As explored in my earlier article, Cultivating Compassion is seen as embodying a divine quality that brings us closer to our true selves in God. Wisdom - seeing others and all of life through the eyes of God - guides us into such compassion. And through cultivating wisdom and compassion we can become a conduit opening up the flow of divine compassion in the universe, embodying the mystical understanding of the interconnectedness of all being.
The international Charter for Compassion was launched in 2008 by the Christian author and commentator on comparative religions Karen Armstrong:
'The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.'
Compassion meditation is an ancient contemplative practice known in many faith traditions. Contemporary scientific research shows that even doing a secularised form of compassion meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other people's states. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison's
Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds, psychologists are actively investigating how compassion meditation is like exercising a compassion muscle, starting with the lightest weight of a loved one and working up to a heavier weight of a difficult person. Researchers have found that practicing compassion meditation for 30 mins a day increases altruistic behavior and changes the brain’s responses to human suffering. Participants in the on-going study have commented:
Sometimes, in the awareness of some of the atrocities and difficulties going on in the world, or in the face of the suffering of those near to us, we may feel personally powerless and helpless. At such times compassion can make us so sensitive it can be unbearable in the face of so much suffering. This can even lead to us with-drawing, and detaching ourselves emotionally, for it seems too painful to keep our heart open. It is particularly at these moments that we need to place ourselves in relation to however we understand the presence of the Universal Compassion, however we choose to describe it. For the Christian, this is the loving heart of God as expressed in Jesus Christ, and this is the starting place and ground of the Christian compassion meditation outlined below.
'Christ has no body on earth but yours,
No hands but yours,
No feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out;
Yours are the feet with which He is to go about
And yours are the hands with which He is to bless
St. Teresa of Avila
Finding a quiet undisturbed place where you can sit or kneel comfortably (perhaps using a prayer stool), take time to first become aware of where you are - so often our prayer can be disembodied from our physical context.
Settle into the space recognising that you are in the presence of God and asking for the grace to develop compassion towards all people.
When ready, bring your attention to the natural rising and falling of the breath, the same breath Yahweh breathed into Adam, that Job found in his nostrils (Job 27:3), and by which Jesus breathed shalom (peace & wholeness), forgiveness and the Holy Spirit on all humanity. Allow time for your awareness to settle.
Once the mind has settled, visualise God before you in whatever way seems right for you, and see God's gaze toward you. As St Ignatius says :'Behold God beholding you.' See the love with which God looks at you and really allow yourself to experience God's loving gaze.
Hear God saying to you, 'Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you' (Jer 1:5)....
'I have loved you with an everlasting love' (Jer 31:3) ... 'I have called you by name and you are mine' (Is 43:1). Take time to let yourself be completely bathed in God's love.**
As you behold God lovingly beholding you, breathe softly and feel your body, your heartbeat, the life of God within you. Feel how you treasure your own life, how you guard yourself in the face of your sorrows.
After some time, bring to mind someone close to you whom you love dearly. Picture them and feel your natural caring for them. Notice how you hold them in your heart... Notice the sensations around your heart... Perhaps you feel a sensation of warmth, openness and tenderness.
Then let yourself be aware of their measure of sorrows, their suffering in life. Feel how your heart opens to wish them well, to extend comfort, to share in their pain and meet it with compassion. This is the natural response of the heart. You can visualise your love as a warm, bright light of energy filling and pulsating in your heart.
Let this love radiate out from your heart and body, filling them with your compassion. Pray for their happiness and well-being, perhaps by inwardly reciting the phrases:
Continue reciting all the while you are holding them in your heart. You can modify these phrases any way that makes them true to your heart’s intention.
After a time, begin to extend compassion to others you know. Picture loved ones, one after another. Hold the image of each in your heart, be aware of their difficulties, and wish them well with the same phrases sending the warmth radiating from your heart out to them.
Then you can open your compassion further, a step at a time, to the suffering of your friends, to your neighbours, to your community.
Then to difficult people, to those you dislike and to those who may have harmed you or hurt those you love. Realise that no matter how they have behaved towards you, they need your love as much as (or more than) your friends and those you love. Although you may have negative feelings towards this person, think of how they have suffered in their own life. This person has also had conflicts with loved ones, failures, suffered illness or pain and sorrow of various kinds. Let the warm bright energy of your love radiate out from your heart to each of them. As you do this pray for their well-being and happiness. Generate the strong wish that they be free from all of the anger, inner problems and attachments that causes them to act badly toward you and others, and that their lives may be filled with love and peace. Inwardly, recite the phrases:
Now let your love flow out even more widely in all directions - to the brotherhood and sisterhood of all beings that are not individually known to you. Open you heart and sense your tenderhearted connection with all life and its creatures, particularly those that are suffering - the lonely, the sick, the imprisoned, homeless, hungry,
unemployed, depressed. As your love flows pray for their happiness and well-being, that they might be free of all suffering - physical, emotional, mental, spiritual - and that their lives might be filled with love and peace. Inwardly, recite your phrases:
Work with your compassion practice intuitively. At times it may feel difficult, as though we might be overwhelmed by the pain. Remember, we are not trying to “fix” the pain of the world, only to meet it with a compassionate heart. If you find yourself worrying that your love will run out, remind yourself that you are a channel of God's inexhaustible love. A conduit of limitless spiritual energy. If you find yourself hesitating to extend God's love to certain people, ask for God's help and grace to see them through God's eyes.
Relax and be gentle. Breathe. Let your breath and heart rest naturally, as a centre
of compassion in the midst of the world. Feel the love flowing out of you to all people.
As you bring your meditation to a close, realise you have the potential to love everyone, even those who have behaved badly toward you or your loved one's, even those you don't know. Rest in the joy of your open-hearted wish to ease the suffering of all people.
* * * * * * *
It is not unusual that practicing forms of contemplative meditation such as this can bring to light our own inner issues that we need to acknowledge and work through, perhaps with the skilled help of a spiritual director or counsellor. We can become acutely aware of our own inner barriers to offering compassion to all indiscriminately. It is important at such times to have compassion on ourselves, relax and go back to that place in the meditation of knowing, experiencing and resting in God's unconditional love for us. As I discuss in my earlier article 'Travelling', it is also important to realise and know that we are loved and accepted by God as we are and that we are not a self-improvement project.
If you find yourself troubled by difficult emotions you feel uncomfortable to be with, I offer a helpful meditation in Part 3 of my Series on The Spiritual Life & Our Emotions.
For more forms of contemplative prayer, please also see my Prayer Life Series.
*Adapted & developed, with grateful thanks and acknowledgment, from meditations outlined in Susan Stabile's 'Growing in Love & Wisdom' and Rob Preece's 'The Courage to Feel.'
**If you find yourself feeling insecure about God's love for you at this point, you may want to just stay with this bit of the meditation for now. Many of us carry deep wounds that make it difficult to see ourselves as loveable. It can be hard to love ourselves and believe others love us. For such individuals it is far more beneficial to spend extra time developing a felt sense of God's love than to immediately send out compassion to others. Working with a spiritual director or other guide can be useful to explore this further.