On Karuna – compassion

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Karuna – compassion – cultivates a desire to end suffering, in oneself and others. Expanding my circles of empathy, the meditation process I followed invited me to wish “May I be free from suffering. May my close ones be free of suffering. May my enemies be free from suffering.” Metta came easily – flows of loving-kindess rippled through my brain like a gentle stream on demand. Karuna was dry: an experience of profound boredom. While I would close my eyes and experience metta right away, when it came to Karuna, I felt nothing – and simply sat through, patiently, repeating the mantra, seemingly to no end.

Reflecting on this blockage, my first guess is that I experienced a reluctance at a practice that appeared selfish. When I wished for the relief of someone close to me, someone neutral, or even someone I rather disliked – I couldn’t help but think: their suffering makes my life difficult. Wishing for an end to their suffering, therefore, has nothing disinterested: quite the opposite, it is entirely self-centered.

Yet, when I thought about it deeper, my resistance was profoundly irrational. Why should I not want the end of others’ suffering, particularly if it causes mine? Is this not a form of empathy, that I should fully experience the suffering of others as my own? Does Karuna, then, reveal an invisible hand of suffering – whereby if everyone was to focus on reducing their own pain, then the collective would improve as well.

I reflected further – why should that be a problem? I realized I hold a belief that suffering is good, is inevitable on the path to growth and experience. Whether imitatio Christi, or a post-Hegelian embrace of contradiction, this belief in the value of suffering now strikes me as very European. Often, concretely, it result in a light form of mania: increase pleasure so that pain will drown. A vision of the good life as one where good things are accomplished. As Patrick and I jokingly said – the Buddhist model say under a tree for years. And yet, within my own tradition, this image resonates: as Pascal wrote, the world would be at peace if men were able to sit in a room doing nothing.

As I reflected further yet, I realised that the same pattern – focus on reducing pain rather than increasing pleasure – echoed one of my regular rants when it comes to business. Profit is about spending less than you make – and yet, in most companies, the salesperson bringing in 10k will be celebrated more than the procurement person saving 100k. That same logic underlies our highly wasteful economies. If we were to all embrace more of Karuna, what pain might we then avoid – to ourselves and the planet. The price to pay may be temporary boredom. But the result is something I left aside: a lightness, a greater capacity to act, and rather than temporary manic pleasure, the deep bliss of lasting, effective and purposeful activity.