Karuṇā (compassion) and Upekṣha (the art of overlooking)
When my friend Jennifer came for initiation into Neelakantha Meditation last month here in Los Cabos, Mexico, her husband Bode came with her and also learned the practice (Not their real names). It is great when a couple have this deep meditation practice together as it powerfully accelerates their journey of transformation in life. And that is a journey best shared. Jennifer is also one of my fellow cancer survivors. We have waited the last 2 years until I finished becoming an authorized teacher (acharya) of Neelakantha meditation for this initiatory teaching. Now they both have this practice for themselves. For life.
It is now a month later and I have just now returned. We gathered to see how Jennifer and Bode are doing. They both related that their meditations were going beautifully. In fact, they had written to me to ask if they could meditate longer than the recommended 20 minutes. So many meditators report their sessions seem to be over practically as soon as they begin, the 20 minutes passing so fast. For time loses meaning and passes unnoticed while you are in that settled and so refreshing deep repose. That state that we melt into and touch in meditation, called “samadhi”, that is beyond the ordinary flow of time.
Bode had a most interesting story to relate: They have been at a major crossroads in their lives recently. He had decided to retire (or semi-retire) from their profession of very successful acting careers. They also had just moved out from the security of their long-time family home. Of course this brings with it many fears and uncertainties. What would the future hold? But on the basis of his new meditation practice, and channeled through a few insightful evenings of sincere self-reflection, Bode came to a radical and astonishing decision. He decided just not to be afraid. he decided to abandon all habitual patterns of insecurity and doubt within himself. And on this basis to embrace each day going forward in this freedom, even in the presence of uncertainty, and bringing his very best forward. He spoke of the necessity of “doing the work”, of making positive choices in matters large and small each day. It is not always easy and occasionally is very challenging, he rightly observed. It was wonderful for me to see him in this way, with a heart filled with freedom and generosity. I felt great happiness for him, for both of them. And also in seeing how their new meditation practices were powerfully supporting and uplifting them.
I learned, as we talked that evening, that Bode has lived a very interesting life. As a young man he once decided to become a “big-rig” long-haul truck driver. He trained and was duly licensed and worked driving trucks for two years. He said he loved the feeling of being in command of such a huge vehicle and piloting it safely in all conditions. I asked him how that was for him, driving in traffic and on icy mountain roads? He smiled as he remembered a lesson from his trucking instructor who told him, “Remember always that you are a ‘billionaire of space’. That you have, and can draw upon, an unlimited amount of space in every circumstance. If someone crowds you: give them space. If some one cuts you off: give them space. If traffic is jammed up: generously give it space, as much space as it takes. You will never run out of it. For you are a billionaire of space!”
Then Bode related that he has seen how he can now apply this principle in an even deeper way. That he realizes that he is a “billionaire of loving-kindness”. That he can give loving-kindness to everyone in every circumstance. That it will never run out. What a beautiful recognition and way of moving through life that is. That is filled with the Highest. To that realization I bow.
I want to use this to segue into a couple of important teachings from our Kashmir Śhaiva tradition, the yogic tradition that is the source of our meditation practices. The word for “loving-kindness” in Sanskrit is “karuṇā”. Karuna is also the name for “compassion”. I define compassion as that aspect of unconditional love that does not shrink or turn away from suffering. Whether it is the suffering of others or is our own. Empathy, in contrast, is the capacity to be able to feel for oneself, even inhabit, the emotional state of others. But compassion has this important difference: It does not turn away, is not immobilized nor introverted into inaction, by the presence of suffering. Rather compassion calls us into action: to bring loving-kindness, and whatever help or action that is called for to relieve that suffering and mitigate harm when possible. Thus we can rise to do that which our own loving-kindness calls us to do: To give that which love requires. Most often that is simply listening, hearing, caring, being present, and sometimes it demands that we take well considered action to help relieve the suffering circumstances of others. (That is why I was a physician in my own prior professional career. And that is why I now teach meditation.)
In our various gatherings and retreats of Neelakantha meditators, when we gather for teaching and sharing we open with the following Sanskrit invocation: “Jaya Jaya Karuṇābdhe Śhrī Mahādeva Śhambho.”
Translation: Jaya! is an exclamation of joyous exaltation, like “Victory!” or “All Hail!”; karuṇā is compassion or loving kindness; and abdhe refers to an “ocean”;
śhrī – is “honored”; mahā – the great; deva -divine or transcendent; śhambho – that which brings great abiding happiness. So in translation: “All Hail that Great Transcendent Oceanic Consciousness, that grants all happiness, that which is a limitless Ocean of Compassion and Loving Kindness.”
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Upekṣha: Overlooking and Over-Looking
Now that we have thus considered karuna, I want to turn to an expansion of this. This is one of four modes of conduct to enact in human relationships. This is a very simple and elegant blueprint for human interactions, something valuable to consider. This teaching comes to us from the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali (4th-5th Century c.e.). The Yoga Sutras were accepted as foundational in our later Shaiva-tantric yogic tradition. This teaching has also been prominent and respected in Buddhist teachings since the 5th century.
Yoga Sutras # I.33 offers us an approach to our relationships with other people in life (and with ourselves). It has many layers of meaning and is as applicable today as it was 15 centuries ago. In Sanskrit it says:
“maitrī-karuṇā-muditopekṣāṇāṁ sukha-duḥkha-puṇyāpuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaś citta-prasādanam”
Translated:”By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are non-virtuous, lucidity arises in the mind.”
In other words:
With people who are happy (sukha), we should be friendly (maitrī).
With people who are suffering (duḥkha), we should be compassionate (karuṇā).
With people who are virtuous (puṇya), we should be joyous (mudita).
And with people who are non-virtuous (apuṇya), we should practice equanimity or “overlooking” (upeksha).
We have already taken a closer look at karuna. So now let’s consider the very valuable practice of upeksha – “overlooking”.
So we choose to manifest these states in our relationships with others. We choose to manifest happiness when we are with friendly people; To bring forth compassion with those who are suffering; To manifest joy in appreciation and recognition for the virtuous behavior of others, as well as in celebrating their successes in life (For this is also the cure for, and inoculation against, jealousy.) And yet when we are confronted with some attitude or expression that is non-virtuous, that is harmful or injurious or just plain ignorant and unwise, then we can choose to bring equanimity. We can choose to overlook. Overlooking is a raising of our vision, of looking for and calling forth something higher.
It is not a matter of ignoring something damaging or evil. It is not a matter of failing to stand up to abuse and bullying, or the even greater systemic wrongs in societies. We do stand up. We do speak out. And it is not a matter of “spiritual bypassing”. We do have to deeply consider at times our stance and position on things that may be ugly, or unfortunate or outright damaging. We stand up for family, friends and community with our highest courage and integrity. And we stand up for, stand beside our human brothers and sisters, especially the weak.
Upeksha means that we choose to not inhabit the negative emotions within ourselves. We choose not to be harshly judgmental of normal human failings. We choose not to hold onto pain and resentments.
We want to bring forth that which is most noble and uplifting in ourselves and in others. If someone has simply made a mistake or enacted a contracted old habit, we can understand that. So by overlooking, we give them the space to reconsider and the time to turn themselves around. We give them the space to self-correct, or if needed, to move on and part from us. It costs us nothing, for we too are “billionaires of space”. We give them the space or room to reconsider, to self-correct, or if needed, to go.
Well this sounds very simple and admirable, these four modes that in Buddhism are called “The Divine Abidings” (Brahma Viharas). But of course it is seldom simple in actual practice. Their perfection is difficult and subject to continuous refinement. We have our own patterns of reacting and our own entanglements and areas of self-blindness. So it may take some time for us to settle and reconsider and to finally arrive at the equanimity of appropriate “overlooking”, of granting upeksha. And it is a conscious decision to generously give that space and grace to others and to ourselves. It is not ignoring something that requires addressing or pretending that it does not exist. Words and actions can and do inflict pain and cause harm. But at some point we want to release and no longer hold onto the pain and resentment of blaming. We decide to release it from our hearts. We give ourselves a gift of great freedom when we decide to finally forgive. “Radical forgiveness” is a noble and powerful act. Just as it is noble when we take full responsibility for our own mistakes. We self-correct. And meditation, practiced with regularity over time, increasingly makes us more and more capable of spontaneous right-action in all circumstances. You are truly a billionaire of loving-kindness, of compassion, as well as of space!