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Cultivating Compassion: Meditation For Better Relationships

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A long time ago, I came across this joke:

Once, a disciple asked, "Master, is associating with people half the holy life?"

The Master replied, "No, associating with people is the whole of holy life".

This joke probably started as a misreading of the famous Upaddah Sutta in Buddhism, where the Buddha told Ananda that friendships with "admirable people" is not half of holy life, but the whole of holy life. Over time, however, I found the humorous apocryphal version to be deeply insightful. There are at least two components to one's spiritual practice, Wisdom and Compassion, and associating with people, especially in difficult situations, helps us grow Compassion. Therefore, you probably cannot live a holy life without associating with people.

I have found three practices to be extremely useful in helping me deal with people.

The first practice is a combination of "Just Like Me" meditation and Loving-Kindness meditation. There are three premises behind this practice. The first is that when we perceive somebody as being similar to ourselves ("just like me"), we become much more likely to feel and act positively towards that person. The second is that kind and loving thoughts towards another can be generated volitionally. The third premise is that mental habits can be formed with practice, so if we spend time and effort creating thoughts of similarity-to-others and loving kindness, over time, these thoughts get generated habitually and effortlessly, and once you equipped yourself with that mental disposition, people start liking you even more, and you become more likely to have satisfying relationships that contribute greatly to everybody's happiness.

The practice itself is very simple. In formal meditation, I would ask my fellow meditators to sit in pairs and I would guide with this script:

Become aware that there is a person in front of me. A fellow human being, just like me.

Let us now consider a few things:

This person has a body and a mind, just like me.
This person has feelings, emotions and thoughts, just like me.
This person has at some point been sad, disappointed, angry, hurt or confused, just like me.
This person has in his or her life, experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me.
This person wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.
This person wishes to be safe, healthy and loved, just like me.
This person wishes to be happy, just like me.

Now, let's allow some wishes to arise:

I wish for this person to have the strength, resources, and social support to navigate the difficulties in life.
I wish for this person to be free from pain and suffering
I wish for this person to be happy.
Because this person is a fellow human being, just like me.

In real life, I have found this practice to be tremendously powerful in healing relationships. Whenever I have a major conflict with somebody, I would find an excuse to leave the room and after I'm sufficiently calmed, I would recollect that person in my mind and do the above exercise. By the time I'm done, at least half my anger would be gone. It's a very useful practice, both at home and at work.

The second practice is something I call "Multiplying Goodness". It is an adaptation of the Tibetan tonglen practice. In tonglen, you breathe in suffering (of self and others), transform it within your heart, and breathe out relief (to self and others). We found tonglen too difficult for our students, so I made a change to it. Instead of breathing in suffering, you breathe in goodness (of self and others), multiply it in your heart by 10 times, and then breathe out all that goodness to the world. The idea is to use mental visualization to create these three mental habits:

1. Instinctively see goodness in self and others.
2. Become confident in multiplying goodness.
3. Create desire to give goodness to the world.

In formal meditation, I would guide with this script:

Connect with the goodness within ourselves, our capacity for love, compassion, altruism, and inner joy. If you wish, you may visualize your goodness radiating out of your body as a faint white light.

When you breathe in, breathe in all your goodness into your heart. Use your heart to multiply that goodness by a factor of 10. And when you breathe out, give all that goodness out to the whole world. If you wish, you may visualize yourself breathing out a brilliant white light representing this abundance of goodness.

Now, let us connect with the goodness within everybody in this room. Everybody in the room is a good person, possessing some goodness. (Repeat above)....

Finally, let us connect with the goodness within everybody in the world. Everybody in the world possesses at least a hint of goodness. (Repeat above)....

This practice helps us gain confidence in our own inner goodness and equips us with the mental disposition to see goodness in others. The ability to perceive underlying goodness in all even in difficult situations affords us the inner resources to calm ourselves and others in those situations.

The final practice is a mantra I created for myself that summarizes many of my practices. The mantra is, "Love them, understand them, forgive them, grow with them". Whenever I find myself in a difficult situation involving other people, I would silently repeat the mantra to myself. I found that it works especially well with children and bosses.

My friend, Rigel, suggested that my mantra may also apply to magic mushrooms. Very funny, Rigel.

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