This week's morsel comes from 12 Steps on the Buddha's Path, an inspiring firsthand account of what happens when life seems hopeless and the miracle of finding out that it’s anything but. The author describes her own journey of recovery from alcoholism and marks out the path that allowed her to emerge from that darkness as a wise and compassionate person living a life that is joyous and free. This book is a powerful and enriching synthesis of the 12-Step recovery programs and the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism. In this selection, the author contemplates metta and karuna practice, while struggling with her own prejudices.
Learning about compassion in sobriety was a rocky road for me. In my New York City neighborhood, I encountered panhandlers on almost every corner. I averted my eyes and walked past them, often as they called out to me, “Please help me get something to eat.” I felt sorry for them—poor them—but there was no way I’d give them money because I was sure they were all alcoholics and drug addicts and I didn’t want to enable them to buy booze and drugs. My withholding was good for them, wasn’t it? It felt terrible.
So every day as I walked home from my office—about 20 minutes away—I bought a bunch of bananas from a street vendor and distributed them to everyone who asked me for money. Some of the panhandlers were genuinely happy to have the fruit, but I tended to remember only the one who threw it back at me. The lesson I began to learn through the Dharma was that spontaneity is a critical ingredient in generosity. If I had to stop and think about what people might use my gift for or whether or not they would be adequately grateful, I was not experiencing or expressing generosity. I continued to buy bananas for the walk home, but I began to also carry a pocketful of quarters too and to give one to whoever asked me for money before I offered them fruit.
My next step was to look at the people who asked me for money, to make eye contact except when the person was clearly mentally ill and might respond to eye contact with hostility. When I could look panhandlers in the eye, they became human beings, just like me, and I could experience that quivering of the heart that is truly compassion. Sometimes I gave more than a quarter. Once I took a woman with an infant into a market to buy diapers and formula. Sometimes I got “took,” but I didn’t mind, because having a more open heart was worth so much more to me than money.
Usually, compassion practice is done using one phrase, rather than four, as in practicing metta. The phrase I use most often is “May you be free of suffering.” Although I have done formal periods of compassion practice, repeatedly directing the phrase to the same groups I use in practicing lovingkindness, most often I do it informally and as spontaneously as I would hope to feel generosity or compassion should I see someone who is in pain. I find that I send compassionate wishes for the end of suffering to almost everyone who shares at an AA meeting. I even catch myself extending karuna to people I see on television. Since this practice is about cultivating compassion in oneself, there’s no contradiction in sending it to any being, in person or otherwise, who evokes it.
Since moving from New York City, I have fewer opportunities to “practice” compassion. I use it in many of the same type situations as lovingkindness, but because it is briefer, I tend to use it where there is a situation of spontaneity (such as driving past a group of obviously drunk men leaving a dilapidated bar) but I use metta with more foresight and intention.
There is not much difference for me between general expressions of compassion and those directed to someone suffering from or affected by alcoholism. I have found that karuna practice is cumulative, and the compassionate quivering of the heart and wishes for suffering to end occur more and more spontaneously. Its effects are remarkable in breaking down a sense of separation between ourselves and others, alcoholic or not.
You can learn more about 12 Steps on the Buddha's Path here.