Since my recent meditation retreat, I've been exploring and working with the new understanding of compassion that I described a couple of blog posts ago. The results have been quite amazing, bringing many new insights and deeper understanding.
In my sitting meditation, I have not usually been working with compassion directly; I have not sat there thinking "I'm going to look at compassion now." The practice I've worked with the most recently is one suggested by my teacher Shoshana Cooper. She knows that I have a tendency to focus on the negative. My mind is in the habit of noticing what is unpleasant in a situation, grasping onto thoughts about what's wrong, getting upset about things it doesn't like, and trying to figure out solutions. So her suggestion was to always look for something pleasant in the present moment. It can be anything that I find pleasant--the sound of a bird singing, a comfortable body sensation, or a thought about something enjoyable. The idea is not to try to avoid unpleasant feelings or disturbing thoughts. The purpose is to notice that the thoughts about what's wrong and the unpleasant feelings are not the totality of what is happening.
This practice has worked incredibly well for me, and had some surprising results. The first surprise is that noticing the pleasant has brought the softening of compassion that my other teacher, Rabbi David Cooper, described. It has dramatically changed my approach and attitude towards the thoughts and moods that I tend to dislike and contract around. Without even directly thinking about being compassionate, compassion arises and the contraction and clenching of the mind relaxes and releases. Just as David pointed out, my reaction to the "what's wrong" thoughts has shifted from "I hate it!" to "look at what is happening in the mind."
The second surprise is how much more clearly I've been able to see the patterns that my mind gets caught in. Noticing the pleasant opens up my attention to a great spaciousness, which gives a broader perspective on what is happening in the mind. I have been able to see the clinging to thoughts and the associated moods as just one small part of what is happening in the present. This provides some "distance" from the thoughts and from the clinging to thoughts. What I mean by "distance" is that there is much less identification with the thoughts--much less belief in the absolute truth of the thoughts. I can see how often whatever thought that arises, no matter how big or small, becomes something of a mini-obsession that my mind grasps onto and tenaciously holds until it finds a solution or answer to the problem of the thought. Whether it's a big life issue such as where to find a beloved partner or a small thing such as planning the grocery store shopping list makes little difference; in my mind, they are problems that desperately need solutions and bring up strong feelings of angst when they are present. The spaciousness that comes from this practice has allowed me to see how the mind gets stuck in these patterns. By not getting stuck in grasping onto the thoughts, I don't suffer nearly as much from the feelings triggered by the thoughts.
The third surprise, and the most significant one, brings together the last two blog posts--compassion and the self. This is a deeper understanding of the distance found through the spaciousness of compassion. I mentioned that noticing spaciousness released some of the identification with the thoughts that the mind grasped onto. What "identification" means in this sense is where we place our identity--what we call "I." Nearly all of the time, we think of the self or "I" as a continuous object or essence, as the one who is experiencing our thoughts, feelings, and actions. But a practice that opens us to spaciousness--to compassion--allows us to see the self as just one small thing within a vast awareness. As I discussed in the last post, the self is seen as a construct of the mind which forms around the particular thoughts and feelings and moods present at the moment. We typically take the self to be the center of our universe, as the place from which we think and feel and interact with the world. But I have been seeing the self as being like a small, swirling ball of activity "off to the side" in a very large space. While the self is complaining about something it doesn't like or agonizing to solve a problem or even enjoying a happy memory, there is awareness of so much else taking place at the same time. There are sounds and body sensations and smells and sights, and other thoughts breaking into the mind's attention. And as these change, so does the sense of self. It may feel as though the same self is experiencing changing situations from day to day or even from moment to moment. But in reality, the self is changing along with the thoughts and feelings and situations.
This is the realization that has been coming out of my practice of noticing the pleasant. I can see that the self I tend to get caught in out of habit--often an annoyed, upset, disappointed, or otherwise disgruntled self--has no substance. In the moments of recognizing spaciousness, I don't identify with the present self as "who I am" because I recognize that the self is very temporary, forming and changing and dissipating along with the thoughts and feelings and moods around which it forms. This is a very freeing experience. And according to my teachers and many other teachers I have encountered in person and through books, it is a much truer experience.
The last thing that I have discovered is that this is also a challenging experience. The process of looking carefully at the mind is not an easy one. Accepting a dissipating sense of self and sitting without an identity is sometimes disorienting and disconcerting. I am coming to understand more and more why few people engage in this process with enough dedication to realize the nature of the mind and the self. I sometimes wonder if I should even encourage people to try. But this week, I am in the Olympic spirit, which is a celebration of human accomplishment. So go for it, I say. :-) Losing an imaginary self is a small price to pay for a gold medal in peace and happiness.