(published on Elephant Journal)
I used to get so pissed off.
Not about sensible stuff: politicians lying, people trashing the environment or casual sexism. I mean the kind of pissed off that comes from being scared, anxious and clueless.
I was at uni then, struggling with essays, getting angry because I couldn’t understand text books and getting annoyed with boys who always seemed to let me down.
I’d heard meditation was supposed to be all peaceful and lovely so I thought I’d give it a go.
Mindfulness definitely didn’t lead straight to peacefulness. In fact, learning to meditate almost left me more pissed off than before. I saw my thoughts and feelings more clearly, but I didn’t know what the heck to do with them.
When I meditated it went something like this:
“Man my back hurts…stop getting distracted…pay attention to breathing…ugh, why am I even here?…I need to finish that essay and prep for next week…but I said I’d go out with Tasha…pay attention, stop getting distracted.”
Sometimes I’d get pissed off with being pissed off—a kind of meta-pissed off-ness.
Sometimes my inner voice could get really harsh, whispering, “Everyone else finds essays easy, what’s wrong with you?”
Luckily, one day I stumbled into a compassion meditation class.
At first it seemed pretty ‘woo woo’—what was all this talk of love about? But slowly, just as I noticed that mindfulness helped me feel calm, I began to notice that as I kept practicing compassion things were shifting things too.
By now I was back writing essays—this time for my masters—and fitting it around a full time job with lots of public peaking. It was full on.
But this time I enjoyed it.
When I was finding things tough I could relate to myself like a friend. Cheesy but true.
It was like my sister turning to me with this lovely look of gentle concern that she has and asking,“Dude, you okay?” And just as I do in real life, I’d smile and take a deep sigh of relief. “Someone cares. I’m not alone, it’s going to be okay.”
I saw myself more clearly.
Noticing how often I wanted to do well just to please someone else or validate myself, instead I began to understand what I really needed: fulfillment, curiosity, love.
Instead of seeing it as a chore (like going to the gym—something I knew I’d feel glad of but didn’t relish), I began to feel in awe of simply being alive in the unfolding texture of the present.
Instead of feeling bored, worried I wasn’t doing it right, or getting pissed off with a teacher, I just enjoyed simply being for a few minutes.
I could be more mindful because I could be more compassionate. The more I practiced, the stronger both got.
I noticed I had more empathy and patience, even for difficult people. Even the people I loved most but often found so frustrating. (Okay, I don’t always manage to be patient!)
But if a friend was in trouble, instead of trying to solve their problem or smother them with love, I could just be there—totally present, really listening, alive to them so they wouldn’t have to be alone in this.
It shifted how I related to, well, the whole world. I used to get really upset by the news—reports of genocide, rape as a weapon of war, indigenous people getting screwed over. I’d cry my eyes out, feeling sad, powerless knackered.
But as I practiced compassion meditation, I began to realize that all too often I was imagining myself and my family into the issue. Instead of simply putting myself into someone else’s shoes, I was getting overwhelmed with empathetic distress, which didn’t serve anyone.
Now when I’m faced with tragedies, I feel a concern so deep for the people affected that it often still spurs anger at systems supporting horrors.
But now I’m able to channel that anger.
I might well cry, but I’m more clear headed and open hearted. It’s the very least these people deserve. It’s also the only way I can open my mind to what I can do to change things for the better.
When these discussions come up in the compassion classes I facilitate, sometimes I take a deep breath, as if looking over a precipice—‘Whoa, this is really full on’.
I often still feel unprepared; our society doesn’t offer many spaces to explore the profound.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why ‘the west’ has overlooked compassion meditation and focused on mindfulness, even though they’re traditionally called the two wings of meditation.
Meditation is always an act of compassion and mindfulness, both for ourselves and for the people who might have been on the receiving end of whatever was about to hit the fan.
Although—before I introduced compassion—mindfulness helped me see feelings and thoughts better, I was like a bird with only one wing working. I’d flap around furiously, getting pissed off and going nowhere. Other people find they can get dogmatic, dried out without the lightness compassion brings.
But likewise, compassion without mindfulness and wisdom tends towards idiot compassion—a genius Buddhist term. It’s the kind of compassion that leads to inaction, naive idealism, or throwing money at a problem.
These are all problems rife in western society, be it our own lives or across our critical systems.
I won’t pretend for one moment to know it all. But I do think we badly need to strengthen both our mindfulness and our compassion.
It doesn’t have to be with meditation—there are other rich contemplative traditions and simply being in nature is deeply restorative and instructive.
But we need something so that we can develop the kind of wisdom and resources required to meet the challenges in our own lives, our societies and our world.
As with most things, the Dalai Lama has summed up what I’ve taken pages to say in just a couple of lines:
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”