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.
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.
Off the mat and throughout the day, we can cultivate 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 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.
In the spirit of karuna, we use this cultivating practice to stoke the motivation to find a way to respond to the suffering we see around us. To whatever extent we are able, what ways can we work to ease the suffering in the world? Each of us will have their own answer to this life koan, but I do encourage you to take this question up for yourself.
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: After settling in on the breath and having completed several minutes of preliminary practice, begin to repeat the following phrases, or others of your own choosing, that express what you most deeply wish for yourself. You can coordinate the phrases with your breath or not, as you prefer. Let the pacing and tone be gentle. When the mind wanders, or if difficult feelings arise, simply notice in a spirit of kind acceptance, and gently come back to repeating the phrases.
May I be free from suffering.
May I hold myself patiently with kindness an care.
May I be free from the suffering caused by greed, anger, fear and confusion.
May I experience ease in body and mind.
The Traditional Sequence of Karuna Bhavana:
A loved one
A neutral being
A difficult person
A group of beings for whom you feel solidarity
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.
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Poepsa Frank Jude Boccio is a yoga teacher and zen buddhist dharma teacher living in Tucson, AZ.