I was deeply moved the other evening to watch the new documentary film The Last Dalai Lama? about the Dalai Lama's life and practice in light of the tragic story of the occupation of Tibet by China and the diaspora of Tibetans living in exile in India and around the world.
This is something I've often thought about having met several Tibetan Lamas and read their stories. Although far from a perfect culture or religion, Tibetan Buddhism has a strong emphasis on the cultivation of compassion.
When asked towards the end of the film if HH the Dalai Lama is angry with the Chinese for the invasion and repression of the Tibetan people, he chuckled a little and said, "sometimes a little bit!" holding his fingers in the universal pincer motion. And then he explained that every morning during his 4-5 hours of daily practice he practices taking in the suffering and anger of the Chinese leaders and the suffering of the Chinese soldiers ordered to carry out repressive policies. He practices breathing in that suffering and pain and breathing out compassion and kindness.
Whether that had changed Chinese hearts and minds or not he said, "I don't know, but it has helped me. Helped me very much."
This is an impressive practice of compassion and forgiveness. And a powerful example of how we can stabilize the mind and orient it towards compassion even in the fact of great stress and difficulty. I felt this all the more keenly after I went home and read (in the amazing graphic novel of the Dalai Lama's life Man of Peace: The Illustrated Life Story of the Dalai Lama of Tibet) some of the context from the invasion of Tibet. It was powerful to learn more about the violent and difficult context in which he's been doing this practice for 60 years. In 1959, the year he fled Tibet and China assumed full control, at least 80,000 Tibetans were massacred by the Chinese military. Atrocities such as shelling buildings full of civilians are well documented, and things continue to be extremely difficult for Tibetans living under occupation conditions.
We may not have such a difficult background in our minds. But every person has known trauma and difficulty. The mind can be completely overwhelmed by the traumas and difficulties of life. Our stress and fear systems can "hijack" our minds. Or, with practice it seems, the mind can remain open, flexible, and kind - even in the face of great adversity.
It made me think about how mindfulness and compassion practices support each other and made me all the more grateful to be involved in this work. And watching this film motivated me to focus my attention more carefully and think about how we can increase compassion and mindfulness in ourselves and our society. Surely if HH the Dalai Lama can practice in this way, even if we don't have a monastic education and the support to practice for hours per day, we can all become more mindful and compassionate.
Our practice of mindfulness stabilizes our attention in several ways. It especially gives us more access to the "meta-awareness" that we often celebrate with a quotation from Jewish psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl:
In between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.
With the practice of mindfulness - that repeated training in present-centered, open, non-judgmental attention - we can feel this space and have more of a mindful choice, from moment to moment, in how we respond to the difficulties and the joys of this life.
How we respond once we feel that space is where practices of loving-kindness and compassion come in. Recent studies have shown that even a relatively small amount of compassion meditation can warm up our natural human ability to be kind, open, and compassionate. Studies reported in the wonderful new book Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson suggest that, "compassion meditation enhances empathetic concern, activates brain circuits for good feelings and love, as well as circuits that register the suffering of others, and prepares a person to act when suffering is encountered." They go on to say that, "loving-kindness acts quickly: in as little as eight hours of practice [there is a significant effect]; reductions in usually intractable unconscious bias emerge after just sixteen hours [of meditation training]." Not only does our conscious awareness become kinder and more compassionate, even our unconscious biased responses to others become more loving and less biased.I'm pleased that Mindfulness Northwest can contribute to the conversation around mindfulness and compassion by offering both the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and the Mindful Self-Compassion classes in Bellingham and Seattle as well as retreats and other workshops. And there are also other excellent local groups, teachers, and practice places. Just reading and thinking about mindfulness and compassion isn't enough in a world with so much suffering. As we send this newsletter out we're reeling in the face of yet another mass shooting. May we all find time and space to train our minds and hearts and make this world at least a little wiser and kinder in whatever ways we can. May you and all beings be happy and free from suffering,
Tim Burnett, Executive Director
More information on MBSR: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
More information on MSC: Mindful Self-Compassion