by Cornelia Oancea
In Buddhism, there’s something called Loving-kindness/Lovingkindness (Metta) meditation. The basic practice of it is wishing positive things (health, happiness, safety, comfort, etc.) first to oneself, then outward to a loved one, a neutral person, and eventually to all beings. A super-simplified, pared down version might be:
May I/you be happy
May I/you be free
May I/you be safe
May I/you live a life of peace and ease
In some iterations, metta meditation also includes radiating these positive thoughts towards a person who is difficult for you to have kind thoughts about — someone with whom you struggle or have personal conflict, someone who does harm (sometimes on a large scale). The idea is that you wish everyone to be free from the painful states that can lead some to behave in negative or detrimental ways (to others, society, themselves, etc.), both for your own growth in the practice, and because of the underlying idea that people cause suffering because they suffer in some way (whether from mental illness, or not being loved, or clinging to damaging ways of thinking).
Many times, I choose a political leader or otherwise powerful/influential figure that I see as doing harm as the “difficult person” for whom I try to cultivate metta.
I’m not very skilled at this type of meditation. I have a hard enough time cultivating loving-kindness for myself some days. As you might expect, when I reach the difficult person, the struggle gets really real. My mind just wants to skip to the “all beings” part, wherein I can picture the people and animals and other living creatures who really deserve loving kindness, compassion, prayers, good things.
But lovingkindness and compassion are not predicated on deserving or earning. They’re things to just give freely. Because we all have within us the capacity to be both helpful and harmful, and are all inter-connected, living under the illusion that we aren’t. Here are a few lines from Buddhist monk, scholar and poet Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Call Me by My True Names”, which capture the essence of that:
“I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda."
And so, I’m trying to cultivate compassion for those who got conned into voting for this current administration, because they didn’t know better or were desperate, and are now suffering (or will soon suffer). The marginalized (or spouses/loved ones of the marginalized) who thought the rhetoric only applied to the “bad ones” among them. The staunchly pro-life women who may lose access to necessary health care. The swaths of America whose past industries aren’t going to see a resurgence. The third-party voters who had to make a statement. Oh, and the people who just checked out of the whole thing and didn’t vote.
It’d be easy to turn to schadenfreude for these people, to snicker at their self-perpetuated misfortunes. And there are many who are trying to engender that exact response, for their own gain (clicks, sales, whatever). It’s easy to say “well, I’m just going to reserve all my compassion for those who chose wisely and are going to get screwed, the ones who really need and deserve my compassion.”
Compassion is not a finite resource, though, the way time and money (and oil and polar ice and clean water) are. And it’s not a value judgment, not about who is more/less worthy. Or who has it “worse” (the point is, ideally, no one should have to have it “bad”). Having compassion for the out-of-work, black lung-suffering, coal miner doesn’t negate or diminish compassion for the person living in inner city poverty.
It’s also evident, in practical terms, that the suffering of large segments of our population is a detriment to our nation as a whole. It erodes our unity. It’s something opportunists latch onto for their own personal and political gain (“divide and conquer” is a well-worn strategy for good reason).
Just something I’ve been mulling over.
And while I think it’s beneficial to try cultivating widespread compassion, I recognize and stand by the idea that we can still be discerning as to where and how we direct our finite resources (especially time and money).
Cornelia L. Dolian is a writer you can follow on Twitter and like on Facebook.