Why be compassionate?
What’s the point of cultivating compassion? Why be kind and generous instead of selfishly pursuing your own pleasure and gain? Why share with anyone but your closest family and friends?
These are all reasonable questions. And you probably know people who have chosen the more selfish path in life, who focus just on themselves and a few people close to them; people who aren’t rude or angry, but simply have a narrower focus of who’s important to them in life.
So, why be compassionate? Why work for the happiness of people that you don’t know, and even people you hate?
The perspective of Buddhism—and now also the perspective from the science of altruism—is that such a selfish approach to life is actually not the cause of happiness but the root of all our mental suffering.
Even the Dalai Lama says, “By all means be selfish.” Then he adds, “But be intelligently selfish. If you want to be happy, cherish others.”
Think about this in your own life. When have you been the happiest? Quietly reflect on this for a moment.
Were you happiest when you greedily enjoyed an object or experience or even another person’s body or mind? Or were you happiest when you acted kind and generous and loving; when you helped someone not because you had to, but because it was the right thing to do? Which made you feel better: that moment of selfish indulgence, or that moment of unselfish generosity?
I look back on my own life and a few moments stand out as the most fulfilling: those moments when I did something truly selfless. It was often something I did for an acquaintance or even a stranger. I didn’t have to help this person, nobody would have cared if I didn’t, but I did. And, looking back at my life, it’s these memories that bring the purest sense of integrity, self-respect, and a sense of a life well-lived.
We admire altruism in others. And we elevate these selfless people on earth with awards like the Nobel Prize. But is it possible to strengthen the erratic altruism that we occasionally feel to something more reliable and consistent, a way of continuously seeing the world?
Systematically cultivating a compassionate mind
The Buddhist view is that it is possible to change our mind. But minds can change in any direction: toward more selfishness or toward greater altruism.
Our mind is always changing: with every thought, sentence, or action. According to the neuroscientific view of neuroplasticity and the Buddhist view of impermanence, even the tiniest thought or word or action deepens the mental groove of habits like generosity, kindness, egotism, or craving. And daily meditation practices like we’ve already explored on love and compassion and the kindness of others are systematic ways of deepening the groove of altruism.
Indo-Tibetan Buddhists perfected these techniques of building beneficial mental habits. This group of mind transforming practices is referred to in Tibetan as lojung. One of the very strongest of these mind transformation practices is the practice of tonglen.
Tonglen meditation combines watching the breath with a visualization of alternating love and compassion. In our imagination we offer to others whatever they need to be happy. And we mentally take away their problems and pain.
One of my Tibetan teachers, Ribur Rinpoche, was imprisoned and tortured in Tibet for many years before he eventually escaped. After he fled to India, someone asked him what his greatest fear was during his time as a prisoner.
Rinpoche didn’t mention torture or isolation or fear of the destruction of his religion or country. What he said was that his greatest fear was that he might lose his compassion for his torturers. And so throughout his time as a prisoner, Rinpoche practiced these altruistic mind transforming techniques to maintain compassion even for his torturers.
Whenever I’m feeling selfish or lazy about my own meditation practice, I bring to mind Ribur Rinpoche’s story. It motivates me to work harder to become someone with his qualities. If Rinpoche could practice while being tortured, I can certainly overcome my laziness and distraction to work toward building a more compassionate mind.
Every once in a while we feel selfless compassion. And from time to time we even act on it. But the practice of tonglen, which can be done on the cushion or as you go about your day, is a systematic way to gradually build up the love and compassion in our minds until that altruistic love and compassion become natural, spontaneous feelings that arise whenever we encounter others.
Knowing these benefits of tonglen, let’s now move into the meditation and give it a try.
Tonglen is a very powerful practice, so if at any point it feels uncomfortable, feel free to let go of the visualization and relax back into your mind, breath, or body. You can come back and try tonglen another time. But pushing yourself is never the right approach with meditation, which requires a relaxed mind to be truly effective.
Please also only do this practice if you’re in a healthy mental state. The audience for our guided meditations in A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment are those with relatively healthy minds, free from diagnosable mental illness. If you feel that you may have or have been diagnosed with mental illness, please consult a health professional before attempting a meditation practice.
First, settle your body into meditation posture: cross-legged on the floor with a cushion elevating your seat, or sitting in a chair with your legs straight out and down, feet flat on the floor. You can even try this practice lying down if that’s more comfortable for you, or if you’re ill, or if you want to build up the habit of doing this practice as a beneficial way to end your day before going to sleep.
If you’re sitting, straighten your spine and settle your hands in your lap or on top of your knees. Relax your shoulders, your back, the muscles in your face, and the rest of your body. Direct your gaze four or five feet in front of you on the floor. And half-close your eyes to help yourself go inward but remain awake.
Slightly open your mouth and touch your tongue to the roof of your palate.
Now think a little bit about your motivation for meditating today. There’s nothing better I could do for myself right now than to meditate for a few minutes, deepening my understanding of my mind’s good nature, bringing out my mind’s best qualities of love and compassion.
Tonglen meditation with someone close to you
Start by thinking of someone you love who’s going through physical or emotional pain right now. If you’re new to this practice or feel that it might be overwhelming, you can imagine someone going through a more modest challenge in life, rather than someone with deep, difficult, or chronic problems. Use your best judgment as to what you can take on right now.
Imagine your friend sitting in front of you, as vividly as you can: alive, breathing, moving; their facial expression changing. Picture even the clothes that they’re wearing.
Contemplate how their pain feels to them, what’s going on in their mind right now. Be specific with your empathy. Try to really understand what it’s like to be in their shoes.
Now give their pain a visual form as tendrils of dark smoke drifting through their body.
Draw this pain away from all the other parts of their body and mind toward the center of their chest. Pool their pain into that dark sphere at the center of their chest, where it swirls with dense black smoke.
Now think, how wonderful it would be if I could take away that pain.
Taking away one person’s pain
What if I could take away their pain, but the only way I could would be to take it on myself? Could I do this?
If you have a child, or if you can recall the dedication of your parents, you can see more easily how this is possible. A parent would much rather suffer, or even die, than have their child suffer. See if you can extend this level of concern of a mother to the dear one in front of you. If I could take away their pain by taking it on myself, would I? Could I?
Decide that you would be willing to take it on. And if this seems difficult or impossible right now, imagine or aspire that you could; that one day you’ll be able.
As you breathe in, that dark spot of smoke is drawn up, pulled upward along their spine.
With your next in-breath, the smoke comes out of their nostrils in two dark streams, pausing like a thin, long dark cloud in-between you as you exhale.
On the next in-breath the smoke comes closer to you and pools in front of your nose into a dense dark sphere again, containing all your friend’s pain and suffering.
Now, be brave. Imagine that at your own heart is another type of darkness, denser even than that smoke, dense black stone where all your selfishness and anger and craving and jealousy are concentrated, all the causes of my own suffering.
On your next in-breath, your draw in the dark smoke, into your nostrils and if flows down the central channel of your body to the center of your heart.
As that smoke reaches the dark stone of your selfishness, at the instant the two touch, there is a great exposition of light. Both your friend’s problem and your own delusions are completely destroyed in that instant. You feel a great sense of relief as your selfish mind is obliterated. And you sense a great relief from the one in front of you as their problems are released.
Giving happiness and its causes to someone close
Now, as you breathe out, imagine that light energy in the form of love, loving-kindness, wishing your friend to be happy, that it streams out from your heart to theirs.
Through that channel of light you give your friend everything positive you have: a healthy body, food, shelter, friends, family; peace of mind; a good environment, good teachers, and even a path to inner happiness and a meaningful life. Let these flow out of you and feel that your friend is completely healed in body and mind and that all their needs are satisfied.
On your next breath, give even giving itself: generosity, the wish for others to be happy and free. Rest in this sense of giving everything your friend needs, the true causes of happiness.
Taking on the whole world’s suffering and offering all that is good
Now we expand these feeling.
Imagine a huge crowd of everyone on earth with this same problems. All these people fill out beside and behind your friend and you. They you as far as you can see, a vast crowd of beings.
As you breathe in, imagine their problems seeping out of their bodies, steaming out of all of their pores, drawn upward, pooling in a dark cloud of smoke. And these clouds all merge and pool together like great, low storm clouds hovering over all their bodies.
Generate a strong wish to take away all these peoples’ suffering. It’s a lot. But if I could take it all on myself, to free these millions of people from their problems, wouldn’t I do it?
Remember the light at your heart.
Breathe in the huge cloud over the course of several breaths.
The cloud condenses and comes to focus into an extremely dense sphere of darkness, swirling before your face.
Feeling brave again, you breathe in and the smoke comes into your nostrils, curves up, down, and around toward your heart. And the moment it touches the light and love and energy at your heart, there is a fantastic explosion of light rays that shoot out from your heart in all directions.
As you breathe out, you give all that is positive, all that is needed, on individual beams of light to every person around you.
Focus just on the out breaths and rest in giving.
Now try alternating: taking on the world’s problems on your in-breaths and giving all that’s positive on the out-breaths, solving the world’s problems by destroying my self-centered attitude.
Let the visualization dissolve now. And imagine yourself just as you are in the room where you are.
Tonglen in everyday life
Before you come out of your meditation fully, picture yourself doing this meditation in the course of your everyday life: as you move about your home with your family or roommates, at work with your colleagues, on the train or roads as you drive places, in stores, watching the news or even shows on Netflix.
Imagine that, as you do any of these activities, you are able to practice silently, secretly, imagining and then taking on all these peoples’ suffering on your in-breath.
And imagine giving everything they need on your outbreath: practical things like food and housing and money and healthcare; and also the deeper causes of happiness, the causes of a happy and stable mind through whatever means appropriate to their background, religious or secular. Imagine their transcending everyday material life to live a life of meaning and purpose and fulfillment in benefiting others.
Now come fully out of the meditation. If there were sufferings that felt too difficult to take on, may I be patient with myself as I work on this. As my strength in this practice grows, if I find it useful on the cushion, may I have a motivation to carry this compassion practice into my daily life.
And if this practice doesn’t seem possible right now, I can be happy to have at least tried. I can explore the many other mind transforming meditations that there are for systematically cultivating compassion that don’t require this heroic leap of imagination.
Maybe I’ll come back to tonglen another time. Or I can work on less overwhelming levels of suffering to gradually build this muscle of compassion.
Now is a good time to remember never to push in your meditation, but to stay relaxed, to stay within the bounds of my ability without becoming overwhelmed; to first and foremost have love and compassion for myself, wishing myself happiness and freedom from suffering.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio