Training in Compassion

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Dear Still Water Friends,

In her new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong describes our self-centeredness, our egotism, as an addiction:

We are addicted to our egotism. We cannot think how we would manage without our pet hatreds and prejudices that give us such a buzz of righteousness; like addicts, we have come to depend on the instant rush of energy and delight we feel when we display our cleverness by making an unkind remark and the spurt of triumph when we vanquish an annoying colleague. Thus do we assert ourselves and tell the world who we are.

Transforming our egotism is not easy, she writes:

Our egotism is rooted in the "old brain," which was bequeathed to us by the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago. Wholly intent on personal survival, these creatures were motivated by mechanisms that neuroscientists have called the "Four Fs": feeding, fighting, fleeing, and—for want of a more basic word— reproduction. These drives fanned out into fast-acting systems, alerting reptiles to compete pitilessly for food, to ward off any threat, to dominate their territory, seek a place of safety, and perpetuate their genes.

However, we also have a neocortex, which allows us to reflect on ourselves and the world. Compassion can be learned, and it is worth learning.

. . . those who have persistently trained themselves in the art of compassion manifest new capacities in the human heart and mind; they discover that when they reach out consistently toward others, they are able to live with the suffering that inevitably comes their way with serenity, kindness, and creativity. They find that they have a new clarity and experience a richly intensified state of being.

This Thursday after our meditation we will recite the five mindfulness trainings and explore together the first training, Reverence for Life. We will begin with two Armstrong-inspired questions:

How can we treat others “all day and every day” the way we wish to be treated our selves?

How can we bring this respect for others into our families and close relationships, into our work, and into the political discourse and actions of our country?

You are invited to be with us for our meditation and our program.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


The Buddha’s Training in Compassion
from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

In order to enhance the natural impulse to empathy and compassion, Gotama developed a special form of meditation. In his yoga sessions, at each stage of his descent into the depths of his mind, he would contemplate what he called the "four immeasurable minds of love," that "huge, expansive and immeasurable feeling that knows no hatred," and direct them to the farthest corners of the world, not omitting a single creature from this radius of concern. First, he would evoke maitri ("loving kindness"), inducing in his mind an attitude of friendship for everything and everybody; next he meditated on karuna ("compassion"), desiring that all creatures be free of pain; third, he would bring lo his mind mudita, the pure "joy" he had experienced under the rose-apple tree and that he now desired for all creatures; and finally he would try to free himself of personal attachment and partiality by loving all sentient beings with the "even- mindedness" of upeksha. Over time, by dint of disciplined practice, Gotama found that his mind broke free of the prism of selfishness and felt "expansive, without limits, enhanced, without hatred or petty malevolence. He had understood that while spite, hatred, envy, and ingratitude shrink our horizons and limit our creativity, gratitude, compassion, and altruism broaden our perspective and break down the barricades we erect between ourselves and others in order to protect the frightened, greedy, insecure ego.

The Buddha’s crucial insight was that to live morally was to live for others. It was not enough simply to enjoy a religious experience. After enlightenment, he said, a person must return to the marketplace and there practice compassion to all, doing anything he or she could to alleviate the misery of other people. After achieving Nirvana, he had been tempted to luxuriate in the transcendent peace he had found, but instead he spent the remaining forty years of his life on the road teaching his method to others. In Mahayana Buddhism, the hero is the bodhisattva, who is on the brink of enlightenment but instead of disappearing into the bliss of Nirvana, decides to return to the suffering world: "We will become a shelter for the world, the world’s place of rest, the final relief of the world, islands of the world, lights of the world, and the guides of the world’s salvation"

The First Mindfulness Training
expanded by Thich Nhat Hanh

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.

I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.