When you don’t feel compassion as you scroll through the daily newsfeed horror show- just be aware of not feeling particularly compassionate.
I have received emails from readers asking whether we can cultivate a mature mindfulness practice and not feel particularly compassionate, especially regarding the state of the world.
The horrors reported on media channels we tune into leave me exhausted, someone writes.
I can’t seem to brace myself to accept, or even try to understand, much of what is happening, writes another.
One could argue whether compassion is an obligation in the forms of Buddhist practice we find today. My concern, though, is compassion seen as obligation can lead to struggle and the thoughts expressed by the readers noted above.
Many of us carry some early conditioning around religion, e.g., to enter the Kingdom we must be pious, kind, compassionate, etc.
And when we come across an Eastern teaching implying compassion is a big deal, we automatically interpret this as something we now have to learn to do, to master.
But what if compassion is not so much a requirement for a mature practice, but the natural welling-up of warmth towards all beings as a result of a maturing practice?
Compassion as a natural welling up differs from compassion as the outcome of effort.
I admit that amid the horror show of images in my newsfeed , the thought arises at times “Shouldn’t I be feeling more compassionate here?”
But what if I notice that thought as just another in a long line of thoughts based on should vs should not, and realize I’d be better off by not shoulding myself?
Let’s back up and unpack this.
- I was scrolling through a newsfeed and saw pictures of dozens of corpses strewn about a town in Libya devastated last week by a huge typhoon.
- The thought arises “I really should really feel more compassionate than I seem to be feeling right now” (especially after what happened on Maui).
- I start thinking I’m not much of a Buddhist meditator, and I’ll never make any progress.
Our insight meditation comes to the rescue at the third juncture above- where we convince ourselves that if we don’t feel compassion for the pain of others we have no hope of ever progressing on this path.
Hopefully, our mindfulness kicks in and asks: Can we simply make room for whatever arises?
This is a point I find myself coming back to again and again, from different angles and approaches, until I get this: this path is all about mindfulness.
And living and breathing mindfulness is a lifelong practice.
As our mindfulness practice matures, when thoughts like these arise, we don’t take the bait.
When we think we should feel a certain way, rather than focus on the “should” and descend into self-judgment, we stay at the level of noting the should and its subtle effects on the organism, e.g., a tightness in the belly, or a subtle fear creeping in.
As we do this we catch a break. We step out of our conditioning for a few blessed moments.
The secret to a mature spiritual practice?
Make room for, and be attentive to, whatever arises without getting entangled.
When we don’t feel particularly compassionate as we scroll through the daily newsfeed horror show- just be aware of not feeling compassionate.
Stay with that awareness and explore its tendrils in the body and mind and notice how it changes and morphs moment by moment.
There might come a moment when the repulsion fades, just be aware of that. If compassion wells up, be aware of that. And if it doesn’t, it’s not really your concern.
The contemporary Burmese teacher U Tejaniya frequently talks about this central issue. Here he is recently speaking to retreatants:
“There’s almost a mantra in the way I teach,” Sayadaw says.
We’re not practicing to make things happen in the mind, such as equanimity, or to make things go away, such as fear or uncertainty. Rather, we practice observing things as they are happening, and to understand how things are from this close observation.Practice As Usual
Just stay with mindfulness- it’s your refuge.
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