In previous articles about meditation I have discussed the benefits I have experienced by committing to a regular meditation practice and an introduction to mantras. Another technique that can be used while meditating is to focus on compassion. In this article I will introduce the concept of compassion meditation and explore some simple ways to incorporate it into your own meditation practice.
What is Compassion Meditation?
The practice of cultivating compassion during meditation is extremely beneficial. Unlike some other types of meditation, compassion meditation always involves an object of focus, rather than simply a general feeling of loving-kindness or goodwill. Without this focus on an object—which could be another person or the meditator—the compassion would seem shallow and the meditator would not reach the same potential as they are able to when directing their feelings of compassion toward a specific object. The concept of compassion reflects the wisdom that all things are interconnected with one another, and it quite naturally leads toward feeling connected with the rest of the universe.
How Does Compassion Meditation Help?
Developing a sense of compassion can help us connect more deeply and easily with others and ourselves, consider whether our day-to-day actions are all that wise after all, and understand and care for others instead of disliking or judging them. Compassion meditation can help you learn to stay present with the suffering that you face each day without getting overwhelmed.
This sense of compassion can be extended into concrete actions like giving money to disaster relief efforts, donating time and effort at a local food bank or homeless shelter, or lending an ear for listening or a shoulder to cry on to someone who is going through a difficult time. As you can see, there are myriad benefits to developing compassion. This type of meditation can help even the least empathetic person learn how to appreciate how others feel, which will go a long way toward healing the world.
Five Compassion Meditations
The following meditations are listed in order of difficulty, and can be helpful to become familiar with the easier meditations before tackling the more difficult ones. As you develop experience with each meditation, you can then assess whether you feel ready to move on to the next one. The typical advice for other types of meditation applies with compassion meditation, such as finding a quiet and peaceful location and sitting in a comfortable position.
Developing compassion takes time for the majority of people, so do not get discouraged if you are not getting it right away. The important thing to focus on is making sure that you are sincere, lest you develop a sense of false compassion instead of true compassion. With that said, if you find it more difficult to develop compassion for yourself or a loved one than it would be to develop compassion for a neutral person, then it may be more beneficial for your to change the order in which you practice these meditations. Many people have great difficulty showing compassion to themselves, so if you are one of them please do not think that you are alone—just change this order to fit your needs.
Compassion for Oneself
- It can be very difficult for some people to develop compassion for themselves. If you feel that this meditation will be more difficult for you than one of the following meditations, feel free to begin with one of them instead.
- When you are ready to begin a self-compassion meditation, it can help to start by identifying qualities you possess that you are grateful for, like your warm generosity or your beautiful smile. Another helpful thing to focus on is any act that you have performed recently that fill you with the feeling of love. It can take time to begin to feel any forgiveness or appreciation for yourself—for some people this may take weeks, months, or even years—so be patient with yourself.
- After you have generated a feeling of loving-kindness for yourself, you can then begin to think of a time that you have suffered, such as a difficult breakup or when you were struggling in a strained relationship. Pay attention to how you feel while you are reflecting. And after a short time, redirect your energy to the wish that your suffering will soon end.
- You can even recite a positive mantra that helps you to stay focused, such as "May I be free from this suffering," or "May I have joy and happiness." Following your meditation, dedicate your session to the benefit of all sentient beings.
Compassion for a Loved One
- Picture someone who is close to you, someone toward whom you have a great deal of love. Pay attention to how that love feels in your heart. You may feel a sensation of warmth, openness, or tenderness. Continue breathing easily and focus on these feelings as you visualize your loved one. You may choose to envision a golden light flowing from your heart to this person with each exhalation, bringing them peace and happiness.
- Now reflect on a time when this person was suffering, perhaps from an illness or injury. Notice how you feel when thinking of their suffering. You may continue to feel the positive emotions that you previously experienced, however you may begin to feel something negative like aching or sadness. Try to imagine with all your heart that you wish them freedom from suffering.
- You may recite a wish or prayer to take away their suffering, like "May you be content," or "May you live with ease." Following your meditation, dedicate your session to the benefit of all sentient beings.
Compassion for a Neutral Person
- The focus of this meditation can be anyone that you do not feel any strong feelings toward, such as a classmate or grocery store clerk. The person that you choose to focus on should be someone that you see regularly, but not someone who you greatly like or dislike. Even though you do not have a personal connection with them, you can still develop compassion for them.
- You can begin by thinking about how this person may suffer in their own life. They may be struggling with addiction or suffering from bullying, for example. Imagine a situation that would cause this person to suffer and begin to visualize it in your mind's eye. Sit with the feeling that this causes for a moment, and then put all of your energy into wishing them joy and happiness and an end to their suffering.
- You may wish to silently offer phrases of compassion to them, saying things like "May you be free of pain and sorrow," or "May you be healthy and happy." You are free to alter the sayings so that they fit your own way of speaking or use any that have any personal significance. Following your meditation, dedicate your session to the benefit of all sentient beings.
Compassion for an Enemy
- Now you can progress to developing compassion for someone that you have difficulty with in your life. This could be a parent or child that you have been arguing with lately, a boss who you do not get along with, or a roommate that is not doing their fair share of chores.
- Even though you have negative feelings toward this person, begin thinking of how this person has suffered in their own life. You may have firsthand knowledge of their suffering—perhaps they lost someone they love or have recently been laid off. Visualize this person experiencing their suffering, and note how it makes you feel to witness it. Sit with that feeling for a moment, and then begin to cultivate compassion toward them. See if you can grow this feeling to be as strong as when you developed compassion for your loved one. If you are struggling to feel compassion toward this person, think of any positive interactions that you have had with them in the past that would help you wish them joy and happiness, such as times when you got along or laughed together.
- You may wish to send them some positive vibes, thinking things like "May your health improve soon," or "May you have success at school." Following your meditation, dedicate your session to the benefit of all sentient beings.
Compassion for All Sentient Beings
- This is the noblest form of compassion meditation; it is also the most difficult. In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, the concept of bodhicitta is extremely important. Bodhicitta is essentially the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. Mayahana practitioners set the cultivation of bodhicitta as a primary goal for their practice—everything in life is done in order to seek enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
- Expanding on the above meditations, the compassion meditation for all sentient beings includes the task of developing compassion for every single sentient being in the universe. This will be much easier to do after you have progressed through the previous meditations. Simply hold the concept of suffering in your mind and generate the feeling of goodwill toward all sentient beings. Then, send it outward to as far as you can possibly imagine. Really focus on putting as much positive energy into this act as possible, while remaining relaxed and mindful. And remember: this meditation will be most powerful when it is performed with true sincerity.
- You can generate good karma by living your life with the honest intention of attaining enlightenment for the purpose of helping others. One way of doing that is finish your meditation by reciting prayers such as, "May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering", or "May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness." Following your meditation, dedicate your session to the benefit of all sentient beings.
It can be helpful to practice compassion meditation intuitively. The practice will likely be difficult at times for most people—even painful for some. This practice is not intended to make the practitioner feel that they are responsible for solving all of the world's problems, but rather to greet each moment with a compassionate heart. Relax as much as possible, be gentle with yourself, and breathe naturally. With each time that you practice compassion meditation, you are healing the world in a small way. Go easy on yourself and others, and good luck.