Cultivating Karuna

Cultivating Karuna

Discussion date: Thu, May 26, 2022 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Thursday Evening Online Program

May 26, 2022, 7:00 to 8:45 pm Eastern Time

Dear Still Water Friends,

In my twenties, I felt overwhelmed and paralyzed with grief from low self-esteem about my visual impairment. I was depressed. One powerful source of support was my therapist. He showed me mindful breathing and body-awareness practices that helped me begin to accept myself as I was. What was especially nourishing for me was his ability to listen in a caring, calm way, to offer karuna (compassion). This experience taught me how important it is to hold a caring, calm space and to listen to another with compassion.

In a Mindfulness Bell article from 1997, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

The second aspect of true love is karuna, the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. Karuna is usually translated as “compassion,” but that is not exactly correct. “Compassion” is composed of com (“together with”) and passion (“to suffer”). But we do not need to suffer to remove suffering from another person. Doctors, for instance, can relieve their patients’ suffering without experiencing the same disease in themselves. If we suffer too much, we may be crushed and unable to help. Still, until we find a better word, let us use “compassion” to translate karuna.

To develop compassion in ourselves, we need to practice mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking. One compassionate word, action, or thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring him joy. One word can give comfort and confidence, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, or open the door to liberation. One action can save a person’s life or help him take advantage of a rare opportunity. One thought can do the same, because thoughts always lead to words and actions. With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle.

When I was a novice, I could not understand why, if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn’t he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha had enough understanding, calmness, and strength. That is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna is there. That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.

On the surface, listening with compassion might seem ineffective. We tend to believe that immediate action is our most effective way to help someone in distress. What I found was that being listened to with compassion was contagious. Over time, with my therapist’s example, I learned how to listen to myself with compassion instead of judgment. This new-found space within allowed me to create a similar container for others who needed to be heard.

Recently, I have been talking and listening to a young woman who has lost both her senses of sight and smell due to brain cancer. She is a powerful, resilient person who does not recognize her own strengths. I see in her beliefs about herself an echo of how I thought of myself years ago. I am grateful to my former therapist and others who helped me be able to offer compassionate listening to her now.

This Thursday night, after our sitting, we will explore how we experience and cultivate karuna. We will begin our Dharma sharing with these questions:

  • Who has offered karuna to you?
  • Have there been people in your life who have directly taught you how to offer karuna to others?
  • Reflecting on your life today, in what situations and with whom do you perceive a need for karuna?

You are warmly invited to join us!

Many blessings,
Eliza King

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, May 26, 2022