Expanding compassion

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If you are holding on to your own suffering, you can’t open your wings to fly.  Photo by Colin Moldenhauer on Unsplash

One of the enduring legacies of Buddhist philosophy is the development of meditation techniques to balance selfishness.  The idea is that when we think too much of ourselves, we hurt ourselves; therefore, if we can find ways to expand our awareness, we can counteract anxiety and depression.

The idea of a philosophical basis for mental illness is often disparaged.  We live in an age where brain chemistry on the one side, and mechanical techniques on the other, are the way to go.  So doctors will prescribe antidepressants, or arrange for cognitive behavioural therapy.

TRAPPED WITHIN YOURSELF

It should not be a surprise, however, to discover that there are links between the social and philosophical basis on which we live our lives, and our brain chemistry.  It is common sense, really, that they reflect each other.  One key lecturer in my original psychology degree studies used to say it is a matter of level.  We have chemistry, we have biology, we have organisation, we have meaning… all these levels of being are equally valid as areas of study, and they overlap.

Trap an animal in a confined space, and isolate it from its fellow beings.  This will cause changes in brain chemistry and structure.  Trap a person philosophically in a confined mental space, and isolate them.  This, too, causes similar physiological changes.

Equally, allowing a person to expand their sense of internal and external space, can cause wide-ranging physiological changes.  In short, a sense of connection to the environment, and to others, can make you healthy.

AN EXERCISE

Just for today, observe your own suffering, and follow this sequence:

  1. When you catch yourself worrying or suffering in any way, ask yourself what you are worried about
  2. Once you have identified the area of worry or suffering, name it in a phrase
  3. Then look much more widely, across the world, and decide, compassionately, to accept everyone’s suffering of that kind
  4. Imagine accepting all their suffering, and in return giving back peace and wisdom
This may sound idealistic, but it really works.  A good additional technique is to ‘mount the practice on the breath’.  When breathing in, you can imagine taking in all suffering of a particular kind from all around the globe.  When breathing out, you can imagine giving out peace and wisdom.

AN EXAMPLE

Suppose someone has just insulted you, and you feel angry and affronted.  The four stages would work roughly as follows:

  1. I can feel myself worrying about something.  What is it?  What name would I give it?
  2. I feel humiliated, and that my dignity has been affronted
  3. I can imagine that, right now, there are millions of people around the world suffering humiliation and insults
  4. Breathing in, I imagine accepting all of that suffering; breathing out, I offer peace and wisdom
WHY IT WORKS

This technique helps you to escape from the prison of your own suffering, into the much wider landscape of selflessness.  Instead of suffering the effects of frustration, your perspective changes into ‘wishing love’ on behalf of other people.

In the above example, for instance, your initial self-focused humiliation is transformed into a wider appreciation of the millions of people around the world who are suffering in a similar way.  By accepting their suffering, and giving out peace and wisdom, you change the direction of flow.  Before the meditation, the direction of flow may have been ‘please, world, give me what I want!’.  This is a sure way to frustration.  After the meditation, the direction can become a much more expansive wishing for everyone to be released from suffering, and an offering of your peace.

Physiologically, your original selfishness would have mentally trapped you in your own little hell.  The wider perspective, accepting everyone’s suffering, and offering peace in return, liberates you from that hell, and instead lets you stop fighting and walk free.

The mechanism is similar to an allergy.  If you are allergic to your own suffering, then your mental ‘immune system’ will fight every threat, and you will exhaust yourself.  If you accept all suffering, and offer back only peace and understanding, then you have a new immune system that can filter out anger, frustration and unhappiness, and offer back happy actions and words.

IS THIS TOO IDEALISTIC?

Some people say that it’s all very well meditating away problems, but that we live in the real world, where bad things need fighting.

Whilst I agree that there are battles to fight, I’m not sure we are very good at dissociating ourselves from the unnecessary battles.

Imagine two children fighting over a toy.  If each continues to fight from their own perspective, then the war will continue.  If one child learns to let go of the toy, it looks to the world of fighting as though they have lost.  But what is this ‘losing’?  Look closer.  That child has discovered that their life is more peaceful without clinging on to their possessions and fighting others.  They can now enjoy greater happiness.

Now replace ‘toy’ with ‘worldly pleasure’.  As adults, we are always fighting each other for money, drugs, territory, possessions, advantage, good reputation, status, and a host of other things. As long as we fight for these things, we are participating in a war that never stops.  As soon as we soften our grip, and wish others well, we can be happy without such things.  This is the foundation of so much Buddhist philosophy.

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SUMMARY

Our philosophy of life can make us ill or well, depending on what we choose.  Our medical model these days relies on pills and techniques.  But a new philosophical approach can often affect our brain chemistry as well as official medicine.

Just like an animal when it is trapped, being mentally trapped within ourselves can create physiological suffering.

As an exercise, try this: when you feel you are suffering, name the situation, and then expand your awareness to wish happiness to everyone in the world who is suffering from the same thing.

This can release you from your own hell, and set you free.  Instead of being allergic to suffering, you accept it, and stop fighting it.

When you stop fighting suffering, ironically, you can become free from it.  By not grasping your own happiness, and instead wishing happiness for others, you can become happier.  Weird, but true.

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