This piece was written for Religious Studies Professor Kerry Skora’s “Mindfulness, Meditation and Healing” course, an advanced seminar in religious studies and biomedical humanities. Inspired by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s and Richard Davidson’s pioneering work in mindfulness and healing, this course presents an in-depth study of the natural connection between medicine and meditation, mindfulness and healing. It combines third-person religious/cultural/historical/humanistic and scientific studies of mindfulness and its relation to healing and compassion, with “critical first-person” encounters of one’s own body-mind, using Buddhist-based contemplative practices.
From a religious studies/humanities perspective, students in the class studied various Buddhist-based teachings and practices connected to medicine, healing, well-being and wholeness. They focused on notions of suffering and freedom from suffering. The practices and teachings were connected to contemporary studies from the science of mindfulness on the benefit of meditation for healing and caring with compassion.
For this assignment, students drew from first-person contemplative experiences (They had to all follow a rigorous eight-week mindfulness program.) and third-person descriptions and interpretations, in response to various readings, thinking about the value of mindfulness and meditation.
By Renee Pengov ‘18
“If we could have a better balance between the development of intelligence on one side and the development of a loving, compassionate frame of mind on the other, this world would be far more harmonious, far more at peace,” say Rinpoche and Shlim. Compassion is defined in their book, “Medicine & Compassion,” as: the sincere wish to alleviate the suffering of another.
According to Rinpoche and Shlim compassionate qualities are intrinsic. “Some people say that the gods create what is good, while all the harmful and abusive activity in the world is the work of the devil.” However, Rinpoche and Shlim believe that this activity is a product of the creative human intelligence. You can look closely at every person and find good within them, but you can also look closely and find a negative side to them. Each person is a mixture of both negative and positive qualities.
Our basic nature is referred to as ‘mind’ in Buddhist philosophy, which says that we all have the property of being compassionate. Females are not actually inherently more compassionate than males, but have their ‘compassion seeds’ watered more frequently. Women seem to be treated in a more nurturing way than males and learn ways of compassion throughout their habitual interactions. I have found myself comparing me to my brother in ways that we look at situations and I find that although he is a kind and caring person, I am far more compassionate for people in all different types of situations. This is not to say that I am any more of a wholesome person than he is, but that my compassion seeds have been watered more often than his. Repeated physical compassion from my parents and friends, which I have welcomed, have continuously watered my compassion seeds.
Although compassion is said to be an intrinsic quality, it is not unconditional. As is mentioned in “Medicine & Compassion,” we have all had experiences in which someone has treated us poorly and at that time, it is hard to feel compassion for this person who has mistreated us. According to Buddha, we should aim at cultivating loving-kindness and compassion that knows no bounds, that is not limited to people we already know and like. However, according to Rinpoche and Shlim, we have already discovered that this type of boundless compassion does not come naturally. Unless we train ourselves in this type of compassion, we will not have it.
We should be training in compassion. Why are we not being taught compassion in school? Why are we not taught compassion at our jobs? Becoming more compassionate is not about learning more of the qualities of compassion but it is about taking away our obscure habits. Becoming more compassionate helps to take away the suffering of ourselves and others. Most lack knowledge on the importance of compassion when it is something that we should all be practicing for the betterment of our society!
Increasing compassion in our society will not take away suffering, for suffering is built into our existence. Rinpoche and Shlim say, “All of our suffering is ultimately based on ignorance, which here means ‘not knowing our true nature.’ The subtle sense of unease with which we often live is due to the way we form and cling to our own thoughts.” Yet compassion can ease suffering and even help to eliminate our emotional illnesses. We need to use our intelligence to our benefit — Rinpoche and Shlim introduce the idea that if we know and apply the appropriate remedies to our suffering we can counteract its causes:
“We will not be able to access our innate compassion simply by thinking about it. We must learn the techniques for accessing sustainable compassion and then make an effort to put them into practice. With the basic motivation to relieve the suffering of others, we are prepared to begin the special training for development and sustaining effortless compassion.”