Meditation and Compassion
Meditation practice is frequently recommended to people struggling with a variety of chronic conditions. Mayo Clinic has a very nice article covering the basics on their website. Definitions of meditation range from simple to complex treatises on the nature of the mind. It can be quite intimidating for a newcomer to sift through all this information. In brief, meditation is a process through which one may induce a state of relaxation. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of possible techniques one may use. It really doesn’t matter what exact technique is used, as long as it (eventually) calms the mind.
People often talk about meditation in the setting of mystical experiences and insights. Over the years I have learned it is usually a much more mundane experience. This is reassuring to me, as I have never had mystical transport while meditating. Anyone can practice meditation techniques and benefit from them.
I am not a disciplined meditator. I have practiced shamatha, mantra meditation, prayer, guided visualization, and yoga nidra at different times and still do. I have had instruction from Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and secularly oriented teachers. I’ve learned over the years that I can benefit from meditation even if I have not had the patience to perform a daily practice. I’ve found different techniques more helpful for me at different times, so it’s good to have a variety at my disposal.
In my post the other day about the HeartMath website, I mentioned the Buddhist practice of Tong Len. This practice has been used for at least 1000 years by Buddhist practitioners as a means of increasing compassion. Compassion is a central concept of Buddhism. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama talks about this in a wonderful essay here. One of my favorite teachers, Pema Chodron, has written quite a bit about Tong Len. You can read one of her articles here. This practice is similar to what HeartMath has given the name Heart Lock-In.
To start, sit comfortably. You don’t have to sit on the floor on a cushion if this is not comfortable or possible for you. Sit in a way that you feel grounded and not likely to drift off to sleep. Notice your breathing. Clear your mind of distractions like what you are doing later, the grocery list, etc. Think of someone you want to help who is sympathetic, someone you or anyone would want to help. A child, a kitten, the nicest old lady you ever met…it doesn’t matter who, just that they are easy to love. As you breathe in, imagine you are breathing in whatever suffering or pain they might have. As you breathe out, send out whatever resource you believe will help ease their suffering such as calmness, peace, strength. Then you can imagine someone who is harder to care for, an irritating neighbor, someone who cuts you off in traffic, etc. Breathe in their suffering, breathe out love and compassion for them. Imagine yourself and whatever your failings might be. Breathe in your own pain and breathe out love and compassion for yourself.
Pema Chodron says it so much more eloquently, but I hope I am able to get across the gist. My point is that this practice is available to anyone. You don’t have to be a Buddhist and you don’t have to buy books and gadgets from motivational speakers who trademark the concept. Having compassion for yourself and others helps make this a better world. Compassion for yourself helps you cope with whatever your limitations might be.