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Compassion: obstacles and objections

A striking fact about meditating on compassion is how little people do it. Even experienced meditators seem to avoid the practice, often while saying that they know they ought to do it, but somehow never get round to it. Whereas novices might have little intention of ever getting round to it. So what’s going on? Why does this very positive-sounding practice get such bad reactions? I’ll set out the main objections and obstacles, together with some responses to them.

1) It’s soft/silly/hippyish

When people are first taught how to meditate on kindness, it can sound hippyish, foolish, or Pollyannaish. Most people agree that being kind to others is good in principle, but the idea of actually sitting there saying phrases of well-wishing, or visualising warm coloured clouds enveloping people just seems…silly. If you’re new to meditation and feel a bit foolish doing it, then this practice can be a bridge too far.

There isn’t really an answer to this objection, except for: "So what?" In the end, it doesn’t matter whether something looks or sounds a bit soft or silly, if it helps you. So, try it and see.

2) It’s too religious

Depending on how you do it, efforts to cultivate kindness can seem a lot like prayer or other forms of religious practice that assume supernatural agency. It could seem that all this well-wishing is expected to make a difference to the object of your good wishes; as though some god or spirit is going to hear you and take action on that person’s behalf, or as though your good wishes could travel through space and time to somehow directly benefit them.

But that’s not the case. The objective of these practices is for the meditator to work on their own mind. There’s no expectation that your good wishes are going to benefit their object, except insofar as they lead you, the meditator, to act in a kind way towards that person.

3) It’s self-indulgent

This applies only to kindness to oneself, but it’s a major issue, because kindness to oneself is heavily emphasised in Western approaches to cultivating kindness, because we all hate ourselves so much. This might be part of where the “self-indulgent” objection comes from: we feel that it’s somehow unseemly to care about ourselves or to think well of ourselves, let alone to sit on a meditation cushion trying to care more about ourselves. Whereas it’s often said that people from (at least some) Eastern cultures are happier with themselves, and happy with the fact that they’re happy with themselves. (This might of course be apocryphal, and annoying to people from those cultures. In which case, apologies.) So, they have less need to meditate on kindness for themselves, and are also more happy to do it.

One answer to this is, again, something like: “So what?” It might feel a bit odd or unseemly to you to sit around meditating on self-love, but what harm is it doing? If you weren’t doing this meditation, would you be spending your time on something more altruistic? Probably not – you’d be scrolling on social media. And by all means, do give more time to other-directed activity. But you won’t take much time away from that activity by meditating on kindness towards yourself.

Another answer that’s sometimes given is that you have to be kind to yourself in order to be kind to others, or at least to do so sustainably. If you aren’t, it’s argued, you’ll burn out, and be unable to help others. I’m not sure how true this is, but it’s certainly true that some people cause themselves a lot of suffering by putting others first all the time and neglecting their own needs. And perhaps they cause others to suffer too: self-sacrifice can breed resentment, which in turn breeds all sorts of problems.

4) It’s too hard

Cultivating kindness is challenging in a number of ways. It’s quite an elaborate practice (as compared to, say, just following the breath), so without some ability to focus, it’s not really possible. You can’t cultivate kindness for someone if you keep on forgetting about them and worrying about what you said in that meeting yesterday. And then, even if you can concentrate sufficiently to engage in the practice, it can feel unrewarding, because most of the time, you won’t actually feel any kindness. You might feel nothing much, or you might feel all sorts of other things, including boredom, anger, or self-loathing (on which, more below). So, it’s not clear that you’re actually doing anything useful.

In fact, though, you are doing something useful. When I was taught this practice, I was told that intention is enough. That if you just have the intention to cultivate kindness, then the practice will bear fruit, in the form of either (or both) kindly feelings and kindly intentions. And that advice has always served me well.

As for the concentration issue, it is a genuine obstacle, and could mean that it’s best not to start on this practice until you’ve got a bit of experience with meditation, and a bit of stability of attention. Or you can just use recorded guidance, and the concentration problem largely goes away (albeit perhaps at some cost).

5) It’s upsetting

For some people, seeking to cultivate kindness is not just hard, it’s actively unpleasant. When we try to bring kindness to ourselves, it might remind us how much we hate ourselves. When we try to send kindness to others, it might remind us that we have no good relationships in our lives. And when we try to imagine receiving kindness from others, it might remind us of the mistreatment we’ve received from those who were meant to care for us. The flipside of focussing attention on kindness, care, and other positive interpersonal emotions, is that it can highlight everything that’s currently going wrong, or has gone wrong, in our dealings with others and ourselves. Meditating on kindness can be a trigger for everything from mild disquiet to a full-on trauma reaction (apparently – this isn’t something I’ve seen myself).

This winds up being another argument for delaying taking up this practice, especially if you are depressed, have suffered trauma, or for any other reason think you might find it upsetting. It might trigger painful thoughts and feelings, and so you will need to be able to work with those. You’ll need two skills: the ability to direct your attention sufficiently to take it away from painful thoughts and feelings when those are liable to become overwhelming (i.e. to ground yourself), and the ability to turn towards painful thoughts and feelings and focus on them with curiosity and kindness – this being a standard manoeuvre in meditation when confronted with something unpleasant. Once you are comfortable using those two strategies, you should be able to handle anything that your mind and body throw at you in meditation, including aversive reactions to meditating on kindness. But until then, you might want to go gently with this practice.

6) It’s not really the point

This is a reservation that experienced meditators in Buddhist traditions sometimes have. For them, the ultimate point of meditation is insight – the transformative realisation that nothing is as it seems, but rather is impermanent, unsatisfying, and empty of essence. And on the road to that kind of insight, they will probably want concentration – not the everyday kind, but rather a blissful stability of mind that can come about through intensive meditation practice. So kindness, which is seems like a rather everyday sort of thing, can seem like a bit of a sideshow. And unlike insight and concentration, it just doesn’t sound cool. Insight sounds cool. Emptiness sounds cool. Otherwordly states of absorption sound cool. Being kind and caring sounds like Ned Flanders in the Simpsons. (It occurs to me that Simpsons references are probably also not cool, these days.)

The answer to this, as stressed endlessly by meditation teachers, is that it just isn’t so. The cultivation of kindness, they will say, is absolutely integral to the path towards insight (I’ll discuss why this might be in a future post). And, as should be obvious, being kind to others may be mundane, but it’s a really good thing. The world needs kind people more than it needs master meditators.

So those are all the reasons I can think of why people don’t do this practice. If you can think of any that I’ve missed, message me, and perhaps I’ll add them to this post.


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