“It’s not possible to let love and care flow freely and sustainably to others, or to engage—from the level of one’s very being—in equitable, love-based system change if there are significant internal barriers to receiving care and love oneself.” – Mark Leach
In a world of discord and dis-ease, our individual and collective inner work practices are crucial for healing and resourcing ourselves, each other, and our communities for long-term world-building work.
In a recent blog, Bittersweet Transitions, I shared several “navigational aids” that help me make my way through the great number of transitions that I, along with so many others, are experiencing these days. These practices help point me toward “coming home to true self”—to more wholeness amidst our seeming fragmentation. These navigational aids include accessing various ways of knowing such as dreams, stories, connecting with ancestors and descendents, tuning in to the wisdom and knowledge of my body, ceremony, building fractals of loving community with others, and “myriad compassion practices for receiving and extending love, cultivating the heart, and transforming the suffering of oneself and others.”
Compassion practices include increasing the ability to receive love and care, deepening the capacity to simply sit with and be a “compassionate witness” to one’s feelings (especially very difficult emotions and arisings), and finally a range of inclusive practices for extending love to others—interpersonally and through action in the world—through layers of suffering that we (sometimes) share. I learned about compassion practices first as a student of Mahayana and Dzogchen Buddhism and, for the last 6 years or so, as a teacher in the Margha Program of Natural Dharma Fellowship where an entire year is devoted to this iterative arc of practice.
Here I share a compassion practice that is fundamental to all the others: developing our ability to receive love and care. It’s based on the premise that it’s not possible to let love and care flow freely and sustainably to others, or to engage—from the level of one’s very being—in equitable, love-based system change if there are significant internal barriers to receiving care and love oneself.
I share this practice here as an offering to all of us in our work to co-create connections rooted in love and compassion for oneself and others, whether or not you practice Buddhism. Many movement practitioners have done/are doing this work already, some refer to it as spiritual while others secular, and still others as something else, and the practices look different across our movements. This practice has supported me on my own journey, and I have shared it at Change Elemental, where we all bring and contribute inner work practices to support us in being in right relationship, in resourcing ourselves, and in prefiguring the world we want. I invite you to use it in whatever way feels right to you and your own practices.
A powerful aspect of this practice is that it tends to reveal whatever resistances we may have to receiving love and care ourselves, points of resistance that come, in part, from living in these toxic systems we are trying to dismantle. It also points to the places where our efforts to extend love and care to others may become unsustainable or actually create significant damage (such as those driven by the desire to keep feelings of unworthiness at bay through being “charitable;” or needing to see oneself as a “good person” without truly exploring what that might mean from the inside out; or to protect oneself from unwanted feelings of anger, rage, or grief by focusing exclusively on external efforts to rectify external inequities and abuses of power).
To be clear, millions of people throughout history have done wonderful things that have benefited others materially, emotionally, politically, even spiritually, without being very good at acknowledging or accepting the love and care of others. But it usually comes at great cost to oneself or others, and is rarely sustainable or liberatory. As Grace Lee Boggs said, “transform yourself to transform the world.”
When practiced over time, foundational compassion practices such as this can help awaken us to qualities of love, compassion, and care at the core of our own beings, and create a secure base from which to extend love and compassion to others sustainably and inclusively.
Preparation for Meditation
This meditation is based on and adapted from the work and teachings of Lama John Makransky.
It is essential to do this preparation beforehand. It will make a difference in your experience of the meditation and addresses many of the stumbling blocks people–not just people new to the practice– sometimes experience with it.
Before you begin the meditation, recall a moment of caring connection to a person, or to a spiritual or blood ancestor, in which you felt truly cared for, listened to, or seen for who you are in your deepest worth—or a moment when someone was simply taking joy in you or wishing the very best for you. It should be a moment that evokes positive feelings and makes you happy to recall.
For some people, it takes time to recall a caring moment like this, so give yourself this time. If you cannot recall such a “caring moment” with another person you might recall instead:
- a caring moment with a beloved pet
- a place in nature where you feel safe and completely at home
- a time when you were the caring figure to another person or animal
Recalling some details of the caring moment—where you were, what was happening, the look in the caring being’s eyes and face, the sound of their voice, etc.—will be helpful to make it real. The point is to come into vivid contact with the felt sense of the moment, to bring the feelings to life in the present moment, not to get carried away with the story.
As most meditations in this tradition do, this one begins with a brief grounding and breath practice and ends with a “releasing” phase in which all visualizations and conceptual frameworks are released, “encouraging the heart and mind to trust” and deeply relax into “calm abiding.”
Since looking at a page significantly interferes with most people’s experience of a meditation, you may find it helpful to read and record it, then play it back when actually doing the meditation.
The Meditation: Becoming More Deeply Receptive To Love And Compassion
Make yourself comfortable, in whatever position best honors what your body needs right now…sitting, standing, lying down, eyes closed or gently open, whatever you need to be both comfortable and alert.
Now take a few deep cleansing breaths…deep into the belly, where we often hold so much tension…letting your abdomen first expand, then your chest, ribs, and heart…expanding fully, bringing freshness to any constricted place…inhaling and then releasing it all, fully, and as loudly as you wish, emptying out all that tension and any holding on. Take three or four of these deep, belly-softening, body expanding breaths at your own pace.
While continuing to breathe from the abdomen, let the breath settle into its own natural rhythm, not breathing in any special way for any special result, just breathing…your natural breath.
Now recall a moment of caring connection (with a person, an animal, a spiritual or blood ancestor). Recall the moment of connection with some of the details of its place or setting. Imagine and inhabit that moment as if it were happening now. Bring this to mind not as a distant memory, but vivid in its images and sensations, as if it is occurring right now…
You might sense being held in caring and in your deep worth by this person or being or special place…
Relax into the felt sense of this moment, sensing into the loving energy and tender qualities emanating towards you, and letting these tender, loving qualities infuse your whole body and heart…Relax into these caring, loving feelings with your whole being, like basking in warm sunlight…
Explore accepting this loving, compassionate energy and its qualities into every part and cell of your body, into your whole heart and mind—into all your senses and feelings…
…Every part of you loved in its very being. Feel the unconditional quality of this care and love.
Just accepting it…letting it in…
If part of you is having difficulty with this practice, then without trying to change it in any way, just become aware of that part of you and what that part is feeling in a completely accepting way, deeply allowing it to be here. Let it have the space it needs to relax, to find its own place within this compassionate space, and to settle in its own time. If your mind becomes tired, take a break, relax the mind, then freshly reinhabit your caring moment and begin again.
After awhile, let any remaining images of the caring moment dissolve, relaxing deeply into the felt essence-sense of love, warmth, and acceptance…
Let these loving qualities help your heart and mind to trust, releasing all of its images and frameworks…
…your heart-mind falling gently, completely open, in a space without center or edge.
Just let everything that arises unwind and release within this openness of awareness, this space of warmth and deep acceptance…letting all be.
End of Meditation
Stay tuned as we update this blog with a recorded version of the meditation from Mark!
For more on Compassion Practices, see this article, “Sustainable Compassion Training: Integrating Meditation Theory With Psychological Science” by Paul Condon and John Makransky. John Makransky first published his understanding and renditions of compassion practices in “Awakening Through Love” (2007, Wisdom Publications, Boston).
Photo Credit: Mark Leach