The generation of compassion (Metta) for all living beings is one of the central goals of Buddhism and it is accomplished primarily through meditation. Although a selfless goal in its essence, the cultivation of compassion is traditionally believed to bring one true happiness, inner peace and good health. Not surprisingly, compassion meditation has been recently found by modern science to combat modern epidemics like depression and anxiety and even to reduce the effects of stress on the immune system.
The Metta Sutta
Given by the Buddha himself as instructions to his followers on cultivating compassion, the Metta Sutta focuses on developing a mind that is "freed from hatred and ill-will". In the Metta Sutta the Buddha describes the love that should be generated towards all beings as the same love that a mother has for her child: "Radiating kindness over the entire world". The Buddha then recommends meditating upon this while "standing or walking, seated or lying down." This describes one of the most basic yet powerful meditation techniques: simply focusing on spreading compassion to all living creatures.
The Parable of the Saw
One of the most dramatic Buddhist teachings on generating compassion is found in the Kakacupama Sutta - the parable of the saw. In this discourse, the Buddha instructs his disciples to imagine that a group of bandits are dismembering them limb by limb with a saw while trying to keep their mind free from hatred and ill will. Instead the Buddha instructs them to concentrate on "projecting thoughts of universal love to those very persons." The Buddha goes on to say that by continuously meditating on this parable all life situations will become bearable. Simply sitting and imagining one's enemies and then concentrating on not generating negative emotions is a powerful compassion meditation technique.
Among the many traditional Buddhist practices of Tibet, the technique known as Tonglen is considered highly effective for cultivating compassion. This simple technique involves nothing more than observing ones own breath as it flows in and out. On the in-breath, the practitioner imagines himself absorbing all the negativity in the world and on the out-breath extending compassion to all beings. To really activate the power of Tonglen the practitioner focuses on a person or event that is particularly painful, breathing in and feeling the pain and then breathing out and releasing it, covering the person or event with understanding and compassion instead.
Benefits of Compassion Meditation
According to a 2011 study published in Clinical Psychology Review, compassion meditation is potentially useful for coping with a wide vareity of common psychological issues including marital problems, depression, anger, and social anxiety disorder. Another study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology in 2009, found that experienced compassion meditators showed much lower blood hormone levels when exposed to stress than their non-meditating counterparts.
- Kakacupama Sutta: The Parable of the Saw
- Psychoneuroendocrinology: Effect of Compassion Meditation on Neuroendocrine, Innate Immune and Behavioral Responses to Psychosocial Stress
- Ultimate Healing: The Power of Compassion; Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Wisdom Publications 2001
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