“How can I help?”
Have you found yourself asking this question a lot more lately? Recent extreme weather events have displaced thousands of people around the world. Tragic violent episodes are plaguing innocent people. Refugees and immigrants face uncertainty, and global diplomacy issues keep tension high.
So, how can you help?
You can take concrete actions to help ease the suffering of those who have been affected by recent tragedies. Your actions could include financial donations for disaster relief, phone calls to your U.S. members of congress to enact legislation, or taking the time to give blood.
Sometimes you may feel paralyzed and unable to take action, and that is a normal reaction. You might feel that you are unable to bear the load of suffering that is dumped upon you week after week. By practicing compassion cultivation meditation techniques, you can learn to stay present with the suffering you’re facing each day without getting overwhelmed. You can train your mind to express empathy for those outside of your normal circle of compassion, and learn how to practice compassion for yourself.
Here are a few compassion meditation practices to help you strengthen your compassion muscles so that during tough times like these, you’re prepared to meet the suffering you witness.
1. Loving-Kindness or Metta Meditation
You can use a simple loving-kindness or metta meditation to help you practice compassion for people who are outside of your normal in-group. Generally, metta meditations begin with offering compassion toward yourself and then expanding that outward to friends and loved ones, and, finally, to people you may not know. You can also use this practice to generate compassionate feelings toward someone who frustrates or angers you.
• Begin by finding a comfortable position that allows you be alert yet relaxed. Take a few deep breaths to settle your mind and ground yourself.
• Next, repeat the following phrases in your mind: “May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be free from suffering.”
• As you say each phrase in your mind, see if you can imagine breathing warmth and compassion into your heart space and then breathing out warmth and compassion toward yourself, letting the compassion permeate your body.
• Next, direct those same phrases to someone who is dear to you, saying: “May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be free from suffering.”
• Finally, pick a person or a group you don’t know well. Perhaps, it’s a neighbor who you see but don’t know well. If you’ve uncovered your unconscious biases, you can practice compassion for the people who you may be implicitly judging, like a certain gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or body type.
• Again, repeating the phrases for this person or group: “May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be free from suffering.”
This simple practice is used by researchers to generate positive emotions, and also has been shown to reduce implicit bias toward stigmatized outgroups like black people and homeless people.
Unsure about your unconscious biases? Try the free online tests offered by Harvard’s Project Implicit.
2. Self-Compassion Meditation
There are several types of self-compassion meditations, and I recommend you find one that best suits you. The below practice uses a little bit of trickery to help you generate feelings of compassion for yourself. One big hurdle for many people in this culture is conjuring the feeling of compassion for self. This practice allows you to first connect with the feeling of compassion for someone else, which you can then direct toward yourself.
• Find a comfortable, upright position. Gently close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.
• Return to your normal breathing pace and pay attention to your breath for a few minutes. This will help settle the mind. When you notice your mind wandering, which it will, gently bring it back to the breath.
• After settling the mind, imagine a loved one standing in front of you. Pay attention to how your body feels when you are with him or her; try to focus on any warm or positive feelings.
• Imagine sending love, warmth, and light out of your heart to your loved one with each exhale. Saying in your own mind to your loved one, “May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you live with ease.”
• Now imagine seeing yourself next to your loved one. Direct that same warmth, light, and love from your heart to that image of you, silently saying, “May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you live with ease.”
• You can turn this into a metta practice by extending love, light, and warmth with each exhale, sending it to the members of your community, state, nation, continent, and finally to everyone in the world. Saying silently to each group, “May we all be happy. May we all be peaceful. May we all live with ease.”
3. Tonglen Meditation
Tonglen is a visualization practice used in Tibetan Buddhism, and it means “giving and taking.” Simply put, you use your breath to take, or inhale, the suffering of someone, and you give, or exhale, compassion.
• To begin, find a comfortable position allowing you to feel relaxed yet alert. After taking a few cleansing breaths, follow your breath and settle the mind for five minutes.
• Next, bring to mind a person who is experiencing suffering, and imagine he/she is standing in front of you. Imagine his/her suffering as a dark cloud surrounding him/her.
• As you inhale, imagine breathing in the dark cloud. As you breathe it in, the cloud transforms into a bright, warm light of compassion at your heart area.
• When you exhale, you extend that light of compassion to him/her, alleviating his suffering.
• Continue breathing in the dark cloud of suffering, allowing the cloud to transform into warm, bright light, and directing your compassionate warmth to your loved one as you exhale.
• When you are ready to return to the present moment, take a few deep, mindful breaths.
This practice feels overwhelming for some people, so be sure to exercise caution when trying it. If you find it difficult to breathe in a dark cloud, you might want to experiment with imagining the dark cloud as a white or brightly colored cloud or as cool air instead.
Tonglen is my favorite on-the-spot practice, and it’s a great tool to keep in my back pocket. I use it to stay present when I witness or experience suffering. I have visualized a dark cloud of suffering over those affected by natural disasters. I breathe in that cloud and breathe out compassionate light. When I am face-to-face with a person who is suffering, I employ tonglen to help me stay present when I may have otherwise felt overwhelmed.
Notice what happens when you include compassion practices in your repertoire of meditations. My hope is that they bring you and many others peace during difficult times.
By Sara Schairer