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“How can I help?”
Have you found yourself asking this question a lot more lately? Recent extreme weather events have displaced thousands of people around the world. Tragic violent episodes are plaguing innocent people. Refugees and immigrants face uncertainty, and global diplomacy issues keep tension high.
So, how can you help?
You can take concrete actions to help ease the suffering of those who have been affected by recent tragedies. Your actions could include financial donations for disaster relief, phone calls to your U.S. members of congress to enact legislation, or taking the time to give blood.
Sometimes you may feel paralyzed and unable to take action, and that is a normal reaction. You might feel that you are unable to bear the load of suffering that is dumped upon you week after week. By practicing compassion cultivation meditation techniques, you can learn to stay present with the suffering you’re facing each day without getting overwhelmed. You can train your mind to express empathy for those outside of your normal circle of compassion, and learn how to practice compassion for yourself.
Here are a few compassion meditation practices to help you strengthen your compassion muscles so that during tough times like these, you’re prepared to meet the suffering you witness.
You can use a simple loving-kindness or metta meditation to help you practice compassion for people who are outside of your normal in-group. Generally, metta meditations begin with offering compassion toward yourself and then expanding that outward to friends and loved ones, and, finally, to people you may not know. You can also use this practice to generate compassionate feelings toward someone who frustrates or angers you.
This simple practice is used by researchers to generate positive emotions, and also has been shown to reduce implicit bias toward stigmatized outgroups like black people and homeless people.
Unsure about your unconscious biases? Try the free online tests offered by Harvard’s Project Implicit.
There are several types of self-compassion meditations, and I recommend you find one that best suits you. The below practice uses a little bit of trickery to help you generate feelings of compassion for yourself. One big hurdle for many people in this culture is conjuring the feeling of compassion for self. This practice allows you to first connect with the feeling of compassion for someone else, which you can then direct toward yourself.
Tonglen is a visualization practice used in Tibetan Buddhism, and it means “giving and taking.” Simply put, you use your breath to take, or inhale, the suffering of someone, and you give, or exhale, compassion.
This practice feels overwhelming for some people, so be sure to exercise caution when trying it. If you find it difficult to breathe in a dark cloud, you might want to experiment with imagining the dark cloud as a white or brightly colored cloud or as cool air instead.
Tonglen is my favorite on-the-spot practice, and it’s a great tool to keep in my back pocket. I use it to stay present when I witness or experience suffering. I have visualized a dark cloud of suffering over those affected by natural disasters. I breathe in that cloud and breathe out compassionate light. When I am face-to-face with a person who is suffering, I employ tonglen to help me stay present when I may have otherwise felt overwhelmed.
Notice what happens when you include compassion practices in your repertoire of meditations. My hope is that they bring you and many others peace during difficult times.
Cultivate self-compassion and self-love with Nurture Your Heart, a four-part program with Daniel Sannito, available now in the Chopra App.