Here, monks, a disciple dwells pervading one direction with his heart filled with compassion, likewise the second, the third and the fourth direction; so above, below and around; he dwells pervading the entire world everywhere and equally with his heart filled with compassion, abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity and free from distress.
— Digha Nikaya 13
As we slowly emerge from the stresses of the last year and we all begin to be a bit more mobile we are now seeing the changes around us. We all know that we aren't going 'back to 2019,' but we are just learning what the post-lockdown world looks like. I personally dislike the term 'new normal,' as it implies there is such a thing as 'normal' to begin with. What we know is things change - sometimes a lot, sometimes a little - but change is always happening.
It has been interesting these last few weeks to see what different areas now look like. I have felt joyful and encouraged by what I have seen in some areas and saddened by others. It is a mix - which is what I would expect.
One of the changes that is more obvious is the visibility of those who are homeless. Of course this didn't start with COVID, the increase was starting before then, but now we see it in front of us almost anywhere we drive or walk. The homeless have always been there, it is just that they are now visible.
I am not going to get into the social, political or economic causes or possible solutions to the current problem - I don't for a moment pretend to be an expert. But what I can do is remind us all that all the homeless, every one of them, are human beings who are currently suffering. Every single one of them is someone we have included in our Metta meditations. They may be currently outside of society but they should not be out of reach of our hearts.
We are taught that when a heart filled with Metta - lovingkindness or goodwill - meets someone who suffers then the response is Karuṇā or compassion. In his book "Peace is Every Step" Thích Nhất Hạnh says:
The essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves "inside the skin" of the other. We "go inside" their body, feelings, and mental formations, and witness for ourselves their suffering. Shallow observation as an outsider is not enough to see their suffering. We must become one with the subject of our observation. When we are in contact with another's suffering, a feeling of compassion is born in us. Compassion means, literally, "to suffer with."It is easy to feel pity for those in an unfortunate situation, but pity is a distancing emotion. Pity (or sentimental pity) is regarded as the 'near enemy' of Karuṇā - in the sense that it may outwardly look like compassion but deep down it is a distancing emotion - you wish the suffering away not for the other person's sake but for your own. True compassion is brave, not cowardly.
Choosing compassion can be hard, as it makes us vulnerable and uncomfortable, but it is something we can learn to cultivate.
Again, I don't pretend for a moment to have this right. When I see a homeless camp I don't immediately feel deep compassion, true Karuṇā. My emotions are mixed and complex. But that, of course, is why we do the practice.
I have linked below a fully guided Karuṇā Bhavana meditation (cultivation of compassion). A group of us have committed to press play together at 7pm PT on Sunday 6th June - you are welcome to join us if you wish or use the recording in any way that helps your practice.
PS: Exciting news - If you live in the Camas/East Vancouver area I am hoping that we will be able to meet in person again really soon! I am working with the generous owners of the studio to firm up the details so that those who are comfortable can once again join us in person - hopefully some time in June - watch this space!