Compassion vs. Loving-Kindness
In meditation practices, we are advised to have compassion for any suffering. Whether it is ours or somebody else's, the wise response to suffering is compassion. Compassion is often defined as "the quivering of the heart." Metta or loving-kindness is unconditional friendliness directed toward everyone and everything, while compassion is taking this same feeling and specifically directing it toward suffering.
Self-Compassion and Unpleasant Feelings
When we have a feeling that we find unpleasant, our first reaction is often to avert. We hate it, and wish that it wasn't there. We either run from it or push it away. In meditation, we often have unpleasantness arise. Whether it is in the form of a physical sensation, a thought, or an emotion, unpleasantness happens. However, our reaction of aversion does not need to happen. The Buddha taught that this aversion is one of the Three Poisons, or one of the chief causes of suffering.
Every time I sit, I experience unpleasant feelings, thoughts, or emotions. I have practiced the brahmaviharas and am quite familiar with the idea of compassion. After practicing for quite some time, compassion was something I understood from an intellectual standpoint more than an experiential one. I understood that when we have an unpleasant feeling, we are to respond with compassion. I also understood that in compassion, we don't avert from our unpleasant feelings.
On my recent retreat, I was having a rather unpleasant few days. Sitting in meditation, I had many unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations arising. On the second night, one of the teachers gave a dharma talk on self-compassion. For the first time, I truly understood compassion from my own personal experience.
In the past I had thought of compassion as a response to suffering that was better than aversion. However, a part of me expected that with compassion, the pain would dissipate. In this experience, I had the realization that with compassion, I am allowing the unpleasantness to be a part of my experience.
Compassion is not trying to get rid of something with a nicer tone. Compassion is welcoming something as part of my experience and allowing it to follow its natural path of impermanence. When I wish for some feeling to leave, I end up suffering more. When I allow it to take its path, I am not holding onto it.
Here are some of the self-compassion phrases I used toward my suffering:
"May I touch my suffering with compassion."
"May my heart be open to my pain."
"May no part of my experience be excluded from my love."
"May I make friends with every part of myself today."
The point of these phrases for me was to no longer push the unpleasant feelings away. With these phrases, I practiced allowing the unpleasantness to be a part of my experience. I practiced letting things happen. I practiced opening my heart to each experience I had. With mindfulness, I saw that the unpleasant feeling was not "bad" and that its natural state was impermanent. Changing my relationship to pain allows me to suffer less.