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Mindfulness and Compassion

Adrian Bint

The Forest Sangha Newsletter (UK), April 1997

Dr. Adrian Bint, a local supporter of Ratanagiri, runs a beginners' meditation class at the monastery; he also leads a stress management course for nurses and doctors at the hospital where he works in Newcastle (UK). In the following article he presents an approach he has found useful in responding compassionately to the needs of others.

The crude cardboard sign read: "Homeless. Unemployed. Please help". The young man holding it was sitting on the pavement outside a supermarket on a cold winter's day. He was pale and pimply and gazed at me with a slight sorrowful smile on his face. The first time I saw him I felt confused about what my response should be, and I walked straight past. Later I felt guilty but then began to have thoughts such as, "He's perfectly capable of working, he just gets more money begging" "There shouldn't be beggars in this day and age" "If I give him money it will just encourage him to beg". A few days later I saw him again. This time I bent down to speak to him, to tell him about the drop-in centre for the homeless a few hundred yards away. A sharp whiff of alcohol hit me in the face. "Aha!" , I thought triumphantly, "If I give him any money he will just spend it on booze."

Here was I, a faithful Buddhist, showing a distinct lack of compassion. Confronted by this beggar, my mind had gone through a gamut of thoughts and feelings, including distaste, pity, guilt, blame, and thoughts of being right; but very little compassion. I think that many of us sometimes wonder whether we have enough compassion, or whether we can somehow become more compassionate. So what is compassion and where can we find it?

We could define compassion as a strong feeling from the heart to be with the suffering of other people, frequently leading to the offer of practical help. It is unconditional in nature, being offered to all those who are suffering, without requiring anything in return. Often we tarnish our compassion with an element of bargaining: "If I give you my compassion, I want your gratitude, or respect, or your conforming to my advice in return." Then, if I do not get that, I feel negative towards the person. Sometimes we put on a facade of apparent care or concern but our underlying thoughts are directed at protecting ourselves.

All human beings have a natural potential for boundless compassion, but it is often hidden behind a wall of thoughts and feelings directed at protecting our delicate "self", or ego. To be truly compassionate our first task is to open our own hearts and, with kindness (metta) for ourselves, confront our own discomfort, fear and suffering. True compassion is like the sun, always present in the sky, but sometimes hidden behind thick layers of dark clouds. For some people clouds of ego-protecting thought never reveal the sun of compassion; for most of us the sun appears for varying intervals.

The best way to let our natural compassion flow is to increase our level of mindfulness, in formal meditation and in everyday life. When we carefully notice the thoughts and feelings appearing from moment to moment in the mind, we begin to see them as natural phenomena that arise, exist for a while, then cease of their own accord. We do not need to judge them as good or bad, right or wrong. We need to neither repress them nor indulge in them. When we have angry, fearful, judgemental or blaming thoughts we need no longer act immediately in unskillful ways; instead we can wait for them to pass and then act out of wisdom. By paying close attention to the clouds of thoughts, we can see the gaps between them and sense the presence of the sun of compassion behind them.

We also begin to see that suffering is universal in all sentient beings. We will all face suffering during our lives. It seems that the essential reason why we find it difficult to relate to other people's suffering is our sense of being a totally separate person. Imagine a deep, wide, river flowing along. Suddenly it falls over a high precipice. The river becomes a waterfall, breaking up into myriads of droplets. Each droplet seems separate, buffeted about by external forces, fighting for its very existence. But at the bottom of the waterfall all the drops merge back into a river, all separateness gone. We humans are rather like the drops of water, forgetting that we are always part of the great river of life. The sense of separateness is really an illusion. Everything on the planet, everything in the universe is interconnected. From this perspective, another person's suffering is our suffering.

True compassion arises naturally when our ego-protecting thoughts begin to die down. We can aid that process by being mindful, opening our hearts to our own discomfort and pain, and being compassionate towards ourselves. When the painful barrier of separateness begins to crumble, compassion flows outwards from the heart, unconditionally to all beings.

Dr. Adrian Bint
The Forest Sangha Newsletter (UK), April 1997