Karen Armstrong: Finding Compassion for Yourself
Step 2: Accept Your Reptile
It is essential to be aware of our misdeeds and take responsibility for them. But we should also realize that the rage, fear, hatred, and greed that make us behave badly derive from the brain we inherited from our reptilian ancestors. Fear is fundamental to the reptilian brain; it makes us wary and suspicious: instead of reaching out to others, we shrink back into ourselves, warding off the impending menace. Everybody is afraid of something. What fills you with dread? Spiders, loneliness, cancer, death, a demented old age, failure, or poverty? Instead of despising yourself for these anxieties and castigating yourself for cowardice, be compassionate toward yourself and remember that fear is a human characteristic. It is something that links us with other people. If we cannot accept the reality of our own terror, we are likely to dismiss and even ridicule the fears of others. It is useless to castigate ourselves bitterly for feeling jealousy, anger, and contempt, as that will only lead to self-hatred. Instead, we should quietly but firmly refuse to identify with them, saying with the Buddha: "This is not mine; this is not what I really am; this is not my self." It will not be easy, because the emotions of the old brain are powerful and automatic, but we can learn to distance ourselves from them by the practice of mindfulness.
Step 3: Practice Your Karuna
While he was working toward enlightenment, the Buddha devised a meditation that made him conscious of the positive emotions of friendship (maitri), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita), and "even-mindedness" (upeksha) that lay dormant in his mind. He then directed this "immeasurable" love to the ends of the earth. Later he would tell his monks to do the same: "When your mind is filled with love, send it in one direction, then a second, a third, and a fourth, then above, then below. Identify with everything without hatred, resentment, anger or enmity. This mind of love is very wide. It grows immeasurably and eventually is able to embrace the whole world."
But before you are ready to "embrace the whole world," you must focus on yourself. Begin by drawing on the warmth of friendship (maitri) that you know exists potentially in your mind and direct it to yourself. Notice how much peace, happiness, and benevolence you possess already. Make yourself aware of how much you need and long for loving friendship. Next, become conscious of your anger, fear, and anxiety. Look deeply into the seeds of rage within yourself. Bring to mind some of your past suffering. You long to be free of this pain, so try gently to put aside your current irritations, frustrations, and worries and feel compassion (karuna) for your conflicted, struggling self. Then bring your capacity for joy (mudita) to the surface and take conscious pleasure in things we all tend to take for granted: good health, family, friends, work, and life's tiny pleasures. Finally, look at yourself with upeksha ("even- mindedness, nonattachment"). You are not unique. You have failings, but so does everybody else. You also have talents and, like every other being on the planet, you deserve compassion, joy, and friendship.
Karen Armstrong is the author of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness.
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