Mindful meditation, suffering and compassion

Mindful meditation is advocated as a simple method for recognising suffering, understanding its causes and for alleviating many of its forms. In this way we can cultivate wellbeing and peace. By suffering I mean not only pain, illness and grief, but also, dissatisfaction, anxiety, alienation and unease – all of these conditions are denoted by the term, dukkha. Dukkha is complemented by the related term sukha. The prefix su- means something like ‘good and conducive to wellbeing’ – while the du- in dukkha means ‘bad, difficult or inclining towards illness or harm.’ The important thing to note is that sukha, human flourishing or wellbeing, can only be achieved by understanding and alleviating dukkha. Much of the Buddha’s teaching was focused on this endeavour.

So, what are the causes of suffering and how can they be alleviated? Aging, illness, injury and death affect us all, and seeing how these processes affect those we love is also hard to bear. Although we can’t avoid these aspects of life, we can learn how to negotiate them and how to lessen the impact they have on us. By changing our relationship with these experiences, we can be less affected by them. The sustained practice of mindful meditation enables us to understand that avoidable suffering is caused by three factors: one, anger, envy and other ‘negative’ emotions; two, craving and attachment; and, three, delusion – having a misguided view or understanding of how things are, the true nature of reality.

So, how does mindful meditation help to reduce suffering and cultivate sukkha? There are three aspects of meditation that will help. First, to come to a clear and balanced view of how things are – dharma – the realisation that existence has two primary characteristics: on the one hand, impermanence and change, and, on the other, interdependence and causality.

The second way to reduce suffering is by learning how to let go of our attachments and cravings and by understanding that attachments and wants are self-propelling and insatiable – one craving leads to another, gaining one reward or possession only leads us to want more – a cycle that repeats itself endlessly.

The third way to reduce suffering is to be aware of, to accept and to understand the negative emotions that arise when we feel ourselves to be separate from the rest of existence. Anger, fear, conflict, hatred, envy and other ‘negative’ emotions are, in some way, the product of feelings of isolation, separateness, division, disconnection and alienation.

This brings me to three ethical principles that are connected to the ways in which we relate to, and deal with, suffering: these are mettā, karunā and ahimsa. Once we realise that all phenomena, including human beings, are impermanent, interdependent and subject to causality, we cannot avoid understanding that what is done to one affects all the others. We are all related. There is kinship between all beings and at a very fundamental level we all depend upon each other – from a coral reef in a southern-ocean to bacteria in our gut, from a fly on the wall to a Queen in her palace. This is a deeply ecological view of the universe.

‘Mettā,’ is a Pali word, derived from, mitta, ‘friend’ – it is most often translated as ‘loving-kindness’, but a more accurate rendition might be ‘friendliness’. Metta or friendliness frees the mind from enmity, greed and anger. In the light of friendship, we see others as relatives, treating them with respect, tolerance and warmth. This idea of friendship radiating out from person to person is taken as a model for how a just, equitable and peaceful society might function.

The Sanskrit word, ‘Karunā,’ is usually translated as ‘compassion,’ a word derived from a Latin root, compati, made up ofcom, meaning ‘together,’ and pati,meaning ‘to suffer.’ ‘Compassion’ combines a sense of ‘fellow-feeling’, of shared suffering and of empathy, and a feeling of care and kindness towards those who suffer as we do. Karuna, grows out of a deep feeling of connectedness and a shared condition of being. Karuna, ‘compassion,’ like, metta, friendliness, is grounded in non-attachment and respect. Compassion involves being open to others, appreciating their qualities and concerns and approaching other beings with care and kindness rather than by wanting to possess, control or dominate them.

The last of these three terms, ‘ahimsa,’ is a Sanskrit word translated as, ‘not to cause injury through actions, words or thoughts,’ and, ‘non-violence.’ If all beings (indeed all phenomena) are interdependent and in constant interaction, any action, however small, affects all others. If all phenomena are interconnected, and therefore inseparable, there can be no clear and fixed boundary between oneself and the universe. We are porous beings in a permeable world. We are inseparable from the whole universe. Thus, to injure or harm any part of the universe is to harm ourselves.

Mindful meditation is a simple and effective method for understanding and alleviating suffering, and for developing sukha – a good life. By sitting quietly and calmly, observing the embodied mind without commentary, judgment and attachment – we learn to develop understanding, composure and wellbeing. We can reorientate our minds to a more holistic, less egocentric, perspective from which to see ourselves and the world. In this way we can lessen the many forms of suffering that can affect us and, hopefully, enable us to experience more fully the wonder and joy of just being alive, conscious and connected to all of existence. Friendliness, compassion and non-violence give rise to tolerance, mutual respect and open-mindedness. It seems to me that these are qualities that are necessary for the development and maintenance of a just, balanced and peaceful society.