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Compassion: cultivation

If you've read my last post, then hopefully you've started to work on building up some awareness of your emotions in the area of the heart. And when you've done a fair bit of that, you'll be ready to start cultivating particular states of the heart, such as kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy.

So, how do you do it? Well, there's the traditional way, and then there's the way that's more likely to work. Let's take them in turn.

The "traditional" way (in quotes because claims to be traditional in Buddhism and its secular offshoots should be treated with caution) is to call to mind a series of people and send good wishes to each of them in turn. First yourself, then a good friend, then someone you don't really know, then someone who annoys you. And then, finally, you start to send good wishes out more and more widely, until you are sending them to all the beings in the cosmos (Buddhists have traditionally believed in an extravagant range of supernatural and extra-terrestrial beings). And you send these good wishes by repeating certain phrases, such as: "May you be well; may you be happy; may you be peaceful; may you be free from suffering". On and on you go, until hopefully your heart explodes with love and kindness.

Unfortunately, this method tends not to work very well for modern, Western meditators. Repeating phrases seems dry and empty; trying to generate kindness for people feels false; and trying to generate it for yourself triggers not love but self-loathing. And so people might not like the practice and might not want to do it, which is a real shame.

So, to give you the best possible chance of sticking with the practice and benefitting from it, I'm going to set out three principles that should underlie it. I'm not going to get much into specifics about how you might implement them - I'll save that for my next post.

First: go gently. There is no point in trying to force kindness out of yourself. It won't work, and will put you off the practice. Instead, be gentle and patient, and see the practice as a long-term project. Just having the intention to feel some kindness is enough. Hold on to that intention, and in time the feelings might come.

Second: balance activity with receptivity. This means balancing your efforts to change things (by cultivating kindness) with just noticing how things already are. Cultivating kindness shouldn't mean denying how you actually feel. And the best way to know how you feel is to focus your attention on the area of the heart. So keep your attention there as you do the practice, and keep on noticing what you can feel there.

Third: do what works for you. This is always true in meditation, but it might be especially true here, because this is a practice where there are lots of options and a lot of variability in what works for people. So don't be afraid to be creative, and to find your own ways into the experience of kindness.

And in my next post, I'll offer some suggestions for things to try.


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