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Cooling the Fire with the Waters of Compassion
by Amana Brembry Johnson
Excerpt from a talk given at Spirit Rock, March 9, 2019

Not much has changed in the trajectory of time and history. Samsāra, the circular pulse of suffering through birth, death, and rebirth, is the heartbeat of this worldly existence. It is obvious, especially in today’s world, that we live in a climate of extreme violence, unfathomable hatred, and cruelty.

As technology increasingly brings the world into closer contact, intolerance sweeps the terrain like raging fire. Injustice burns through lives, destroying spaces that once were sanctuaries—sacred places of family, work, and communities of worship. These fires sear deeply into the tender expanse of the heart, leaving scars of protective woundedness. An essential part of waking up is to stay present to the suffering in the world, to courageously turn our face toward it and feel it tremble the heart. The practice of facing the fire is one that cannot be separated from the journey that leads toward liberation.

Attune to the arisings in heart and mind. Offer a moment of kind attention to the breath, and bring awareness to the sounds of the heart as you track what emerges and passes away in the landscape of your consciousness.

Even now, as you read these words, offer yourself an invitation to pause and take in the fullness of this moment. Attune to the arisings in heart and mind. Offer a moment of kind attention to the breath, and bring awareness to the sounds of the heart as you track what emerges and passes away in the landscape of your consciousness. Perhaps even place a hand over your heart and one on your belly, to treasure this moment and feel into what is present right now, right here…

The internal nature of our practice can make it easy to become seduced into thinking that the primary goal of the journey is to achieve personal peace, and ultimate nibbāna for ourselves. Yet when you examine well the teachings and practices of the dhamma, it becomes brilliantly clear that there is nothing at all to be gained from this practice, nothing to acquire, nothing to consume or call our own, because ours is a practice of renunciation. It is a practice of letting go, of opening, of coming apart. This process of falling open and coming apart is not a singular activity, for we are a community in relationship with each other and all that is around us, both the seen and the unseen. When we practice in community as a sangha, we are coming apart together as we practice letting go.

Our world is truly on fire. We are in desperate need of the cooling waters of compassion and care. There’s no getting around the suffering that is present. It has always been here and is truly an integral part of the fabric of our existence. Meeting the presence of suffering is where the path begins. Finding relief from the internal pain, dissatisfaction, and tender misery of life is the reason we have arrived at this juncture seeking liberation from suffering—the dukkha of the first noble truth.

The path of peace and liberation is arduous. What we experience on our chairs and mats is only the practice ground. It is where we train in mindful awareness, that we may apply the insights of inner reflection to skillfully navigate our movement through the world. We practice to draw awareness to the conditioning we have normalized that contributes to the woes of this existence. 

We arrive in this world naked, dependent. Somewhere in the societal, cultural, familial conditioning of our lives, we become deluded into believing we are separate from others, from the Earth, and from the environment. By some sleight of hand, some illusion, we’ve become tricked into believing we are independent, solid, autonomous beings. We are encouraged to be strong in this illusion of independence. And we are rewarded with empty gifts, for our belief that acquisition of material wealth, of commodities and external objects, will bring happiness—will create a wall of safety around our lives and make us invincible.

One of the things we rediscover as we travel this path is the tenderness we arrived with when we entered this worldly plane. We are waking up to reclaim the innate goodness that is our birthright. In this process of awakening, we are gaining the discernment of wisdom. This practice activates a memory of how to be naked in this world with each other. We get to learn again how to be naked of shame, naked of blame and judgment, naked of embarrassment and fear.

Each and every one of us is a small measure of the contents of this relational world. We, as humans, are essential building blocks in the matrix of life. We are not simply looking out into the world—we are the world. The quality of all life is determined by how we treat ourselves and each other, how we care for each other, and how we consider all living beings. It is the quality of the contents of our hearts that determines whether we contribute to the very circumstances that cause pain, or whether we will actually effect some shift and movement toward something kinder and more equitable.

An essential part of waking up is to stay present to the suffering in the world, to courageously turn our face toward it and feel it tremble the heart. The practice of facing the fire is one that cannot be separated from the journey that leads toward liberation.

There are four unburdening practices, known as the heavenly abodes, that when practiced offer kindness, compassion, joy, and balance toward ourselves and others. When fully practiced, no one and nothing goes untouched by these beautiful qualities. These mind states, also known as the brahma-vihāras, are the superheroes of our practice. Mettā is a loving-kindness or friendliness practice. Karunā, translated as compassion, is the compassion that turns toward suffering with tenderness and care. It is not a passive attribute by any means. Karunā offers the courage to command full agency to act toward obliterating harm and distress with wisdom and skillfulness. Muditā, sometimes called sympathetic or empathetic joy, is the mind state that enhances one’s personal joy by sharing in and borrowing the joy of others. Upekkhā is the equanimity that strengthens one’s capacity to hold both 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows in equal balance, free of compulsion or reaction. These four brahma-vihāra practices offer roadmaps that lead to the blossoming of the heart. These four heavenly abodes weave themselves together in the mind-heart to create a tapestry of kindness, caring, happiness, and balance.

It is a fierce heart that can withstand the emotional challenges that accompany opening to tenderness and compassion in the face of adversity. It involves a willingness to feel pain and not push it away. Compassion cannot exist without loving-kindness. Love, kindness, and caring are intricately intertwined. They weave into, around, and through each other to create a tender, relational tapestry. Nor can compassion exist without suffering. For without suffering there would be nothing to turn compassion toward. The paradox is that the suffering in the world offers us the gift of feeling deeply and opening us to profound love.

Ours is a relational practice. Every aspect of our practice is to awaken for the benefit of all beings. Compassion allows us to stand in the fire of our lives. It prevents us from being indifferent—which is the near opposite of equanimity, and offers us the courage and confidence to act in the world in a way that at minimum does not contribute to suffering, and at best works to end suffering in the world.  

Amana Brembry Johnson is a spiritual teacher, mentor, and embodiment guide whose offerings are rooted in opening access to liberation teachings and practices for diverse communities. As a spiritual mentor, Amana nurtures practitioners who wish to deepen and integrate meditation into daily life. An accomplished visual artist, Amana creates imagery that exposes emotional and spiritual barriers of the heart as gateways into kindness, compassion, and self-love.

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