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Compassion - beyond nitpicks and hair splits

Warm, fuzzy feelings have always been an integral part of meditation and mindfulness, and not just because meditators are hippies. Rather, they do something useful.

In my next few posts, I'll get into what they do, and how to get them to do it. But first, what exactly are we talking about? Which warm,fuzzy feelings, exactly, should we be cultivating in meditation?

There's lots of nitpicking and hairsplitting about this, both in the meditative traditions and in modern psychology. In Buddhism, you've got the four brahma viharas, meaning divine abodes: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Compassion is what you feel for someone who is suffering. Sympathetic joy is when you are happy for someone who is doing well (i.e. the opposite of schadenfreude). And loving kindness is a basic feeling of well-wishing that could turn into either compassion or sympathetic joy, depending on who it is directed at. Equanimity is being content with whatever happens, and so it feels cool and calm rather than warm and fuzzy, and doesn't quite seem to fit with the other three.

In modern, secular approaches to meditation and mindfulness, there's often been an emphasis on compassion, specifically. This might be because these approaches are part of psychological therapies, or as healthcare interventions in their own right, and so they are naturally concerned with the relief of suffering. But then the hairsplitting and nitpicking begins: what exactly is compassion? Is it a feeling, or a motivation, or an intention? How does it differ from empathy, or kindness, or even empathic distress? And what about the difference between giving compassion, receiving compassion, and giving yourself compassion? All of this is explored in detail in the academic literature in the relevant therapeutic approaches, and so it should be.

But this can all get a bit confusing. And it needn't, because my advice, for the ordinary meditator, is this: don't worry about it too much. Maybe if you progress to an advanced level in meditation, it will become really important whether you're cultivating loving kindness or compassion, and whether or not your compassion is tinged with a selfish motivation to relieve your own empathic distress. But at the level most of us are at, it doesn't matter all that much. What we are talking about is intelligible in everyday terms: we are talking about kindness. We are talking about caring about and connecting with others (and ourselves). We are talking about wanting the best for each other (and, again, ourselves).

And to remind yourself of what that feels like, try this: just think of someone for whom you feel affection, and for whom you wish the best. Someone for whom you have fairly straightforward feelings (i.e. probably not a parent, or a lover). Maybe your child, your niece or nephew, or your pet. And if you don't have any of those, maybe an animal that you find particularly adorable - a penguin, say, or a baby seal. Just think of this person and animal, and notice how that feels. And if it doesn't feel like anything much, that's fine and perfectly normal - we can't expect warm, fuzzy feelings to show up on demand. But hopefully you still get the idea, at least, of the kind of warm, fuzzy feelings (or intentions, or motivations), we're talking about.

So aim at that target, and you will not go far wrong. By all means, play around with having different targets for your kindness (including yourself). And by all means play around with different ways of cultivating kindness (on which more in future posts). But aim broadly at kindness, and play around a bit, and you will probably wind up covering most of the relevant ground.


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