As always, we begin with our group meditation, taking the time to arrive and leave the outside world behind. The group meditations always feel stronger, deeper, than when I carry out my meditations on my own. For me, this brings home the strength of human connection and nonverbal communication. We all know from experience that even sat in silence the air can be filled with emotion and tension. Facial expressions, body movements and physiological responses communicate more than words do.
Someone starts by sharing how difficult it was after our last session, that they had a sense of sadness that stayed with them for a couple of days. I also spent a few days in a depressed mood following our last sessions of exploring difficulty. Others share the pain of losing loved ones unexpectedly, the empathic feeling is in the air again and I choose not to share my experiences and save my words for this blog.
The weekend after the class, I had a migraine, something I’ve suffered with for many years. When I have an attack, I tend to fight with the pain. My migraines start in my neck and shoulder, then the pain travels upwards towards the base of my skull, radiating across the left side of my face before finally coming to a point above my left eye. Sometimes the pain is so bad that I spend hours in the shower, numbing my head with the hot water, or even need to visit the hospital emergency room.
I have medication, but it has to be taken within a small window of opportunity to be effective. When I miss this window, the day tends to be lost to me fighting the pain and fighting the urge to vomit. This time I decided to use the meditations to accept the pain, breathing into my pain, exploring it in detail and using my breathing to let the pain dissolve across my head and throughout my body. Rather than fight the urge to vomit, I allow this to happen. I still suffered for most of the day, but felt that I managed my pain better, not struggling or fighting with my migraine. In accepting that this was happening, I felt less tired and worn out once my headache lifted.
We spend some time in the class talking about accepting our difficulties rather than fighting them. For me, my migraine was the ultimate metaphor for this struggle. I can’t control this pain, but fighting it never works. I need to let it happen and let go my attempt to control my experiences. A great deal of our struggle is found in the denial of the inevitability of our pain and suffering. Acceptance doesn’t mean we give up or roll over; rather we take what is given, embrace it and live it. By moving towards our pain, exploring and understanding it, we lessen the hold it has over us.
The discussion turns towards compassion. To truly change the relationship that we have with our difficulties, we need to develop compassion and kindness for others, but most importantly for ourselves. Our instructor introduces us to new meditation; this is one that I’ve practised before the ‘metta bhavana’ meditation – the development of loving-kindness.
First, we are asked to call to mind someone who invokes feelings of joy and happiness in us. Holding this person in mind I silently repeat the words, ‘may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from pain and suffering’. I feel a sense of love and warmth start to build in my chest as my emotion lifts, a smile forms on my face.
Next, we are asked to picture ourselves. I imagine looking at myself in a mirror, and start to repeat the words ‘May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from pain and suffering’. Suddenly, my eyes tear up and a tear forms and rolls down my cheek. I’m feeling the same sensation that I feel from empathy and compassion. I allow the feeling to happen rather than fight it, but it is difficult to keep an image of myself in mind and give myself compassion.
Finally, we move on to someone neutral, someone who we don’t particularly like or dislike. I think about someone I saw on the metro, and again I repeat the words, ‘may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from pain and suffering’. The feelings of empathy and compassion are still with me, and I silently send this out. We finish by bringing all three people to mind, repeating our words and sending out loving-kindness.
Again we share our experiences and discover that others find it equally difficult to give themselves compassion and empathy. As with exploring difficulty, giving yourself compassion and empathy is a difficult process. We constantly chide ourselves for being selfish, angry or not good enough. This message is amplified by western society and the messages around us. We are told to strive for the perfect body, the perfect face, and the perfect relationship. Anything less, and we are failures. Through this noise, it is difficult to hear our self-critical thoughts for what they are, a request for empathy and compassion.
We all suffer. We all have failed relationships and we all have said things we wished we hadn’t. We all haven’t lived up to our ideals as a friend, a partner, a father, a mother, a son or a daughter. We all can empathise with our friends and family when they share these experiences because we recognise them ourselves. Rather than being selfish, compassion for ourselves enables us to be compassionate for others. We remove our feelings of guilt and shame and replace these with happiness and compassion that we can give to everyone around us