Training the Mind to Remain Compassionate

The focus of the fourth week of Oren Jay Sofer’s Wise Speech Course has been transforming habits, particularly our deeply ingrained patterns of communication. It’s a gigantic task, but happily, as was true in the second week, there are aspects of it that are more approachable in Internet communications.

The online habit I’ve been paying close attention to this week is my attitude towards email. Like many, I’m easily stressed by email, but I was drawn to the meditation Oren offered and encouraged us to come back to “again and again.” “Again and again” is a match with email, so I set an intent to do a quick version of the practice every time I opened and closed email this week. The results have been remarkable. But more on that later.

The Simile of the Saw Practice

Oren based his meditation on part of the Buddha’s Simile of the Saw (MN 21 KakacŇępama Sutta). The aim of this sutta is to teach us how to train our minds to remain balanced (not bent out of shape) by the many ways others might speak to us — how to “remain full of compassion, with a heart of loving-kindness and no inner hate.”

Here is a slightly condensed version of Oren’s meditation.

Settle in, find a comfortable posture, and take a deep breath or two. Take a moment or two to feel your breathing or the weight of your body. And let the the words fade away.

Photo of rolling green hills

Then in your own time, call to mind an image that represents the earth — an image of the land, the plains, the mountains, the whole planet from space. The Buddha says to make your heart and mind like this great earth, deep and immeasurable.

See that image of the earth in your mind’s eye. Let your heart connect with those qualities. Vast, deep and immeasurable.

We’re going to touch into each image for a minute or so. Your job is to explore and see which one of these speaks to your heart the most.

When you’re ready, you can let that image fade.

Photo of bright blue sky with some cirrus clouds

Next call to mind an image of open space. It could be the sky, an open vista — conjuring an image in your mind’s eye, or, if you’re less visual, the felt sense of being in a place with a lot of open space.

The Buddha says make your heart and mind like open space — empty, formless, and featureless. So seeing that image or having the felt sense of a wide open space, let the heart touch into those qualities of openness, empty, formless.

It’s not easy to paint pictures on space.

Then in your own time, let that image fade.

Photo of a river fed by a waterfall

Bring to mind a third image or felt sense of a great river — a vast body of water.

The Buddha suggests you make your heart and mind like a deep river, pool — flowing, deep and immense. See the image or connect with the felt sense. Bringing those qualities, invite them into your heart. Cool, deep, flowing, and immense.

Just as it’s not easy to light a river on fire, make your heart like a river.

Then in your own time, let this visualization fade.

Photo of a lotus

Finally, choose an image, scene or association of your own, a special place, a deeply moving memory, or image. Let that come to mind. Either see it or feel a sense of being there.

As the Buddha would have said, make your heart and mind like this — allowing the qualities of that place, image, to imbue, infuse your heart. Take a few moments to taste that, to linger there.

Then, in your own time, allow that to fade. Come back to your breath or your body.


That’s a powerful meditation, or at least I’ve found it very powerful and helpful.

So of those four, which did you find the most connection with? Whichever that was, if this speaks to you, I encourage you if you’d like, to meditate on it again and again. Every day take a few minutes, see the image or feel what it’s like to be there. Let those qualities come into your heart and create that association so that, in a difficult moment, you can draw on it.

Using This Practice with Email

Thus far I too have found this practice powerful — and a hefty antidote to my email anxiety. That’s even though I haven’t remembered to do it most times when closing email. But I have remembered every time I’ve opened email.

While email is pulling up, I close my eyes and allow one of the images (usually space) to come to mind. Then I move to a felt sense of that quality (spaciousness, vastness, peace, flow, depth, etc.). At times I imagine typed words dissolving into space and I feel a lovely letting go.

While I can’t say I’m now looking forward to email, I certainly haven’t experienced any of the dread (including dread of dread) opening it that I have in times past. My attitude is mostly a neutral curiosity. It’s astonishing.

For others interested in trying this practice with email, you might set your device’s wallpaper to the image you find most helpful. And if you use Gmail on your computer, you can set the “theme” to this image. A new Gmail theme has been a particularly helpful reminder for me. I suspect I’ll stop noticing it in a week or so, but when that happens, I can change it to another image.

I have hope that in time this practice will spill into face-to-face conversations, especially difficult ones. Much gratitude to Oren for the course and the meditation.


Photo Credits

All images except the sky and the lotus (which I found in 2011 on a free photo site that no longer exists) are from Unsplash. The sunset photo is by Quino Al, the green rolling hills by Lukasz Szmigiel, and the waterfall-fed river by Manuel Torres Garcia.