I wanted to share a fairly simple observation from teaching this week, related to the meditation practices that focus on the development of compassion, such as metta and tonglen. It's interesting that if we see a great athlete or yogi, or just someone in prime physical condition, we have a tendency to think that this person has gone through an immense amount of training and work to get in that condition. We say things like, "I wonder where they work out" or "I wonder where they practice."
At the very least, we are interested in how they got to be in such great shape, and we know intensive training was part of their process. We have a slightly lessened tendency to think of their condition as totally given -- we know they must have done some work to now be able to run that far or flip up into that handstand, even if their current condition is also the result of lots of natural gifts.
When we are in the presence of a really kind or compassionate person who smiles a lot, there seems to be a greater tendency to say things like, "they're just a really great guy," to perceive kindness and compassion as self-existing traits that a person either possesses or else, just kind of doesn't have. We don't think, "Oh, they must've really worked out their heart and mind for a long time to get in that kind of place." We also wouldn't say that all the jerks we perceive are just out of shape!
However, from the Buddhist standpoint, any time you see a person you think is kind and compassionate, it's actually the heart/mind equivalent of seeing a great athlete. You are witnessing the results of repetitive training in a heart muscle. That kind person is not that way by accident; they struggled with their mind a tremendous amount in order to be able to perform the act of that helpful smile.
One reason for this tendency seems to be a lack of a type of moral education in our culture related to this type of compassionate "heart fitness," if you will. We just don't put the development of compassion on the same par as the development of our bodies. Sadly, some Buddhist teachers tend to further this view that there's not much to be done to actualize or develop our kindness when they say things like "there is no goal in meditation practice, etc." The idea that practice has no markers of progress, that we aren't training to become more compassionate, that we shouldn't develop any interest in building our compassion muscles, are allquite dubious claims from the standpoint of Buddhist psychology. They are dubious at least in regards to the teachings of relative truth and our mind's ability to cultivate positive qualities. Simply put, the idea that "practice has no goal" is not really a teaching of Buddhist meditation, even if it contains the great wisdom that we ought to relinquish our fixation on specific quick-fix outcomes that arise out of a type of self-aggression and obsession.
A second reason for this lack of viewing compassion as something we can train in like an athlete may be that we like to engage in laziness around any form of fitness. If we allow ourselves to believe that compassionate people just "are that way," without any work, without serious development both on and off the cushion, then we abdicate responsibility for our own mental fitness, which takes a lot of work. If we believe we can't "do" anything to become kinder, it means we don't have to do anything. And really, who wants to work anyway.
Next time you do loving kindness or tonglen meditation, imagine for just a short moment before you begin that your cushion is a yoga mat or a treadmill, and see if that changes your outlook on compassion practice at all.
Follow Ethan Nichtern on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ethannichtern