Lately I've been learning about tonglen, a buddhist practice to awaken compassion. Tonglen is counter-intuitive because it involves breathing in what is painful and unwanted and breathing out relief from pain and the intentention that we and others could be free of suffering.
Sometimes this is too challenging in relation to difficult people or situations but there's no need to despair or pretend! You can awaken genuine compassion by practicing tonglen towards anyone, anywhere in the world, who is sharing your resistance, anger, fear or other feelings that block the free flow of compassion. (For example, when I couldn't summon compassion towards an old person I was spending time with, I focused on compassion for the millions of people being irritated by an old dear right this minute and found my irritation dissapating).
Yoga class seems to be a good place for me to practice tonglen 'sending and taking'. As I stretch myself into (or more often, towards) a challenging pose I am made painfully aware of my body's resistance: my wrists scream under the pressure, my hips seem rusted in place, every muscle whines in anticipation of turning forty (which feels more like sixty). Corrine, the teacher, reminds us continuously to work to our own limits and no further, and praises every genuine effort, no matter how distantly it resembles the full pose. But we stay in our poses a long time, plenty of time to pull my attention back again and again to alignment, effort and breath.
Plenty of time also, to remember that there are ten other people in the room also sweating and straining, stretching and shaking. And instead of comparing myself with envy to those whose limits are more closely aligned with the full pose or condescention towards those even less flexible than me I sometimes try tonglen. As I breath into my pose, I inhale compassionate awareness of our shared effort and exhale the intention of relief for us all.
It's a very tangible practice for beginning to awaken compassion in this way. Those whom I am sending compassion to and receiving suffering from are right next to me, obviously feeling something very close to what I am feeling. It is easy to see that we are sharing the physical challenges at each one's limits and also sharing the pleasure of achievement and the relief of resting between poses.