Karunā and the breadth of compassion

Karunā – Innate to Cultivated Compassion

Compassion is a broad word describing a complex and deep-reaching quality of the human experience. Here is how I define Karunā – ‘Cultivated Compassion is coming to see clearly and deeply value another and the human experience, the human condition, with an increasing capacity to be purposefully present, open to understanding, calm, objective, rational, discerning, and actively caring’.

When using the word compassion, many people are referring to their innate compassionate nature, the truth that they care deeply about life, others, and the world. They have a genuine desire to see an end to harm and suffering. This innate natural state of compassion is the ground in which we can actively cultivate an increasingly mature, compassionate way of being. Karunā, in its fullness, is the purposefully developed, matured state of the wisdom of compassion in action. This profound potential lives deeply embedded in our human heritage. It is not a given or certainty but a quality that can be discovered, nurtured, matured, and embodied in the everyday moments of ordinary worldly life. Karunā encompasses our innate compassionate nature, the efforts and practices that lead to awareness and understanding, its emergence as a matured compassionate state of mind and life, taking form as compassion in action, and the active review, refinement, and advancement of compassionate being. A constant cultivation of our natural compassion into matured compassion is required for the wisdom of compassion to take effect, becoming and for compassion’s evolution within humanity and the fabric of life.

Innate compassion is our deepest and most fundamental motivation for love, care, and understanding. It includes a genuine aspiration to end the harms and sufferings that exist, whether in our own lives or the lives of those we love and care about. It also includes a desire for peace in the world for all beings. Innate compassion is a beautiful part of the heartfelt essence of all our being; we live, so we love and care. Our compassion is essential to health, peace and Refuge. However, if this innate compassion nature is left unattended, uncared for, all to its own, it can be the cause of much suffering. Conditions of apathy, aversion, unhealthy indifference, detachment and dissociation can result when we do not have a mindful relationship with the compassionate nature within us, or we do not have clear examples, guides or exemplars of compassionate engagement that we can recall in our personal lives. It is critical that we learn how to enact compassionate care effectively for our own experiences of suffering so we can be well and stable and aspire to participate compassionately in among the many aspects of human life that are counter to compassionate care, from personal relationships to society and social systems that disrupt peace and deteriorate Refuge. Despite the very real and momentous challenges we face, there is much we can do to foster compassion and alleviate suffering.

States of empathetic entanglement can also occur when we see and relate to the sufferings of others. Empathy allows us to have some understanding of others’ situations. Yet, we may not have the training and skills for mindful self-regulation necessary to prevent us from getting drawn into a shared emotional experience that can trigger and entangle us in self-referencing perspectives fed by past experiences, self-passions, and beliefs. A physiological cascade of thoughts, feelings and sensations can arise and permeate through us. Without suitable tools, abilities, and the protection of mindful awareness and response, we may be unable to manage these arisings effectively. Empathy is a double-edged sword. It allows us to know and understand each other and the world, be informed of each other’s experiences, form attunement, resonance, and meaningful relationships, and share joy and happiness in solidarity. Yet, it can also be the cause of entanglement, projections, distress and suffering.

Our innate compassionate nature can also manifest as sympathy. When we are in a state of sympathy, we experience thoughts and feelings of interest, understanding, concern and care for the difficulties, sufferings and struggles experienced by others and the world. However, while we care deeply, a sympathetic state is regulated and safeguarded, protecting the mind from falling into unhealthy conditions and unhealthy forms of attachment and entanglement to others’ sufferings. With sympathy, we are not sharing in the other’s experience as directly as we are through empathy. Sometimes, sympathy may be perceived as being a bit cold-hearted. However, there can be a logical and valid unwillingness to become emotionally involved or a natural limitation or inability to become involved. Therefore, we must refrain from being quick to judge or dismiss. Sympathetic states can be protective and immensely valuable to personal health while allowing for regulated attention, engagement and supportive expressions of care for the well-being of others and the world.

The mind and life respond naturally in various ways to create the best possible Refuge for each of us based on our lived experiences, learned conditioning, and unique situations. Whether it is apathy, empathy, empathetic entanglement or sympathy, each response is a valid attempt to provide the most appropriate shelter and protection possible, considering our limits, circumstances and capabilities. When caring for others, whether a baby, youth, family member, friend, coworker, or an older adult, these states seek to provide the best possible Refuge for the ones you have a direct responsibility to care for. Any shelter and protection the mind can afford or establish to keep the individual or those they care about as safe, stable and well as possible can arise out of necessity. Every effort and attempt at Refuge is valid, though not all are mindful, done with purposeful attention and awareness, ethically sound, or maturely compassionate. Whatever effort for Refuge someone makes, regard it as a warranted attempt without disregarding or disparaging the person trying. Through mindfulness, meditation, and training, these states of apathy, empathy and sympathy become the Path of practice, the training ground that holds the jewels of insight to the wisdom of compassion, mature forms of skilful active understanding and care that can permeate our lives, spreading around the globe, affirming our humanity by acknowledging and respecting human dignity, promoting human rights and equality, embracing our shared human experience, and affirming life and existence, supporting the health of all life and the Earth.

Karunā, as a cultivated form of compassion, can be defined as coming to see clearly and to value the uniqueness of another and their human experience deeply. While simultaneously recognising all our sameness, common experiences and shared struggles with the human condition. The cultivated compassionate mind has an ongoing capacity to be purposefully present, friendly, aware, composed, invested in resolutions, actively addressing challenges causing suffering, and skillfully applying compassionate methods for solutions. The mature, compassionate mind is open to understanding, inclusive, objective, and discerning what fosters peacebuilding and the wisdom of Refuge for all. Such a mind has found freedom and restraint from the bonds and attachments of impassioned personal views and beliefs. It has acquired an all-encompassing and all-inclusive view that can calmly hold in awareness mixed emotions, intricate and complex experiences, and challenging situations and circumstances, whether one’s own or another’s, in an active and meaningfully engaged manner.

When anyone is interested in cultivating compassion and minimising harm and suffering in their own life and the world, then they are on the Path of the Bodhisatta [Pali.] / Bodhisattva [Skt.]. This Path involves living with dedicated energy and effort towards developing mindfulness to cultivate an all-encompassing, all-inclusive compassion. It is motivated by Refuge and done for the common good of all beings, all lives, all species. Every effort, whether large or small, contributes to peace, health and Refuge, and what stands out most significantly is that the mind and heart for awakenings potential is present in life. There are many ways to cultivate compassion; finding guidance and support from knowledgeable and trustworthy sources is essential to practice and act safely and effectively.

The definition of Karunā used at the beginning of this article encapsulates the essence of cultivated compassion. It involves seeing clearly and deeply and developing a clear and deep understanding of others and the human experience. This means seeing beyond ordinary appearances at the surface of our lives and recognising the interconnectedness of all beings while genuinely valuing another and the human experience. It involves discovering deepening respect for others and acknowledging and honouring the richness of the human experience in all its diversity. We are increasingly building our capacity to be purposefully and wholeheartedly present to ourselves, others, and the world without being distracted or preoccupied, consciously directing our attention and energy towards understanding and supporting health, peace and Refuge. Being and remaining open to understanding, as cultivated compassion, requires a willingness and open mind to understanding others, their perspectives, and their experiences. It involves suspending our judgment and being receptive to differing views. Embodying the qualities of calm, objectivity, rationality, and discernment are essential for cultivating compassion in a balanced and effective way. Maintaining a sense of calmness helps us respond to situations with clarity and composure. Being objective and rational allows us to assess situations accurately and make informed decisions. With a calm, clear, discerning mind, we can navigate complex situations and moral and ethical issues with wisdom and insight. The mind of mature, cultivated compassion is actively caring. It is not limited to feelings of empathy or sympathy but takes actions to alleviate suffering and promote wellness, peace, and Refuge for all lives. It involves active mindfulness. These descriptions capture the multifaceted nature of cultivated compassion, emphasising the internal qualities and external behaviours contributing to its development and expression. They serve as powerful reminders of the importance of mindfulness and compassion in fostering healing, peace, and Refuge in ourselves and in the world we all share.

Genyen – Ian Hackett, Tig-Le House

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