How would you like to be unconditionally loved and accepted, just as you are, without having to be or do anything special? What would it be like to feel truly, completely, radically accepted, without feeling that you had to hide or deny or apologize for any aspect of yourself? We all crave this kind of love and acceptance, but fewer of us can honestly say we offer ourselves such unconditional regard. The trouble is, if we cannot love and accept ourselves just as we are, we will find it difficult to love anyone else in such a limitless, unconditional way, let alone all beings. And perhaps even more unsettling to contemplate, if we are fortunate enough to find someone who accepts and loves us unconditionally, how can we receive that love if we haven’t fully accepted ourselves?
Karuna is related to the word “karma,” and it is the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering, to lighten sorrow. While karuna is generally translated as “compassion,” which literally means “to suffer with,” Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and teacher, has pointed out that we don’t need to suffer ourselves in order to alleviate the suffering of another person. Doctors, for instance, do not have to suffer illness in order to relieve their patients’ pain. The Buddha described karuna as the “quivering of the heart” we experience when we are open and able to truly see suffering and are moved to do something about it.
After expressing metta karuna to yourself as the essential foundation for being able to offer genuine love to others, the next step is to direct these phrases to benefactors—those who have been good to you and for whom you feel respect and gratitude, such as your parents, friends, teachers, or anyone else who has helped you in any way. After benefactors come beloved friends, a category that emphasizes family members, lovers, friends, and animal companions. These are beings whom you already hold dear in your heart.
The next step is to direct the phrases toward a neutral person, someone you have no strong feelings for one way or the other. Perhaps it’s someone you see around your neighborhood but do not know. The tricky thing is to find someone you are truly neutral about—as you do this practice, you’ll become more aware of how quickly we tend to size up strangers and get a feeling about them. When I first began to practice metta karuna, I was living in Brooklyn, and there was an older man who walked his dog down my street several times a day. I knew nothing of this man, and realized I had no strong feelings about him, so I chose him as my neutral person. And then a funny thing happened. After several months I realized I could no longer send him love as a neutral person. While I still did not know anything about him, I found that I had come to really care for him! When I brought up his image, I felt the familiar warmth of concern and kindness. He had moved into the “beloved friend” category.
After the neutral person, this practice challenges us to send metta karuna to a difficult person. This is someone toward whom you feel anger, fear, or a lack of forgiveness, someone you perceive as having hurt you in some way. It is important to be patient with yourself when sending love to a difficult person. Begin with the less challenging difficult people in your life; over time, you can work your way up to the really challenging difficult people. While practicing, if strong emotions arise, you may need to honor the limits of your present capacity and simply go back to directing love and compassion toward yourself. Go back and forth between yourself and the difficult person, reflecting on how much pain holding on to these feelings is causing you.
The final step in the practice is to direct metta karuna toward all beings. If you like, before this you can choose to send metta karuna to more specific groups of beings such as those in prisons or hospitals, or those who are hungry, abused, or homeless. Don’t forget other species, as all beings wish to be happy and free from suffering just as you do. And that’s just where this Buddhist practice ultimately takes us: to wishing that all beings everywhere, seen and unseen, great and small, are happy and free from suffering.
Off the mat and throughout the day, we can cultivate metta karuna by simply paying attention to all of the opportunities to do so. As we wait in line at the grocery store, we can send metta karuna to the others in line, the stock clerks, and the cashier. Walking down the street, we can send karuna to the homeless woman sitting beside her shopping cart containing her belongings. And if we notice that aversion arises when we see that homeless woman, we can send some to ourselves as well.
I’d like to share a practice that I, and many students, have found invaluable for transforming our relationships with all of the people and situations that life presents, and which I first presented here as a short daily practice. The first thing every morning, we set the intention to cultivate metta karuna throughout the day by reciting the following gatha:
Waking this morning, I smile,
A brand-new day is before me.
I aspire to live each moment mindfully,
And to look upon all beings
With the eyes of kindness and compassion.
Karuna Bhavana: The Practice of Compassion
Compassion desires all beings to be free from suffering. The word karuna, etymologically related to karma and kriya suggests that it is ultimately not just a feeling of empathy, but the motivation to do something to relieve the suffering of the world.
Preliminary Practice: Contemplate the aspects of difficulty in your life, whether physical or emotional. Be willing to love yourself even as you struggle and suffer.
Basic Practice: As above.
May I be free from suffering.
May I hold myself with softness and care.
May I be free from the suffering caused by greed, anger, fear and confusion.
May I experience ease of body and mind.
The Traditional Sequence of Karuna Bhavana: As above. You may wish to conclude with the following:
May the hungry be fed; may the unloved be loved; may the imprisoned be freed. May all beings everywhere be free from suffering.