Last week I led a five day compassion retreat as part of our Level 2: Responding with compassion course. It was intense, in a good way, and for many participants transformative. At the end of the course we had a sharing, which conveyed the significant switches of perspective that people had experienced, in particular a growing attitude of self-kindness and a diminishing attitude of self-criticism and how this translates into growing kindness and diminishing criticism towards others.
One question that came up several times and in different forms was the question ‘What is the difference between attachment and wise discernment?’ The different forms of this question might include ‘What is the difference between self-indulgence and self-kindness?’ or ‘What is the difference between preference and an aspiration or intention for change?’
And my answer…….it’s complicated.
My first answer tends to be to notice how it feels. Does it feel ego-centric? Is there a feeling of a puffed up sense of self at the centre of the desire? Over time we gradually get to know how a genuine aspiration/intention for the benefit of our self and others feels, as compared wanting something, that while we may present it in some altruistic way to the world, is actually all about me. I think this takes time and the mind is tricky and can persuade us that something is beneficial, when it actually isn’t. So we need to consistently check in with our motivation.
What helps me to understand the difference between what I want and what is actually beneficial is reflecting on the following questions:
Firstly, ‘Is it beneficial in the long term?’ This is about the type of habitual patterns I will set up if I follow a particular course of action. Will it be helpful in the long term? Is it in accordance with my deepest values. Again checking in with the feelings/sensations can be a good clue to whether there really is likely to be a long term benefit.
Secondly, ‘How does it effect other people?’. If the want is ego-centric, it could well be to the detriment of other people. This is not to say that we should always put others first. There has to be a balance between self-compassion and compassion for others. After all there are 7.5 billion others and only one of us! Again, checking in with the feelings/sensations can help us to feel if there is a subtle (or not so subtle) sense of ego-centricity, of putting our wants before the needs of others.
As I said above it is complicated. I believe it is a life’s work to gradually understand and adopt the ways of thinking, speaking and behaving that accords with my values of being of benefit to and not harming myself and others. Gradually, wending my way and learning from my mistakes. All I can do is my best, in a process of trial and error in which each epic failure is an opportunity for learning.
During the retreat we explored the practice of Tonglen, in which we breathe in what is difficult from ourself or others, allow it transform in our compassionate heart, and then breathe out what can heal the difficulty to ourself or others. This reverses our usual ego-centric grasping on to what is perceived as good, such as happiness, joy, peace, love. In the Tonglen practice we breathe this out. It also reverses our usual ego-centric resistance to what is perceived as difficult. In the Tonglen practice we breathe this in. This practice provides another way to discern what is beneficial and what is not in relation to ourselves and to others. After the retreat I have experienced a renewed aspiration to engage in this practice, both formally and in daily life.
Teaching compassion is difficult. Some of the concepts and practices are complex and subtle. Also, there is a higher intensity of emotion to hold. But the benefits of teaching compassion are enormous. Every time I teach the Level 2: Responding with Compassion course, I see its transformative effects on the participants and on myself. If you would like to train to teach compassion (you will need to be a Mindfulness teacher first), then please have a look at our CBLC compassion teacher training course.
I wish you well with your journey.