‘My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.’
HH the Dalai Lama
Meditation is sometimes described as the two wings of a bird – one wing is insight, and the other compassion. Another way of describing insight is to think of it as greater clarity, having more awareness of what is going on in our lives rather than living in avoidance or fantasy. This is developed by staying with body sensations, thoughts and feelings during meditation, having an attitude of openness and acceptance to our experience, and thereby gaining deeper insights into our inner life and though patterns. Compassion is then about approaching ‘life as it is’ with kindness rather than judgemental harshness.
In our meditation practice, we often tend to lean towards one or the other – insight or compassion. Some of us might be rigorous in our meditation and sit very still and solidly, but we could be impatient with those who are restless and fidgety. Other people give up easily at the first signs of struggle, not wanting to put themselves through the discipline required. Yet both wings are equally important for the bird to fly. Without insight, we are in danger of acting like compassionate fools, and might easily make situations worse, despite our best intentions – along the lines of ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’. Yet without compassion, all our wonderful insights may achieve nothing more than to make us feel aloof and superior.
If you meditate regularly, you will find there are times when you simply don’t want to be there. You might be in physical or emotional pain (often both!), you might feel restless and agitated, or else you’re so distracted thinking of all the things which need to be done today, you just want to get up and start on them right away. In order to develop affect tolerance and become less reactive, we’re encouraged to stay with the meditation regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. Yet there is a fine line between developing affect tolerance, and simply being hard on ourselves. How do we know when to push ourselves harder, and when to ease off? There are no rules – each individual circumstance is different, and even within us we can have different needs from one week to the next. The reality is that while self-kindness is wonderful and to be encouraged, at times we need to be tough and disciplined if we want to change the way we react to stress, to find more mature and skilful ways of dealing with the difficulties of our lives.
This is one area where a solitary meditation practice can easily go ‘off track’ and end up stuck in a rut – either constantly comforting ourselves and making each meditation cosier than the last; or else getting lost in some samurai warrior fantasy where every day we’re fighting cosmic internal battles. If we’re fortunate enough to have an ongoing meditation teacher, she or he should help us discern areas where our practice needs to be revitalised. A regular meditation group, or attending retreats, can also be helpful.
‘My religion is kindness.’ It’s a wonderful quote by the Dalai Lama, but it’s good to also remember that he gets up at 3 am every day to practice many hours of meditation before and after breakfast.
Weekly practice idea:
Are you most likely to be too hard, or too soft, on yourself? If too hard, try bringing some softness into your practice, feeling it perhaps around the heart centre. If too soft, explore a more disciplined approach and notice the benefits of this over the coming weeks and months.