Sometimes people find compassion practice the easiest entry to practicing mettā more generally. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu said, compassion is an extension of  mettā that we feel when we encounter suffering. When we are confronted with suffering, especially in person, compassion (karunā) is a natural response, and if we give it space, it will grow. This can be experienced in every day life, but also if we seek out situations to support those in need: incarcerated people, support groups for people with mental challenges, people in aged care or hospice, even animal rescue and rehabilitation. All of these can inspire us to set aside our own petty concerns and listen patiently to others, with an open heart, whether they are talking or not.

The sense of presence that we can develop with mettā or karunā comes from devoting ourselves to observing and listening to others in a complete way, that is, without the running commentary in our minds. Any judging we might do is picked up immediately by those we are with. The “near enemy” of compassion is pity, and that’s because pity is in fact about ourselves. We think, “Good grief, I’m so glad my life’s not as miserable as that person’s”, or “I wonder how I would respond to these challenges?”. We focus on our own feelings and opinions as a matter of course, so suspending them for a time is quite a different experience. It may happen spontaneously, but only mindfulness can help us develop these freeing mind states.

Everyone knows when they’re being listened to and when they’re not. Most of us feel overlooked and dismissed by those around us; it’s rare to discover that someone is interested in us and cares about us enough to put their own concerns aside, even for a short while. But that’s what both mettā and karunā require. We can’t fake it; we can be kind, but developing boundless kindness or compassion is a liberating practice. We’ll know it when we experience it; it has the flavor of freedom from our own clinging.

Some would say that all of us suffer, each in our own way, so we are all deserving of compassion. Imagine how our world would be if we looked at everyone with the “eyes of love and acceptance”, with unbounded compassion.

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Mettā in practice

Many Mahayana Buddhist chants include the blessing: “May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.” While we may not find these precise words in the Pali canon, it is an idea that permeates the Buddha’s teachings. We must each cultivate our own wisdom and our own happiness.

How can we develop a feeling of goodwill towards ALL beings? Especially for those of us inclined towards aversion, it can be difficult to locate even a seed of mettā in our hearts. Ajahn Sumedho has helped us out here by re-defining mettā as “dwelling in non-aversion”. This is a wonderful trick of the mind; if we eliminate negative thoughts towards other beings or situations, then what do you suppose is left in its place? Mettā! We can test this in our experience. If we let go of critical and complaining thoughts, a feeling of kindness naturally replaces them. Of course this is easy to do for the people we love, and harder with the people we don’t love; sometimes it’s not so easy to feel kindness towards ourselves.

From Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

Notice that you practice developing these attitudes toward all beings—including yourself. It’s easy to feel goodwill, for example, for those you like, or equanimity toward those who have no connection to you. But it requires a conscious effort to be able to maintain these attitudes toward anyone and everyone. It’s not the case that the brahmavihāras are the heart’s innate nature. After all, their opposites can come just as naturally to the heart. It’s just as easy to feel ill will for those who have betrayed you or your loved ones as it is to feel goodwill for those who behave in ways you like.

… So you extend goodwill to all, regardless of whether they “deserve” to be happy. Remember the example of the Buddha, who taught the way to the end of suffering to all beings, regardless of whether they “deserved” to suffer or not.

… You’re thinking, “May you understand the causes for true happiness and be willing and able to act on them.” This is an attitude you can extend to all beings, without hypocrisy, regardless of how they’ve behaved in the past.

Like all practices that lead to wisdom, it takes effort to cultivate an unstinting mettā towards all beings everywhere. However, as with any skill, persistence – a willingness to try again – is what brings results. We may think that developing the universal attitudes of unbounded kindness and its corollaries is much less important than cultivating wisdom, but in the end we discover that you can’t have one without the other. Wisdom and mettā  support each other.

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How the Divine Abodes Work

Over the years, Thanissaro Bhikkhu has cleared up a lot of misunderstanding about what metta – and its companion mindstates – is and is not.

The brahmavihāras, or sublime attitudes, are attitudes of goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity that you spread to all beings, without limit: in other words, with no limit to the amount of goodwill, etc., that you spread, and no limit on the number of beings to whom you spread it. Each of these attitudes is an antidote for mental states that can get in the way of training the mind.

• Goodwill, a wish that beings will be happy, is an antidote for ill will, the desire to see beings suffer.

• Compassion, a wish that those who are suffering will be freed from their suffering, is an antidote to cruelty, the desire to actually harm others when they’re in a position to be harmed.

• Empathetic joy, a wish that those who are already happy will continue to be happy, is an antidote to resentment.

• Equanimity, the ability to maintain the mind on an even keel when events don’t fall in line with your goodwill, is an antidote to irritation.

These attitudes boil down to two—goodwill and equanimity—in that compassion and empathetic joy are basically extensions of goodwill. Compassion is what goodwill feels when encountering suffering; empathetic joy is what goodwill feels when encountering those who are already happy. The Buddha may have separated them out from goodwill in his list of the brahmavihāras because they’re good checks for the honesty of your goodwill. If people whose behavior you don’t like are suffering the consequences of that behavior, is your goodwill sincere enough to want to see their suffering end? If people whose behavior you don’t like are enjoying the fruits of past good actions, can you honestly say that you’re happy for their good fortune?

Equanimity is the backup for cases where, for the time being at least, there’s nothing you can do to stop people from suffering or creating the causes of suffering.

We’ll consider these things more deeply, but for today it’s important to understand that we are not wishing for anyone to change specific behaviors. Instead we give the blessing of hoping that all beings learn to free themselves from the things that oppress them. We can’t free anyone else, but we can try to free ourselves, and we can wish that everyone, everywhere also makes that effort. It is all possible, and we can’t make it happen for anyone else, but we can model the change.

“May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease!”— MN 41

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Gil Fronsdal has a wonderful series of published talks called “The Issue at Hand”.  The following is from Chapter 6: Heartfelt Practice –

Whatever a mother, father
Or other relative may do,
Far better is the benefit
From one’s own rightly directed mind.– Dhammapada 43

The English word “mindfulness” is the usual translation for the Pali word sati. Most generally, sati means to hold something in awareness. When the Chinese translated Indian Buddhist terms into Chinese characters, sati became a character with two halves: the top half is the character for  “the present moment” and the bottom half is the character for “heart.” The combination suggests that mindfulness is connected to the heart, to being “heartfelt in the present moment.” It points to the possibility of holding our experience in our hearts, to having an accepting, soft, and spacious awareness toward whatever is occurring. …

Many of us have hearts that are encrusted with anxieties, fears, aversions, sorrows, and an array of defensive armor. The non-reactive and accepting awareness of mindfulness will help to dissolve these crusts. The practice has a cyclic quality; it is self-reinforcing. At first, the practice will allow us to let go of a small amount of defensiveness. That release allows a corresponding amount of openness and tender- heartedness to show itself. This process encourages us to drop even more armor. Slowly, a greater sense of heartfeltness supports the further development of mindfulness.

As our neurotic thought patterns drop away, layers of judgment and resistance atrophy, and the need to define our selves through hard-held identities relaxes. As this happens, the natural goodness of the heart shines by itself.

The impulses to be aware, happy, compassionate, and free, all come from the goodness of our hearts. As we connect to these intentions and allow them to motivate our mindfulness practice, the practice becomes heartfelt.

The Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah said that everything occurs within the heart. In mindfulness practice, we let our heart hold whatever arises within itself.

As Gil so wisely points out, the softening of our hearts is part of the process of cultivating mindfulness. The two go together and cannot, in a practical sense, be separated; real wisdom cannot co-exist with unkindness or any other resistive mind state.

Many folks have proven through their own experimentation that the shedding of our defenses and the resulting increase in feelings of compassion and kindness for others can calm the heart and incline it towards more regular and deeper meditation.

The five precepts (harmlessness, generosity, ethics in sensuality, truthfulness, and sobriety), if undertaken seriously, also have the effect of reducing our tendency to grasp. As we become more aware of the human needs before us and the results of our actions, we are likely to start seeing more clearly the truth of our situation. We are all in this together and we can only control our own actions, words, and (sometimes) minds.

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Best of all Gifts

Thanissaro Bhikkhu says this about how we can repay our teachers for the wisdom that we have learned from them. A student asks:

“How can I ever repay you for your teaching?”

Good meditation teachers often hear this question from their students, and the best answer I know for it is one that my teacher, Ajaan Fuang, gave every time:

“By being intent on practicing.”

Each time he gave this answer, I was struck by how noble and gracious it was. And it wasn’t just a formality. He never tried to find opportunities to pressure his students for donations. Even when our monastery was poor, he never acted poor, never tried to take advantage of their gratitude and trust. This was a refreshing change from some of my previous experiences with run-of-the-mill village and city monks who were quick to drop hints about their need for donations from even stray or casual visitors.

Eventually I learned that Ajaan Fuang’s behavior is common throughout the Forest Tradition. It’s based on a passage in the Pali Canon where the Buddha on his deathbed states that the highest homage to him is not material homage, but the homage of practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma. In other words, the best way to repay a teacher is to take the Dhamma to heart and to practice it in a way that fulfills his or her compassionate purpose in teaching it. I was proud to be part of a tradition where the inner wealth of this noble idea was actually lived — where, as Ajaan Fuang often put it, we weren’t reduced to hirelings, and the act of teaching the Dhamma was purely a gift.

According to the Pali canon, the best gift we can give our teachers (and our parents, and our children, and our friends) is to sincerely practice the Buddha’s teachings so that we can shed the impurities in us that make us less than an ideal student (child, parent, friend). As so many have said, if you want to be a better parent or partner, work on yourself. It is much more valuable than any material gift.

In the Sigālovāda Sutta (DN 31) a generous person is described as one who gives twice what is asked for:

“The helper can be identified by four things: by protecting you when you are vulnerable, and likewise your wealth, being a refuge when you are afraid, and in various tasks providing double what is requested.

Noticing whether we give grudgingly or offer more than is requested is a good test of the strength of our generosity.

Lastly, in a social context, we can practice the Buddha’s teachings by becoming better listeners. Listening, with no agenda besides an interest in understanding another person, is giving.

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The Art of Giving

We learn less from what people tell us than we do from what we observe other people doing. If we’re interested in nurturing our generous tendencies, we would do well to observe others in the act of giving. It happens all the time, though we may not notice it unless we look for it. One person phones her mother overseas every day, not because she enjoys it, but because it keeps her mother mentally balanced. Another person regularly sends money for support to a family member who, in spite of doing their best, cannot make ends meet. Some will send postcards or make phone calls just to let others know they are not alone, that someone is thinking of them.

Some people are such outstanding examples that they inspire others even after their deaths. One example was a relative of mine who welcomed victims of domestic violence into her home through a church based service. The guests brought their children and pets and were often too traumatized to be gracious. And yet their host’s healing love was unstinting. She knew she was salving deep wounds and this was her calling. We can inspire ourselves by recalling people we’ve known who embodied generosity. The key feature is that they were uplifted by their own giving.

Another way to look at generosity is to examine our assumptions. Do we believe that people are basically good, basically bad, or basically mixed?

Quote from I May Be Wrong by Björn Natthiko Lindeblad (p. 228):

…he told us about a BBC interview with the Thai king. The British journalist had asked the king what he thought of the western, Christian idea of original sin. And the king’s answer was lovely:
“As Buddhists, we do not believe in original sin. We believe in original purity.”

What do we believe? We know that everyone makes mistakes, but do we attribute them to bad intentions or do we see them as best efforts that fail sometimes? This question of original sin or original purity can change our perspective on everything. If we believed that everyone, without exception, has the potential to fully awaken, wouldn’t we treat others with a fundamental respect?

Cultivating generosity is the start of looking at everyone with the eyes of love, of forgiveness, of acceptance, kindness, and care.

Traditionally, gifts of the Dharma are the most valuable gifts of all. Every time we consciously choose to behave virtuously, to support the growth of the Buddha’s teachings, to cultivate our inner calm, we are giving gifts of the highest value.

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Generosity Makes Connections

From Gil Fronsdal:
Dana [pronounced dahnah] refers to the act of giving and to the donation itself. The Buddha used the word cage [pronounced chagah] to refer to the inner virtue of generosity…. This use of cage is particularly significant because it also means “relinquishment” or “renunciation.” An act of generosity entails giving more than is required, customary, or expected relative to one’s resources and circumstances. Certainly it involves relinquishment of stinginess, clinging and greed. In addition, generosity entails relinquishing some aspects of one’s self-interest, and thus is a giving of one’s self. The Buddha stressed that the spiritual efficacy of a gift is dependent not on the amount given but rather on the attitude with which it is given. A small donation that stretches a person of little means is considered of greater spiritual consequence than a large but personally insignificant donation from a wealthy person.

Gil Fronsdal correctly points out that as we are giving up stinginess, we are giving up some degree of self-interest, and the stubborn idea of “mine!” can start to soften.

As a practice, generosity is not done simply because we think it is a virtuous thing to do. The practice has two important functions. First, it helps connect us with others and with ourselves. Giving creates a relationship between the giver and receiver, so acts of generosity help us to learn more about the nature of our relationships. It also develops those relationships. …

Second, through the practice of generosity we begin to understand where we are closed, where we are holding back, where we feel our fear. We learn what keeps us from being generous. We take on the practice to see where we resist it.

And then we can start to see what separates us from others; why do we fear opening our hearts? Why is our sense of needing to protect ourselves so strong? The practice of generosity is not dangerous because we are not relying on any particular response from the donee. Whether our gifts are recognized or explicitly welcomed becomes irrelevant because it’s the purity of our intention that bestows meaning on the act of giving.

Some of us have more than enough money to live on and might be inclined to give carelessly rather than from a spirit of chage. Those of us who have fewer financial resources might look for non-monetary ways to be generous. It doesn’t have to be formal or challenging. We could just decide to give a smile to everyone who is open to it today. We could be on the lookout for anyone who appears to need help and gently offer it. We could call or visit someone we know to be isolated or lonely. Both giving money and giving time or attention can be done with the intention to open our hearts. Real connections are only formed through openness and exchange.

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Giving makes the mind beautiful

It’s worth thinking about the place that giving has in our lives. How important is it? How do we feel when we give something with no strings attached? How regularly do we practice generosity, and in what context? This is a central question if we are on a spiritual path.

Generosity is the first virtue that the Buddha taught to laypeople. It is the access point for all of the other trainings because it requires us to let go of whatever it is we’re clinging to or relying on. Real generosity is a kind of giving that can only be done with an open heart, and an open heart holds nothing back. It could be called lesson number one in surrendering to things as they are.

There’s a longish sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya, book of sevens, about giving; about all the different motivations that we might have when we give and how each one brings slightly different karmic results. In this sutta, the Buddha is addressing Sariputta, one of his chief disciples, who is asking a question that he wisely perceived would be helpful to some lay followers who were present.

[When someone gives, not with 7 previously named forms of attachment] “—but with the thought, ‘This is an ornament for the mind, a support for the mind’—on the break-up of the body, after death, he reappears in the company of Brahma’s Retinue.

If we accept the premise of this sutta, we will recognize that acts of whole-hearted generosity affect our minds in a positive direction. Giving is the opposite of clinging and trains the mind to seek peace rather than agitation or satisfaction of our desires. It clears the path to deeper concentration and mindfulness. If we are worried about what a gift means, whether the recipient is worthy or will appreciate and reciprocate the gift, we’re clouding the mind. Each gift, whether material, verbal or in another form, if given freely, brings joy. That is one way we can know the quality of our giving.

From Gil Fronsdal:
Although giving for the purposes of helping others is an important part of the motivation and joy of giving, the Buddha considered giving for the purpose of attaining Nibbana as the highest motivation. For this purpose, “one gives gifts to adorn and beautify the mind.” Among these adornments are non-clinging, loving-kindness, and concern for the well-being of others.

Giving can be a remedy for any bad feelings we might have about ourselves. If we make a mistake or fall prey to a bad habit, we can turn our awareness in a different direction, seeking out where we are moved to give; to give time, a smile, a kind word, or something else of value. We can make a habit of giving, in small and large ways, and the rewards will be commensurate.

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Crossing the flood

In this sutta the Buddha explains to a heavenly being how he “crossed the flood”, i.e., how he replaced delusion with deep and complete wisdom (awakening).

Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Savatthi in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapiṇḍika’s Park. Then, when the night had advanced, a certain devatā of stunning beauty, illuminating the entire Jeta’s Grove, approached the Blessed One. Having approached, he paid homage to the Blessed One, stood to one side, and said to him:

“How, dear sir, did you cross the flood?”

“By not halting, friend, and by not straining I crossed the flood.”

“But how is it, dear sir, that by not halting and by not straining you crossed the flood?”

“When I came to a standstill, friend, then I sank; but when I struggled, then I got swept away. It is in this way, friend, that by not halting and by not straining I crossed the flood.”

The devatā:
“After a long time at last I see
A brahmin who is fully quenched,
Who by not halting, not straining,
Has crossed over attachment to the world.”

This is what that devatā said. The Teacher approved. Then that devatā, thinking, “The Teacher has approved of me,” paid homage to the Blessed One and, keeping him on the right, disappeared right there.

SN 1.1 translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

This is a perfect description of sustainable and progressive practice. The Buddha was looking for a way out of dukkha, which for a long time seemed inescapable, but he wouldn’t be deterred. The flood refers to the river of delusion we usually wade in. The Buddha discovered that a steady effort to investigate direct experience without flagging and without pushing was what got him to the breakthrough.

What does this mean for us? “Not straining and not halting” is a model we can attempt to follow, even if we’re new on the path. Some of us have an “all or nothing” personality and tend to strain and struggle to get where or what we want. Others have a “Que sera, sera” attitude and are reluctant to make any effort. Establishing a determined and steady effort without too much or too little energy is a learned skill, in meditation practice and in other life situations. Often, we acquire this skill through trial and error. Over time we see that too much or too little energy produces either frustration or stagnation. The invitation is to bring mindfulness to every experience, pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, and to have firm faith that this steady, in-the-moment effort is what will gradually wear away unwholesome habits and establish wholesome ones. Each of us has to discover the sustainable level of investigation that works best for us.

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We’ve considered the five hindrances. Let’s think about what’s being hindered by the hindrances. One answer could be our commitment to practice or to investigating the Dharma; we  could call commitment the forward motion and the hindrances the backward motion.

What would it mean to commit to the Dharma? It could be analogous to commitment to a relationship or to an exercise regimen. We start by thinking about it, then we get to know it a bit, making small decisions along the way about how interested we are in the person or the activity, whether there is (or might be) satisfaction or fulfillment. Maybe we try it out for a short period and then take stock. Maybe we make a partial commitment, take a break from the effort and then (perhaps) come back to it. Once we’ve made a commitment, we start to appreciate the results and the commitment grows. At some point, we no longer think about whether we should continue or not, we know that life without this commitment is something we don’t want.

When people addicted to tobacco decide to give it up, they (we) often have to quit several or many times. The intention is there, but it’s harder than we expected, so we relapse, but then decide again that we want to do it. It’s often similar with establishing a regular meditation practice. If we stick with it, eventually we can’t remember why we used to relapse.

One way of committing to the Dharma is by making a determination to restart our mindfulness, to check in with our body sensations, again and again during the day. Attention can be with or without wisdom: we could pay attention to things that increase our ignorance or we could give attention to things that increase our wisdom. We can take hold of wholesome or unwholesome thoughts, words, and deeds, e.g., compassionate vs. angry.

Adhiṭṭhāna is a Pali word that reflects commitment. It was probably a later addition to the canon as one of the ten perfections. What does it mean? From the New Concise Pali Dictionary: support, basis; standpoint; abode; determination, resolution; fixing the mind on; determining, controlling, taking (formal) possession of, or (from the PTS Pali-English Dictionary) decision, resolution, self-determination, will.

We could say that adhiṭṭhāna is a Pali word for commitment.

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