“Judgments prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances.” ~Wayne Dyer
When I first took up meditation, sitting with my thoughts didn’t come naturally. At the time, I was going through a divorce and was often anxious and stressed out. It took months, but I kept trying, and after a while I looked forward to my daily sit.
In my meditation group, I learned a classic method for generating compassion and equanimity. I tried holding images in my mind of a friend, an enemy, and a stranger.
The idea was to view each one without judgment or preference, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to generate compassion for my enemy—especially when the face I envisioned was my ex-husband’s.
At last, my divorce was final. Another year passed and I met a great guy. We dated for more than a year before he moved in. Our relationship was going so well that we decided to take a big step together: We adopted a stray kitten.
The kitten was adorable and cuddly and rambunctious. We loved her immediately and she made herself right at home.
A week or so after the kitten’s arrival, I sat down to meditate in my sunny meditation room. It was one of those days where everything felt right with the world. I lit my candles and incense, positioned myself comfortably, and set the timer.
Focusing on the candle’s flame, I breathed in … and out … in and out—but something was terribly wrong. Every breath brought me closer to a distinct reality: I was sitting in cat pee!
I hopped up and stripped the slipcovers off the pillows. Lugging the fouled material to the laundry closet, I angrily muttered, “If we had not taken in this stray, I’d be tranquil right now! That cat has ruined my entire day!”
Then I my thoughts turned to blame. “My boyfriend was the one who wanted to adopt this cat! I should have said no, but I wanted to please him. I should have known better!”
And finally, I took out my frustration on the feline offender: “Some cats just can’t be house trained! If that kitten does this again, she’s going back to the pound!”
I seethed on and on, piling up blame and resentments, turning my anger and dissatisfaction over and over in my head.
If ever there was a good time to practice compassion and forgiveness, this was it. But rather than sitting in meditation, I spent the next hour dowsing the slipcovers and cushions with diluted bleach.
In the days that followed, when I sat down to meditate, I contemplated the kitten’s offense. Then a thought occurred to me that made me laugh. My resentment melted as I realized how ridiculous I was to blame a cat … for being a cat!
The kitten was not a “bad” cat at all. The kitten didn’t pee on my cushion out of spite or because she hated me. She peed on the cushion because she was marking her territory, which is what cats do. It’s her nature.
The kitten was, in fact, being a very “good” cat. The kitten wasn’t the problem. The problem was my expectation of the kitten to behave in a manner that was not natural to her.
Of course, accepting my cat is a cat is one thing. It’s a little more difficult when I try to let go of my expectation of human beings, particularly the one I was previously married to. And yet, how often did I expect people in my life to respond in ways that were not natural to them?
Turns out my kitten taught me more about generating compassion than the guru at my local meditation center. Here’s what I’ve learned from my most enlightening “sit.”
1. It’s called human nature for a reason.
If I can accept that my kitten is just enacting her cat nature, then why can’t I see that my ex-husband (or anyone for that matter) is just following his or her human nature?
Alexander Pope was right when he said, “To err is human.” Since human nature is distinguished by ego, delusions, fears, and a little thing called mortality, most of us are perfectly imperfect human beings.
Too often, I judge myself and others through a warped lens of perfectionism. My ex was (and is) just doing his best to avoid suffering and find happiness—just like me. And like me, he responds out of his limited perspective, experience, and fear. My problem with him is not that he’s who he is; my problem is that he’s not who I want him to be.
2. It’s (not) all about me.
No matter how long I sit on the meditation cushion and try to “generate compassion” for someone, I will never get far if I am still judging that person by my own limited viewpoint. Taking things personally creates a barrier between me and other people, or between my idea of an outcome and reality.
I limit my own perspective when I say, “You have done this to me because you are trying to harm me.” If I can take a step back, I may realize that I don’t know everything about the situation. Only then may I be able to discern that there could be a motive beyond one that’s directly related to me.
3. I’m not okay, you’re not okay.
When I’m angry and upset about an outcome, I often forget that the person who I feel “let me down” is probably also upset and disappointed. Although I may initially personalize a situation, I can use my feelings to identify with someone else’s perspective.
For example, when my son brings home a less than stellar grade that’s upsetting to me, I can be fairly certain that he’s bummed about the grade, too. Realizing that he is equally—if not more—disappointed than I am can temper my reaction and might even inspire a more compassionate response.
4. Consider the parts, not the sum.
No situation or being arrives full-blown without dependence upon mitigating circumstances. (This is also called dependent origination or dependent co-arising.) For example, the traffic jam did not occur because the Universe is conspiring to make me late for work.
The more I can accept that I am a part of a bigger experience, the more I can let go of the importance I place on myself or any given event. Then, I can let go of blaming and see that we are all in this traffic jam (called life) together.
As it turned out, my most dissatisfying meditation session taught me far more about compassion than sitting for hours in tranquility ever could.
Simply contemplating that everyone wants happiness doesn’t get me very far when I’m stuck in traffic or disputing a finance charge on my credit card with a less-than helpful customer service representative.
No matter how long I sit on the meditation cushion and try to “generate compassion” for someone, I will never get far if I am still judging that person by my own limited viewpoint.
Woman with heart image via Shutterstock