From ‘The Art of Meditation’ by Matthieu Ricard
We have all, to varying degrees, had the experience of profound altruistic love, of a feeling of all-encompassing benevolence, of intense compassion for those who are suffering. Some of us are naturally more altruistic than others, sometimes to the point of heroism. Others are more turned in on themselves and find it hard to consider the welfare of others as an essential goal, and even harder to put the welfare of others before their own. Whichever the case may be, it is essential to cultivate altruism. Being altruistic not only helps us to benefit others, but it is also the most satisfying way to live. This is the opposite of a heightened feeling of self-importance that only brings pain to oneself and others.
In general, even when altruistic thoughts arise in our mind, they are fairly quickly replaced by other less wholesome thoughts such as those of anger or jealousy. That is why, if we want altruism to play a major role in our being, we must spend some time cultivating it, because just wishing is not enough.
As we discussed earlier, meditation is a means of familiarizing ourselves with a new way of being. Now, how can we meditate on altruism? First of all, we must realize that in the deepest part of ourselves, we do not want to suffer, we want to aspire to happiness. Once we have recognized this aspiration, the next thing we have to do is to realize that all beings share it. We also need to realize that the right not to suffer, though often ignored, is without a doubt the most fundamental right of all beings. Finally, we must realize that there are causes and conditions to suffering and therefore remedies to it.
Unfortunately, when it comes to choosing the means of creating happiness and preventing more suffering, we are often unskillful or altogether off the mark. Some people get lost on the wrong track by blindly seeking to achieve their own happiness at the price of others’ suffering. Generally speaking, we should unreservedly wish for all sentient beings to be delivered from the causes of suffering. To this end, the Buddhist texts advise us to cultivate four particular thoughts or attitudes and to expand them without limit. These are altruistic love, compassion, joy in the happiness of others, and impartiality.
Meditation One: Altruistic Love
Imagine a young child approaches you and gives you a look that is joyous, confident and full of innocence. You stroke his head, look at him with tenderness, and take him in your arms. You feel a sense of unconditional benevolence and love. Let yourself be entirely pervaded by this love that wishes for nothing more than his well-being. Then, cultivate, sustain and nourish this feeling of loving kindness. When it declines, revive it. At the end of the session, rest for a few moments in the mindful awareness of love.
You could choose someone else towards whom you feel great tenderness and deep gratitude. Wish with all your heart that this person will find happiness and the causes of happiness, and then extend this wish to all those you are close to, then to those you know less well, then progressively to all beings.
Finally, extend this wish to your personal enemies and to the enemies of all humanity. This last case obviously does not mean you wish them success in their deadly plans. You are simply formulating a strong wish that they will give up their hatred, greed, cruelty and indifference and that benevolence and care for the happiness of others will be born in their minds. The worse an illness is, the more need the sick person has for care, attention and goodwill. In this way, embrace the totality of beings with a feeling of limitless love.
Meditation Two: Compassion
Now imagine that someone dear to you has been the victim of a terrible accident. It is night time, and she is lying covered in blood on the roadside, suffering from terrible pain. Help is late in arriving and you don’t know what to do. You feel this dear person’s suffering intensely, as though it was your own, and this is mixed with a growing sense of distress and helplessness. This pain strikes you in the deepest part of your being, to the point where it becomes nearly intolerable. What should you do?
At this moment, let yourself go into an immense feeling of love towards this person. Imagine taking her gently in your arms. Imagine that waves of love stream forth from you and pour over her. Imagine that each atom of her suffering is replaced by an atom of love. Wish from the bottom of your heart for her to survive, be healed and cease to suffer.
This feeling of compassion comes from the same place in you as altruistic love and is nothing else than love applied to suffering. Now extend this compassion to other people who are close to you, then, little by little, to all beings, making the following wish deep in your heart: ‘May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.’
Meditation Three: Rejoicing in the Happiness of Others
There are people in this world who have tremendously good qualities and others who lavish benefits on humanity and whose humanitarian projects have been crowned with success. There are also people who have realized their aspirations through great effort and steadfast perseverance, and still others who possess many talents.
Rejoice from the bottom of your heart in their accomplishments. Wish for their good qualities not to wane, but on the contrary to continue and flourish. The ability to feel joy in the most positive qualities of others is the best antidote there is to discouragement and to a dim and desperate view of the world and of human beings. It is also the remedy for envy and jealousy, which are reflections of the inability to rejoice in the happiness of others.
Meditation Four: Impartiality
Impartiality is an essential element in the three preceding meditations, because the wish for all beings to be delivered from suffering and its causes has to be universal and not dependent in our personal bias or on the way others treat us. Take the point of view of a doctor, who takes it on himself to heal sick people no matter who they are or how serious they are.
Realize that all beings, whether they are close to you, strangers or enemies, want to avoid suffering. Also reflect on the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena of the universe and of the beings that inhabit it. Interdependence is the very basis of altruism. Like the sun that shines equally on good people and evil ones, on beautiful landscapes or dung heaps, do your best to extend the altruistic love, compassion and joy you cultivated in the three preceding meditations to all beings without distinction.
Recall again that when it comes to your own and others’ enemies, you do not intend to encourage or passively tolerate their attitudes and harmful acts, but you look at them as very sick or mad people. So with the same goodwill that you feel towards those who are close to you, wish for the ignorance and destructive feelings that rule them to be eradicated from their consciousness.
Combining the Four Meditations
Begin with altruistic love, the strong wish for others to find happiness and the causes of happiness. If after a while, this love drifts towards self-centred attachment, move on to the meditation on impartiality in order to extend your love and compassion equally to all beings – dear ones, strangers or enemies.
If your impartiality turns to indifference, it is time to think of people who are suffering and arouse intense compassion within you with the wish to relieve these beings from all their suffering. But it can happen that, as a result of being continually concerned with the endless misfortunes of others, you may be overcome by the immensity of the task and lose heart. At that point, meditate on your joy in the happiness of others, thinking of those people who possess great human qualities and of those people whose altruistic aspirations have been successful. Rejoice fully in that.
If that joy turns into blind euphoria and distraction, go back again to altruistic love – and so on. Develop the four thoughts in this way while avoiding the pitfalls possible in each of them. At the end of your meditation, contemplate the interdependence of all things for a few moments and their lack of autonomous, intrinsic existence. Understand that, just as a bird needs two wings to fly, you must develop wisdom and compassion simultaneously. Wisdom is a better understanding of reality and compassion is the desire for all beings to be liberated from the causes of suffering.
Sources of Inspiration
From ‘The Joy of Living’ by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Compassion is a spontaneous feeling of connection with all living beings. What you feel, I feel; what I feel; you feel. There’s no difference between us… When I began to practise meditation on compassion, however, I found that my sense of isolation began to diminish, while at the same time my personal sense of empowerment began to grow. Where once I saw only problems, I started to see solutions. Where once I viewed my own happiness as more important than the happiness of others, I began to see the well-being of others as the foundation of my own peace of mind.
From ‘The Way of the Bodhisattva’ ‘by Shantideva
May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road.
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.
May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,
And a lamp for those who long for light;
For those who need a resting place, a bed;
For all who need a servant, may I be their slave.
May I be the wishing jewel, the vase of plenty,
A word of power, and the supreme remedy.
May I be the trees of miracles,
And for every being, the abundant cow.
Like the earth and the pervading elements,
Enduring as the sky itself endures,
For the boundless multitude of living beings,
May I be their ground and sustenance.
Thus, for every thing that lives,
As far as are the limits of the sky,
May I provide their livelihood and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bonds of suffering.
As long as space endures,
As long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world.