In the end, compassion and Advaita Vedanta reside in the Heart and the Present Moment. A compassion meditation technique brings them together.
"Condemn none: if you can stretch out a helping hand, do so. If you cannot, fold your hands, bless your brothers, and let them go their own way."--Swami Vivekananda
In the American Dictionary, compassion is defined as sorrow for the sufferings or trouble of another or others, accompanied by the urge to help; deep sympathy; pity.
In Advaita Vedanta, there is no other, no second, so who is there to feel sorry for another? And so if one is intellectually convinced of this notion then when one’s friend comes up and says that he is dying of cancer.
When I first became a practitioner of Advaita Vedanta, which admits of no other, no duality, I understood this with the logic of my mind. So when I saw people who were obviously in pain, whether physical or emotional, I would stand there, and with eyes unblinking, I would tell myself that all this was illusion, and go on my merry way. I watched myself go through several relationships in this way as each partner would go through the throes of emotional pain and I retreated into the safety of my head and its mental safety net.
It was not until I began teaching small children that I began to learn from them, who can be wailing in exquisite pain one moment and the next skip off in joy, forgetting completely the pain that they were in. My heart started to open and I slowly left the safe cage of my head.
Know there is one, but act as though there is two, advised Ramana Maharshi, a living embodiment of Advaita. This is what Hanuman, who is considered an incarnation of Shiva, did when he served Rama. He knew the Unity of the One, but played the part of devotee, as did Rama play the part of a weeping husband bent on freeing his wife, Sita. When I allow the feelings to come forth, I am no more them than I am my thoughts; yet these feelings are part of that humanness. The word sympathy comes from the word, pathos. The Greeks recognized the divinity of pathos, the suffering that humans go through. If I go to my heart and out of my head, when I see a child crying because they miss their mother I then won’t say, “Don’t cry. Your mother will come back soon.” I will instead say, “You want your mother right now and you miss her. You are sad because she is not here with you.” I can be where the person is without trying to fix anything. When there is pain, there is pain; when there is joy, there is joy.
Next to the word compassion is the word, compass, and the compass encircles. The tendency of a philosophical path is to be very straight forward, very masculine. To encircle is the way of the mother who holds the laughing or crying child.
However, just as the straight-forward way can be dangerous to Awakening, being one-sighted; so, too, does the compass way have its pitfalls. While Advaita can get caught up with antipathy, pushing the world away, compassion can become waterlogged with sympathy and may sink into the suffering of the world, where it is hard not to succumb to the notion that the one Self is actually in pain. Then pity comes forward and the world becomes a pitiful place.
Ramana talked about the importance of helping others, not for their sake, because they are the Infinite Self which needs no help, but for our own. When one extends oneself one gets out of the little me and finds that by helping others we help ourselves. The trick is, however, to give up the notion that “I am helping,” which only feeds the ego. There is simply helping.
Another danger is falling into sympathy of the sufferer and siding with their notions that they are a victim and that somebody or something has caused them to be so. This only feeds the illusion of: ‘Yes, you are a pitiful body.’ If one can simply acknowledge that the person is suffering, and witness what they believe is actually happening, without agreeing or disagreeing, then one is in the Present Moment.
And being in the Present Moment, in the Now, is really what Advaita is all about. When one is in the present then one is out of one’s head, where past and future events vie for attention. There is no other time. Only Now. And when one resides in one’s heart, one dwells in the home of compassion.
What I do when I see suffering, let’s say when I drive buy one of my brothers or sisters digging through a garbage can, wearing shabby clothes, I may do the following:
I breathe deeply the person into my heart (breathing through my nose, if possible)
And say internally: “I”
I hold the person in my breath, like a mother holding a child, for a few moments
And then I release them, my breath
And say internally: “AM”
This can be repeated if circumstances permit it, or not. Also, it can be done when you are sitting for meditation. You can focus on someone who is going through suffering. Or on groups of people, or regions of the world that is going through much conflict and upheaval.
Does it really help? The imagination is more powerful than we give it credit. There is only one mind. So when you hold another lovingly in your thoughts you become a loving thought for them, and for yourself. You receive as you give.
Thoughts are the foundation of the world. It is how the gods create. And the gods dwell within you.
By doing this compassion meditation technique when you see suffering, you are reminding yourself of the link between you and all beings. There is only One.
Devotion vs, Knowledge
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