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A CALL TO COMPASSION
Bringing Buddhist Practices of the Heart into the Soul of Psychology
By AURA GLASER
NICOLAS-HAYS, INC.Copyright © 2005 Aura Glaser
All rights reserved.
A PSYCHOLOGY OF COMPASSION
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Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.
Compassion is the basis of connection, intimacy, openness, kindness, hospitality, and joy. It is an expression of human freedom, flowing from a sound intuition of the unity of life and all living things. "Even when we are physically alone and experiencing loneliness we are still essentially with others; indeed, the very fact that we can feel lonely indicates that participation is a basic structural element in our being." Our connection to others does not negate our aloneness. We are simultaneously separate and in relation, and these two truths are ultimately revealed as coexistent and non-contradictory. We are, in the very midst of our aloneness, inextricably connected to others.
This dimension of being does not derive from external factors. We are by nature embedded in relationship with the world, in all its sorrow and beauty. Jung commented on this, saying, "The individual is not just a single separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship."
Compassion is at once both deeply personal and thoroughly social. It is the finest expression of our relationship to self and others. It begins with a willingness to open to ourselves and to life as it is. Instead of rejecting one part of life and grasping at another, compassion moves closer to all of life. It resolves the continual struggle against reality by fostering a willingness to be unconditionally present to the whole range of human experience. Compassion is, in part, a practice of unconditional presence. Being unconditionally present means not only seeing ourselves and others, but feeling ourselves and others. Unconditional presence is both receptive and penetrating, it is both discerning and tender-hearted. Like the sun, it simultaneously illuminates and warms.
Compassion dissolves barriers and distance. Unlike pity, "compassion has the quality of respect." Respect for others comes from a sure knowledge of both our closeness with others and our likeness to them. The Dalai Lama, in his appeal at the end of Ethics for the New Millennium, makes this point by reminding us of the profound similarity we have to others, and the respect we need to cultivate toward those who are downtrodden, impoverished, or beleaguered. "Try not to think of yourself as better than even the humblest beggar," he entreats. "You will look the same in your grave."
Compassion is the foundation, process, and goal of psychological health and wholeness. It grounds and guides us, and is the fruit of psychological work. Joseph Campbell refers to it as "the purpose of the journey." He then adds that "once you have come past the pair of opposites you have reached compassion." Arriving past the pair of opposites marks the apex of Jung's psychological goal of individuation. According to Jung, this goal is achieved through what he called the transcendent function, or a "quality of conjoined opposites." Conjoining the opposites or arriving past them are simply different ways of describing the same thing. In either case, a dynamic unity emerges out of what was before a warring tension. Drawing on Jung's alchemical metaphor for this phenomenon, we could say that compassion is the alchemical vessel holding the turbulent prima materia. Compassion transforms the original base substance, and compassion is the purified gold that results.
Freud, Jung, and Depth Psychology
Freud and Jung are towering psychological masters whose explorations and insights shaped the first 100 years of depth psychology. They devoted their lives to studying the multivalent terrain of human nature, and to caring for the suffering soul. While Freud and Jung were both remarkably independent and innovative thinkers, they were still deeply influenced by the cultural milieu in which they lived. The philosophical moorings of depth psychology reveal a dynamic tension between the conflicting perspectives of Enlightenment and Romanticism. Both Freud and Jung developed their psychological theories out of the crosscurrents of these divergent worldviews.
Freud has been called "the last great representative of the Enlightenment" and "the first to demonstrate its limitations." He championed reason as the supreme human endowment, and simultaneously embraced the artistic and imaginative impulse so celebrated by the Romantics. Freud was pulled between the imaginal and the rational, and his theories reflect this. His work is suffused with images of struggle and ultimately irreconcilable conflict between opposing forces.
Freud perceived an innate aggressive streak in human beings that was forever opposed by an equally powerful Eros. These two impulses, one toward life and the other toward death, were engaged in eternal battle within the human psyche. Bruno Bettelheim describes Freud's conviction that "the good life—or, at least the best life available to man, the most enjoyable and most meaningful—consists of being able truly to love not oneself, but others." This belief in the importance of loving others was coupled, however, with Freud's view that positive states such as love and compassion were the result of either the suppression or sublimation of narcissistic, selfish motives, and were therefore always fraught with struggle. For Freud, there was simply no transcending the pull of opposites; there was only learning to manage them skillfully.
Jung's analytic psychology also rests upon a theory of opposites, but unlike Freud, Jung believed these opposites were ultimately reconcilable through the process of individuation. In general, Jung held a more optimistic view of human nature and its potential. Distancing himself from Freud, whom he accused of focusing too narrowly on weird and neurotic states, he said, "For my part, I prefer to look at man in light of what in him is healthy and sound." Furthermore, Jung believed the impulse toward health and wholeness was intrinsic to human life, because "within the soul from its primordial beginnings there has been a desire for light and an irrepressible urge to rise out of the primal darkness."
Yet, despite the intimate connection it has with suffering and its alleviation, neither Freud nor Jung concentrated their far-reaching and formidable intellectual powers on the subject of compassion, or more specifically on methods for developing it.
Tibetan Buddhism and Inner Transformation
While compassion has been largely ignored in the field of depth psychology, it has been the main theme of study and practice in Tibetan Buddhism for over 1000 years. I have never come across a single instruction within this infinitely varied and rich tradition in which compassion and its development are not in some way central.
Protected by geographic remoteness and encircling mountains, Tibet exists in an environment not unlike an alchemical vessel. The contents of this vessel are the concentrated study and cultivation of conjoined compassion and wisdom. Tens of thousands of Tibet's finest minds devoted themselves, over many centuries, to this endeavor. Unlike the modern West, where outer progress and military prowess were pursued with zeal, Tibet's passion was directed toward cultivating the soul of the individual. Robert Thurman observes that this concentration on individuals' evolutionary potential contributed to a "unique social and psychological creation, which I call inner, or spiritual modernity, an exact mirror of the outer, or secular modernity just taking off in the Western Enlightenment" Here, Thurman says, "The soul was thought of as a subtle, relative, totally and inextricably interconnected process, powerfully influencing and influenced by its environment." And the primary therapy for the soul was altruism grown out of love and compassion.
James Hillman notes that the "insights of depth psychology derive from the soul in extremis, the sick, suffering, abnormal and fantastic conditions of the psyche." This parallels the insights of Buddhism to a point, but with an important distinction. While the principal insights of Buddhism give significant attention to states of suffering and sorrow, they are not derived from it, 'but from those who have achieved the most extreme states of awareness, compassion and health."
Suffering is emphasized in Buddhism because we are caught in it, and we suffer it. The true message of Buddhism, however, is not a message of suffering—it is a proclamation of freedom. Our innate capacity for freedom and joy are the heart of the Buddha's realization and the foundation of his teaching, and they form the basis of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist psychology. In Tibet, all three paths of Buddhist teaching were preserved and practiced as a graded path, with each level transcending and including the other. These three paths, or "vehicles," are commonly referred to as Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, although there are also other ways of classifying them.
An individual following the Theravadan path focuses on uprooting ignorance—the cause of suffering—and attaining the personal liberation of an Arhat. In the Theravadan tradition, also known as the Way of the Elders, compassion for the suffering of others is certainly cultivated, but the goal is individual liberation from suffering through the realization of wisdom.
The Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, subsumes all the basic principles and practices of the Theravada, but adjusts the focus to others and the aim to total enlightenment. This vehicle stresses the view that we can never be completely free as long as others to whom we are inextricably linked suffer. Mahayana practitioners are not concerned with "ordinary liberation" for themselves, but rather commit themselves to total enlightenment—thereby fulfilling the purpose of both self and other. The lojong text and practice introduced later belong to the Mahayana teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Vajrayana, or Diamond Vehicle, is a Mahayana path that introduces an elaborate combination of meditation and visualization techniques intended to accelerate the process of transformation by which an individual may reach complete enlightenment.
Tibetan Buddhism uses the fully awakened state as a blueprint for optimal health, encouraging those who practice to set their sights here. A vision of totality, of complete awakening for the benefit of all beings, inspires individuals to aim for the development of unconditional and unlimited compassion and wisdom. Methods for deepening insight and developing compassion are inseparable from the committed effort to transform habitually painful states.
In contrast to this approach, the intentional cultivation of innate mental health is not generally found in psychology. Mental illness is far more studied and better understood than mental health. Walsh and Vaughan note that, "whereas conventional Western therapies have excellent techniques for reducing negative emotions, they have virtually none for enhancing positive ones." Jung also noted the unfortunate absence of such methodology in the field of depth psychology, and called for his colleagues to find a "bridge" to "self-development."
Among the obstacles to finding such a bridge has been the distinction made by depth psychologists between the heart and the mind. Western civilization has long separated the spheres of heart and mind, relegating thinking and reason to the mind, and emotion and feeling to the heart. This may, in part, explain the absence of words like compassion from most of the literature of depth psychology. Commitment to an affiliation with science and medicine prompted many of the pioneers in the field to distance themselves from subjects that might suggest a departure from, or contamination of, the "pure" reason applied in the natural sciences. Even Jung, who was accused of being mystical and "unreasonable" by many of his detractors, always defended the scientific empiricism of his work, wanting to be seen by his peers as a man of science.
Despite a movement that had long been underway to distinguish between human/inner science and natural/outer science, Freud and Jung were trained as physicians, and both men sought medical and "outer science" credibility. Following his split with Freud, Otto Rank denounced what he called Freud's excessive preoccupation with reason, saying that the dynamic and creative principle of irrationality is the "basis for the emergence of everything of which mankind is capable in personal and social betterment."
In Tibetan Buddhism, this conflict between inner and outer science does not exist. Inner science is viewed as legitimate and empirically verifiable via inner experience, just as outer science is empirically verified by outer means and measures. The development of compassion is within the domain of inner science and depends, not upon the irrational, but upon sound thinking and reasoning. Thus, the particular strength of the Buddhist teaching is that "it shows you clearly the 'logic' of compassion." The heart, from a Buddhist perspective, is not without reason; it is the "place" of a higher reason. Moreover, the same term—chitta—is used for both mind and heart.
In Buddhist teachings, the heart is not an adjunct to thinking. It is "a direct presence that allows a complete attunement with reality." Tibetans touch their chests when referring to the mind. They understand the unified heart/mind to mean our most subtle being, our Buddha-nature, the stainless jewel of our innate freedom. Buddha-nature is primordially pure and unconditionally open.
The heart, in this case, is the basis for cultivating both the wisdom that directly perceives the nature of reality and unconditional compassion. The maturation of these two qualities into an integrated and synchronized wisdom and compassion are the principal characteristics of a fully enlightened being. Every individual-in fact, every living being—is endowed with this pure nature, and human beings with wholehearted commitment and skillful guidance can develop this innate quality to an infinite degree.
Primordially pure mind is our innermost and subtlest being, dwelling much deeper than the conditioned personality. It is present in every living being, but is awakened to different degrees within different individuals. The existence of a naturally pure mind does not, however, negate or trivialize the greed, aggression, dissatisfaction, and cruelty found in human beings throughout time. The tension between Eros and Thanatos (death)—yearning and despondency, attraction and repulsion—is a deeply embedded, instinctive pattern within the psyche. There is a colossal struggle between these forces within us, and attending to this dimension of life is crucial.
In this sense, Buddhism and depth psychology are in accord. Buddhism diverges in its contention that a nondual, primordially pure mind reflects our truest and deepest nature. Because of our fundamentally pure nature, we each have in our hearts the potential for unlimited love and compassion. This is the treasure within. If we suddenly discovered a priceless treasure buried beneath our home, we would not delay a moment digging for it. Yet, all too often, we squander the "wish-fulfilling jewel" of our minds.
There are countless texts in the Indo-Tibetan tradition devoted to instructions for developing compassion. I will introduce the Seven Points for Training the Mind, which belongs to a tradition of teachings called lojong, or thought transformation. The origin of the Tibetan Buddhist lojong tradition is attributed to the great Indian Buddhist Master, Atisha (982–1054), who brought these teachings to Tibet. The word "lojong" has two parts: lo means mind, and jong means to train or transform. Lojong trains the mind in practices that induce the qualities of kindness, love, compassion, tolerance, inner strength, and wisdom.
The lojong is a sacred technology—the "technology of peace, the technology to produce love, kindness and open-heartedness." Whereas all the great wisdom traditions teach the value of love and compassion, lojong actually provides a clearly articulated methodology for developing them. It has, thus, been praised as "the most profound form of psychology and the best form of meditation."
For generations, these teachings were passed on in whispered secrecy from master to disciple. Much later, they were written down in a variety of forms, the most widely known being The Root Verses of Seven-Point Mind Training, composed by Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1101–1175). The lojong is now widely taught in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Mind training, or thought transformation, has two primary components: the main instruction, which is given in the form of aphorisms, and the practice of tonglen, which combines giving and receiving with the breath cycle. Inhalation becomes a vehicle for breathing in the suffering of ourselves and others; exhalation gives away the goodness we cling to and hoard. Lojong, which identifies selfish desire—the continual chorus of "me, me, me"—as the shrewd underminer of our happiness, is specifically designed to counteract ingrained selfishness and strengthen the nascent force of compassion.
Excerpted from A CALL TO COMPASSION by AURA GLASER. Copyright © 2005 Aura Glaser. Excerpted by permission of NICOLAS-HAYS, INC..
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