how parts relate to one another.... size, texture, colour. Once you've made a study of it, you can add it to your composition. No need to fret about getting all the information at once. We rarely do, and even when we do, spirit often changes or transforms these images as they are being painted. Don't overthink it or over complicate.... leave empty space that has yet to be filled with inspiration!
Remember, this is intuitive, spiritual art, so our images do not need to make sense to anyone but you. They don't need to be realistic or regular. And they certainly don't need to be grounded in third dimensional reality.... blue people are most welcome :)
Let your imagination go wild and see what your heart wants to show you!
* Connect with canvas.... hands on canvas and prayer for guidance and support
* Setting your intention for this work and write or make marks to represent this intention on your canvas
* Opening the spiritual/energetic field of your painting, choose three colours and a couple mark making tools to begin. Bringing to your awareness the intention for your painting, begin covering the canvas with marks and strokes, following your intuitive impulse as you go. Remember, most of this layer will be covered up so it is helpful to practice both non-attachment and non-judgement.
* Call in your vision through the imagery meditation posted above. This will the offer you a starting place for your painting to begin to evolve.
* Sketch a preliminary image inspired by your meditation, making note of colours, energies, qualities, symbols, and beings that were present. Play with a second sketch, considering composition on your canvas.