What compels some people to act compassionately without giving it a second thought, while for others it almost seems against their nature? And what will become of our society if compassion dwindles?
According to Buddhist thought, compassion is society, and esteemed Buddhist scholar Jeffrey Hopkins knows that by learning to live from a more compassionate viewpoint, we can create a better life not only for ourselves but for others. Cultivating Compassion is his eloquent, practical guide to tapping our own potential for caring and processing the thoughts and beliefs that interfere with our ability to interact with others in a meaningful, positive way. Through Buddhist meditations (including the Dalai Lama's favorite), visualizations, and entertaining recollections from his personal journey to more compassionate living, Hopkins guides us in developing an awareness of our capacity for love, and in learning to project that love into the world.
Delivering a potent message with the power to change relationships and improve the quality of life, Cultivating Compassion is the ideal book for an age in which interactions with others seem increasingly impersonaland even violent and aggressive. Anyone seeking release from negative emotions such as anger, or simply wanting to increase love and caring, will welcome this timely vision for humanity.
About the Author:
Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D., served as the interpreter to the Dalai Lama for a decade. A Buddhist scholar and the author of more than twenty books and translations, he is Professor of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia, where he founded the largest academic program of Tibetan Buddhism studies in the West. He lives in Charlottesville.
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Read an Excerpt
Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to keep track of your thoughts? The mind wanders so easily from the topic we want to keep it on. It even may seem that the mind is, in its own nature, like bubbles on a river or a ball floating in a stream. Actually, the nature of the mind is like the water—not the bubbles or ripples on the surface or the movement but just the water itself. Nevertheless, because of our addiction to the superficial appearances of things, we feel that the mind naturally goes from one thing to another. It is as though we are in a bus and the driver takes us wherever she wants, at which point we decide that wherever we have arrived is a nice place to be. This is what makes it difficult to engage in practice like unbiased compassion that opposes the conditioned flow of the mind.
Since an attitude such as unbiased compassion, which runs against the grain of our usual outlook, is not easy, it has to be cultivated in meditation. Gradually, feeling develops, and then the felt attitude comes with only slight effort, and eventually it arises naturally and spontaneously. You practice in this way until compassion and altruism seem to form even the very stuff of your body.
It takes long meditation over months and years for new attitudes such as profoundly felt compassion to be sufficiently strong to remain of their own accord. Therefore, in the initial stages, the test of success is incremental progress, slight changes in daily behavior. Even with effective meditation, in which strong experience is gained during the session, it is easy—outside of the session—to fall back into old attitudes in the midst of daily activities.
Unskilled meditators, based on what is indeed an overpoweringly deep experience during a session of meditation, sometimes cannot face that they so easily fall back into old habits. Some even make the outrageous claim that the desire or the hatred that arises outside of or even during meditation is spiritually driven, somehow consistent with their new insights. However, the reversion to familiar patterns needs to be recognized as just what it is: we're used to our old ways and slip back into them, perhaps even more powerfully now that we have, through meditation, gained a more focused mind. Such reversion shows only that we need a sense of humor and more meditation.
The Tibetan word for meditation is sgom pa (pronounced "gom pa"). In a play on words, it's said that meditation (sgom pa) means familiarization (goms pa), both s's being unpronounced. Thus, meditation means familiarize with, get used to, become a habit. You are seeking to regularize the practice so that it has a chance to affect everyday behavior, and to accomplish this, short periods of meditation are much better than long ones. The reason is that an intensity of purpose can be retained throughout a short session. When you do a long period of meditation without intensity, you're getting accustomed to—habituating yourself to—dullness. So, frequent short periods of cultivation are best.
There are very few people who have cultivated compassion so strongly in former lives that, when they sit down to cultivate it in this life, the meditation flows like a stream, with no obstruction at all. Even if we are drawn to the meditation, we extend compassion to our friends easily and to people toward whom we are neutral not so easily, but when we get to the people we dislike, the meditation becomes knotty. Essentially, we fake it. The only way it can become genuine and spontaneous is through training—through getting used to it. Part of developing familiarity is learning to realize as consciously as possible how the attitude we are cultivating seems to disagree with the present drift of our minds. If we merely placed a superficial overlay of thought on top of our actual feelings, we would not transform them but repress them. Repression doesn't work. What we avoid comes out in some other way and becomes the very thing that ruins the chance to make the perspective we are cultivating spontaneous. We have to face what we dislike. Often, however, we practice our dislikes so strongly that we cannot set them aside even for a moment. Many of us have a strained relationship with our parents, but there was a time when Mommy and Daddy were the greatest things in the whole universe. What keeps us from remembering them like that even for a few moments? The continual destructive thoughts that we habitually direct toward them.
Thus, it's important to keep in mind that developing compassion takes a tremendous amount of training of the mind with incremental progress. Although in meditation there are often sudden leaps to truly grand feelings, they are temporary. What is important over the long run is a steady progression. A good way to facilitate this progress is through discussing and sharing obstacles and successes with others. I often conduct group sessions in which I lead people through the series of meditations starting with equanimity and culminating in generating compassion. We do a particular exercise and then I'll ask, "What new feelings did you have?" From someone else's description of success, you may intuit how to break through a blockage about a person toward whom you can't even think, "That person wants happiness and doesn't want suffering." By hearing about and thus imagining another's success, it increases your own progress. If you are bored with trying to cultivate compassion toward people who are neutral to you—who have neither helped nor harmed you—it can be most helpful and inspiring to hear from another person who is having just the opposite experience: "Wow! It was amazing to extend the recognition of wanting happiness and not wanting suffering to so-and-so at work." Furthermore, when you, as a participant, talk about your own blocks, the very fact that you bring up a block as a difficult situation opens your mind to moving toward a solution. Talking out the obstacles usually doesn't remove them, but it does start a movement toward amelioration.
Occasionally you might even get stuck in a stupor and wonder, "What am I doing here? What is it I was doing?" It might take time for you to remember, "Oh, I was supposed to be cultivating compassion." Whenever you find that your mind has wandered, bring it gently back to the topic. Don't be ashamed, but also don't react with pride or fancy that somehow your mind decided that the meditation was not worthwhile and deliberately wandered either to another topic or into blankness. Just turn your mind back to the topic.
If you are worried about adding a regular practice to your already hectic routine, rest assured that meditating on compassion need not take up hours of your day. When I first went to Dharamsala, India, in 1972, the Dalai Lama was teaching the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, and in the midst of the series of lectures he conducted a refuge ceremony that subsequently required all of us to take refuge in Buddha, his doctrine, and the spiritual community six times a day through thoughtful repetition of a formula: "I go for refuge to Buddha, his doctrine, and the spiritual community until I am enlightened. Through the merit of my charity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, may I achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all beings." Initially I thought, "How can I possibly take refuge six times a day? I don't have enough time." However, refuge is very fast; it's ridiculous to think I wouldn't have time for it. Of course I had time for it. It's just that I wasn't used to it. It takes all of fifteen seconds. And six times—you could even do six in a row, and it would still only take a minute and a half! Anyone can find three minutes here and there throughout the day to practice compassion.