Awakening Your Good Heart: How to Grow Love, Mercy, Empathy and Compassion

The  quality of mercy is not strain’d,

 It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

 Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

 It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. – Shakespeare


Let’s begin from from long ago…. let’s start with how we have come to understand one of the most beautiful qualities of the human experience – mercy.

The etymology of the ancient Latin word, ‘merces.’ This word was used by the Romans when paying for something – specifically wages or a reward.

The early Christians used the word as a response to the brutal subjection from the soldiers of the Roman Empire. For Christians, ‘merces,’ meant the spiritual reward one receives for doing a kindness in response to injustice and brutality.

The word came into early French as, ‘merci,’ with much the same meaning as was later passed on to our Modern English as the word, ‘mercy’. While mercy in English now has the meaning “kindness or pity shown to someone,” the word merci in French has lost much of that meaning and is chiefly used today to mean, “thank you .”

How to best understand the difference between pity and compassion?
Experientially let’s begin by going through some fairly typical struggles people go through when thinking of being of assistance to a friend, family member or stranger.
We see a homeless person at a red light or under a bridge asking for our help. We can ignore and act like they are not there. We can begin to red-light rationalize…what will do they ‘really,’ do with the money? And by the time the light turns it’s too late anyway. We can also give freely without concern as some of the many options.

A family member who asks for help – a friend, a brother, our child. Lend them money? Under what conditions?

A world disaster…refugees, an earthquake, a tsunami, starving children, an outbreak of disease, a country being ravaged by extremists…on what basis do we help with one disaster, but not the other? What about animals, or our planet? Where do we start, and where do we stop?
Should we think globally, but act locally? Perhaps only help people of the same religion as us? The same country? The same family? Only ourselves?

If only you want happiness and to stop suffering for yourself I’ll take it – that’s a good enough place to begin as you have just enough of the requisite seed of wisdom to transform from a normal self-cherishing person into a lovely and wise human being. That you do not want to suffer and that you want to be happy is all that we need as a starting point to grow your good heart.

In mindfulness practice we define compassion from the Sanskrit, ‘Karuna.’ Karuna is the wish for ourselves and others not to suffer. Sometimes we can go beyond this wish and turn it into action, but at the very least we start with the wish to not suffer for ourselves. The basic recognition is that you want to be happy and that you do not want to suffer.

Empathetically we can then realize that all other vertebrates or sentient beings are built exactly the same way. There is no one alive who we don’t share that commonality with. All discrimination and prejudice is completely based on missing this most obvious and essential point of the good heart.

The basic idea behind growing empathy is – once more – and let’s get it straight – that we all want to be happy and none of us want to suffer. That is our shared commonality regardless of age, race, religion, gender, country or sexual orientation.

As a first step toward understanding compassionate mercy let’s begin with the the truth of the inherent suffering of existence. There are situations that are common to all of us just by being born: we will face the common struggles of simply being alive. The common struggles that we will almost all face after birth are our initial development, gender roles, education, sexual concerns, employment, finances, relationships, getting sick, getting older, worries about the future, and finally the death of loved ones and ourselves.

This is a call for deep acceptance, meaning that this is the condition of life, there is no getting out of it. There’s no point in struggling so hard against these things, as many of them are simply the by products of being born. In other words we can begin here with compassion for ourselves, as many of the struggles and the pain that we face in life are simply the way things are. To a very large degree we will experience the pain of existence, and therefore there is no need to suffer for that. Deep acceptance with life please – there is no one to blame – not yourself, not another, not God – this is simply the way things are.

We can say that much of our suffering has to do with the denial of the reality that suffering is indeed an inherent or intrinsic part of existence. The more we live in denial of this the more we compound our suffering unnecessarily. Everyone dies, there are no exceptions to this – we have no idea when. That means our parents, our children, our friends, ourselves… There is absolutely no way of knowing who will go first. We suffer in direct proportion to the denial of this essential truth.

We also suffer in direct proportion to something else that is a basic fact of reality – that everything is constantly changing and we are not in control of that change. Try as we might, we are not in control – we lie to ourselves all too often. Infinite causes and conditions go into every moment, thus we are not in control of the way things are – only our relationship to the way things are.

Examine yourself, examine your life… Is it true? Do you and have you suffered for the denial of reality and rejecting change?

We both know the answer to this. This is the beginning of compassion for yourself and empathy for others. Look to see if you suffer unnecessarily by rejecting reality. I suggest not opposing reality at the risk of even further pain.

Love yourself just enough to accept these essential truths – that suffering is a central part of existence, and that everything changes. We are beginning to understand when we stop blaming ourselves and others for the reality of life. Blamelessness is the Deep Path toward a compassionate heart.

Finally we suffer from the myth of separation. The idea of separation is that we are over here and that others and the world are out there, outside – separate from ourselves. This myth of separation is particularly poisonous and toxic. The myth of separation is what allows us to look out for ourselves and not care for others or our environment. We are more than just deeply interconnected, it goes far deeper than that. Quite literally the world and other people and in fact all living things are not separate from yourself.

How to understand this potentially mystical comment? Imagine that you are a gun owner, but you had a gun for self protection. Imagine that late, in the dark hours of the middle of the night you hear the sound of glass breaking and footsteps in the living room. What do you do with your gun? Imagine that you arm yourself and open the door and turn on the light.

Before shooting this intruder, imagine that you suddenly recognize the intruder as your own addicted child, brother, or sister. Even your own parent. Do you pull the trigger? On what basis then can we harm someone else? This is completely based on the idea that the other person is not our own flesh and blood. That we are over here, and they, the enemy – are over there. On what basis do you make such a claim? And this is true for people of other religions, races, genders and religion. Why are you over here and assume they are over there?

It is on the basis that you believe that you reside within this collection of skin, flesh, bones, blood, thoughts and emotions and that other people reside in that other collection – out there – outside of you. It is so worth your time to sit down in contemplative meditative silence and begin to explore this supposition, this false assumption.

Go ahead and try… Strip away mentally part by part and see if you can find the ground, this belief that you have that there is a self existent person within this collective process that is simply just being. You identify too strongly with this collection of parts as though they are intrinsic and real – even though in the very best of scenarios that clearly is not going to be the case for much longer.

When you look down at your own skin or the skin of another, all you see is skin – not your skin and their skin – just skin. It’s so important that you fight the urge to think that there’s a ghost in this machine, that there’s a hidden mover, or a wizard behind the curtain… The more you look, the more you examine, the more you contemplate – the more you will see this is simply not true. Hurting other people is simply based on the false assumption that they are over there outside of you.

Once you begin to experientially understand – then your compassion will become limitless, you will understand that there is no person or world, that is out there separate from you. Their suffering is your suffering. Their happiness is your happiness – so there’s no need to have competition or jealousy with anyone. There will no longer will be the need to size people up anymore, to compare, to rate. All that will remain is your good heart and compassion for all that you touch and all that you see.

The alternative is pain, and it is largely unnecessary. Your are responsible for yourself and the world that you see. You are not separate.
When it comes to how well you treat others, simply ask yourself this question:
If you were in their shoes, needing assistance from someone like you – would you accept that assistance? If yes, How would you like to receive such assistance?
Would you like to receive assistance from someone who was rationalizing at a stoplight? Would you like to receive assistance from someone who pitied you? Would you like to receive assistance from someone who had an agenda, who was fighting with themselves, or just trying to make themselves feel better?

Would you like to receive assistance from someone who realized that you were not separate from them, that your suffering was also their suffering? That your happiness was also their happiness?

Here is a short meditation that you can try at home to help open your heart toward the possibility of acceptance and losing the myth of separation:
The practice of Giving and Receiving is done to develop our compassion and our ability to be present for our own suffering and the suffering of others.

It is also a practice of great kindness that opens up our whole being to the overwhelming presence of suffering and our strength and willingness to transform alienation into compassion through the energy of mercy and the cultivation of openness.

Giving and Receiving is one of the richest and bravest practices that we can do. In sharing this practice for more than twenty years now, I have been told again and again that this one practice has helped many people immeasurably in attending to their own fears around pain, suffering, dying, and loss and has given them a real basis for the joining of compassion and equanimity. This is one of the great meditation jewels that offers a way for us to cultivate our natural mercy.

We begin the practice with a heart that is truly committed to helping others and to working openly with our own situation. When we look deeply into how this can actually happen, we see that to help others, we must relate with kindness toward our own suffering, our rage, helplessness, and frustration, our doubt, bitterness and fear.

The practice of Giving and Receiving helps us to get in touch with the obstacles that prevent us from understanding and caring. Through our own experience with suffering and the development of an atmosphere of openness toward it, we can begin to accept and be with others and ourselves in a more open, kind and understanding way. Our own difficult personal experiences then become the bridge that leads us to compassion and not giving into fear.

Giving Fearlessly.

In order to give fearlessly, we must first learn to relate with our own suffering—our rage, helplessness, frustration, doubt, bitterness, and fear—instead of pushing it away.

Meditation: Giving and Receiving

To begin the practice, you can sit in meditation posture, relax in a chair, or lie down. Gently close your eyes and let your body and mind settle. Start with ten minutes of mindfulness of breathing.

You want to feel relaxed and open. You can say this prayer—or the prayer of your choice—to create a sense of spaciousness in which the giving and receiving can take place:
“Having recognized the futility of my selfishness and self-cherishing
And the great benefit of loving others,
May I bring all beings to joy.
May I send all my virtues and happiness to others through the strength of my good heart.
Begin by breathing in whatever you are feeling—fear, agitation, anger, resistance—and accepting it. On the exhalation breathe out well-being. Clear your mind by bringing awareness to what is agitating you and breathing it in, accepting it with kindness. Then, as you exhale, give yourself some spaciousness. Do this breath practice until you are calm and alert.

Next Work with the Texture of the Breath

When you feel settled, begin the second stage of the practice, which is establishing a rhythm of breathing. On your in-breath imagine that you are inhaling heavy, hot , smoky, black, air. On your out-breath visualize exhaling cool, light air. Continue with this pattern—breathing in heaviness and breathing out lightness—until it is familiar to you. The heaviness is suffering; the lightness is well-being.
Now imagine that you are breathing through all the pores of your body. On the in-breath heavy, hot air enters every pore. On the out-breath, cool light flows from every pore.

Dissolving the Steel Wall Around the Heart

Now visualize a steel wall around your heart. This steel wall is everything about you that is difficult for you to accept: your self-importance, selfishness, self-cherishing, self-pity. It is the band of fear that hardens your heart.

The practice invites you to dissolve this steel wall and open your heart to its natural nonjudgmental state of warmth, kindness, and spaciousness. You can do this by visualizing the steel wall breaking apart when the in-breath of suffering touches it. When the heart opens, the hot, heavy air vanishes into its vast space.
What arises is natural mercy. It is this quality of unarmored heart that allows you to be with suffering and at the same time to see beneath the suffering.

Awakening the Heart

The reason you are doing this practice is that you are suffering, others are suffering, and you wish with all your heart that all beings could be free from suffering. This wish needs to be specific, personal, and sincere. It helps to touch in with a being or an event that evokes this wish. Bring to your mind some being, dead or alive, with whom you feel a deep connection: a parent, child, pet, your grandmother, your dearest friend, your beloved teacher—someone who is suffering. You would do anything to help this one. Be with this one and feel what she is experiencing. Let your whole being turn toward her suffering and your wish that it might be relieved. See how vulnerable she is. Like a mother who will do anything to help her child, you will do anything to help your friend.

Visualize the suffering of your beloved as polluted, hot smoke and breathe it in through your whole body. The instant that the in-breath of suffering touches the steel wall of self-centeredness around your heart, the sheath breaks apart, and your heart opens to the suffering. The hot smoke instantly vanishes into the great space of your heart, and from this space spontaneously arises an out-breath of mercy and healing. Send a deep, cool, light, and spacious healing breath to your friend. Let the out-breath flow through every pore of your body.

Let this one’s suffering remind you of the many others who find themselves suffering in the same way. This friend is your connection to them. Breathe in their suffering. Let your heart break open. Send them healing with your out-breath.

Continue for a few minutes until you feel the wall of separation between yourself and others is gone or has been diminished.

Conclude the practice by dissolving the visualization and returning to mindfulness of breathing – just feeling in the most radically simple way possible the inhalation and exhalation that it is embodied with every breath in every precious moment.

Practice like this each day and you will begin to break the bad habit of suffering from the myth of separation. There is so much more, but this is a beginning.

May you give up and completely surrender your self-cherishing and self-interest. May you gain the quality of a limitless heart, gentleness and harmlessness toward all. May you learn to love yourself and others equally. May you discover limitless mercy and compassion. May you become realized. May you realize that you are not separate from the world you experience. May you never give up.❤

May we all be happy, may we all be well, may we all be safe, peaceful and at ease🌷❤🙏

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Published by

Michael Gregory

Former investment banker turned monk-counselor. Writer, Speaker and Teacher. Encourages others to realize their highest potential.

5 thoughts on “Awakening Your Good Heart: How to Grow Love, Mercy, Empathy and Compassion”

  1. So nice to connect with you in this way Michael. Thanks for doing this. I’m going to share it with the students who are/have taken the classes I have offered. Great resource.

    Metta, Charlie

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