All forms of meditation center on presence and focusing. When we practice compassion meditation, our focus is well-being: the well-being of others as well as of ourselves. Compassion is a quality that can be trained and “muscled” through exercise and repetition. And as it also happens, focusing on others’ well-being actually—and quantifiably—makes us feel better too.

Compassion or lovingkindness?

In the context of modern meditation, the terms compassion and lovingkindness have similar meanings, but there’s a subtle difference. In lovingkindness meditation, we bring people to mind and send them wishes of love and well-being. We can include anyone we want in this practice: our loved ones, people we know about through books or the media, people we don’t usually think about, and even people we don’t care for. We can send ourselves wishes of love and kindness. We can extend the wishes out to our beloved pets and other animals as well. Love and kindness is sometimes presented as metta meditation, the ancient term from India which essentially means pure love.

Compassion meditation is also about love, but there’s an added element of being aware of distress, dissatisfaction, unhappiness or pain. Here we’re focusing on the wish to lovingly relieve that suffering. Once again, we can include anyone or everyone in our practice, including ourselves, pets and other animals. The ancient name of this meditation is karuna, which evokes the quality of generating compassion instead of running away, shutting down, becoming righteous or angry, or succumbing to the feeling of being ineffective in the face of suffering. If we can’t do something to concretely improve the situation we’ve brought to mind, we can at least be with the thought of it and allow that thought to open our hearts.

Certain meditation groups integrate some version of these into their regular practices, and there are many guided metta and karuna meditations available online. One form of this practice that is gaining popularity in today’s stressful world is self-compassion meditation. Sometimes life is so busy and intense that it’s difficult to find a moment to check in with ourselves and recognize just how much weight we’re carrying on our own shoulders. If we’ve suffered a loss, or if caring for others is part of what we do, self-care is vital; it can be the factor that makes it possible for us to keep going instead of burning out. Self-compassion exercises are one way to care for ourselves, which starts with basic self-awareness practices. When practiced regularly, this can really help recharge the batteries.

It’s much easier to do this (or any) meditation and stay focused if you’ve already had some experience with mindfulness. Mindfulness is the essential practice that trains the mind to recognize thoughts and emotions as they arise in the mindstream, let go of the ones that distract the mind and come back to the meditation focus. The focus may be the breath, physical posture and bodily sensations, a mantra, sound or any one of a number of other anchors. Most forms of lovingkindness and compassion meditation use phrases to keep the mind focused and reinforce the meditator’s intention.

Let’s try it

To get a taste of karuna or compassion meditation, follow these simple steps:

• Sit still in a posture you can maintain for a few minutes and pay gentle attention to your breathing cycle. There’s no need to modify the way you breathe; simply notice what it feels like as the breath enters and leaves your body. Allow yourself to be fully present.

• Bring to mind someone whom you care deeply about. Feel that care in your heart. Breathe with that for a moment.

• Think of any difficulties they are facing. Allow your heart to go out to them. If your mind is distracted, notice this and gently bring it back to the practice. Noticing distraction and letting it pass is an essential part of meditation practice.

• As you imagine the person or animal (or planet) you care deeply for, repeat in your mind:

o May your difficulties be relieved.
o May you know wellness and peace.
o May your heart be at ease.

• Feel free to modify the phrase to suit your preferences or the situation.

• Feel free to extend your compassion to others, to your community, to those who suffer as well as those who cause suffering, if you’re able. Don’t force yourself. Allow your compassion to flow naturally.

• Feel free to extend compassion to yourself and your own situation.

• At the end of your session–a few minutes or longer—sit again in awareness, as at the beginning of the practice, but without a specific focus like the breath and without words.

As your meditation develops and becomes more natural, you may find yourself inspired to shift into it in your daily life–during your commute or while waiting in a queue, for instance. You might pick a person or an animal at random and simply wish them well. May your difficulties be relieved. May you know wellness and peace.

Compassion is a vast topic, and to truly experience the fundamental selflessness to unconditionally care for others, commitment to a meditation path is essential. Mindworks meditation teaches a combination of mindfulness and awareness practices that naturally lead to the development of loving-kindness and compassion. Take the journey, and may your mind be at ease.