The second of the Buddhist brahma-viharas is karuna or compassion. Compassion is a response to suffering and pain. In metta practice, we bring a gentle friendliness and care to all beings and situations. Compassion is this same quality directed toward suffering. To put it another way, when metta comes into contact with suffering, it becomes compassion.
Jack Kornfield describes compassion as the “quivering of the heart.” He points out that if you were to play a violin while another violin sat in an adjacent room, the second violin would begin resonating slightly along with whatever you are playing. This is how compassion works. When we see suffering, our own hearts quiver slightly along with the person’s suffering. It may also be our own suffering that we respond to with compassion.
Compassion is a unifying practice, connecting us with the suffering around us. The “near enemy” of compassion is pity. This means that although pity seems similar, it is not a desirable quality. Pity is separating. Pity carries a quality of looking down on somebody, while compassion carries a quality of resting on the same level as another. Compassion practice helps us bring awareness to the suffering and respond with care.
Compassion meditation is taught as one of the antidotes to aversion. Aversion is one of the chief causes of suffering in our lives, and compassion helps us to turn toward the unpleasant experiences. Our reaction of turning away from suffering causes pain, and when we cultivate compassion we are able to be more stable in the face of pain.
Just like any heart practice, compassion takes time to cultivate. We don’t often have white-light experiences in compassion meditation. Rather, we continue to set the intention to open the heart to suffering, and results come over time. Compassion meditation is not a prayer, but people do use Buddhist prayer beads to recite the phrases of compassion. We aren’t asking a higher power or outside force to make us compassionate. We are bringing out compassion that is already within us, cultivating a caring heart.