Ultimate Guide To Buddhist Compassion Meditation (Karuna)
Ultimate Guide To Buddhist Compassion Meditation (Karuna)

Many of my students ask me what the best compassion meditation technique is.

Simple: Karuna meditation.

Karuna meditation (compassion meditation) is one of the traditional forms of Buddhist meditations [READ: Beginners Guide To Buddhist Meditations].

It’s a meditation for self compassion, as well as for compassion for others.

When we practice karuna meditation we are cultivating the quality of compassion. This is essential for spiritual development and for attaining enlightenment.

Traditionally, this technique would be practiced alongside another method: Loving Kindness.







What Is Compassion Meditation [Karuna]?

Karuna meditation / Buddhist compassion meditation is one of the top 31 methods of meditating.

It is a traditional Buddhist technique used to cultivate the quality of compassion. The word itself “karuna” literally translates from Pali to mean “compassion’ [1].

Traditionally, both Karuna and Loving Kindness are designed to increase compassion and empathy [which is why you might not need to do them if you are an empath], specifically with regards to liberating sentient beings from the suffering of samsara, the perpetual cycle of life and death.

But where Loving Kindness is all about, well, love and kindness, Karuna is about meditating on the suffering of others and of ourselves and developing compassion for those who are suffering.

As the Dalai Lama quote goes:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.   – Dalai Lama 

According to Buddhism, compassion meditation is essential for achieving enlightenment

Compassion meditation, or Karuna, is essential when we are trying to achieve enlightenment. (Read:  Guide to achieving enlightenment).

In Theravada Buddhism, living through Karuna (living through compassion) is the key to attaining great happiness in life. (READ: Ultimate Guide To Happiness)

It is one of the four brhnavihara.

The four divine abodes (brahmavihāra)

Karuna, Buddhism says,  is one of the four “divine abodes” (brahmavihāra), which are the four main virtues taught in Buddhism. These are:

  • Loving kindness (Pāli: mettā),
  • Compassion (Karuna)
  • Sympathetic joy (mudita)
  • Equanimity (upekkha). [2]

It is considered impossible to become a bodhisattva (one who has achieved enlightenment) without achieving a high level of Karuna.

Karuna is also important to Jainists.

Jainists use the “four reflections” to stop the influx of karma.

The four reflections of universal friendship are:

  • Loving kindness (metta)
  • Compassion (karuna)
  • Appreciation  (pramoda)

Health Benefits

Science has proven that compassion is very important and beneficial to our health.

Here are some fascinating facts about compassion:

  • Research conducted by the National Institute of Health shows that the brain’s pleasure centres are activated when we perform acts of kindness [3].
  • If you spend a lot of money shopping for yourself you might as well quit and start shopping for other people instead. A study published in Science showed that people are on average happier when they spend their money on someone else than they are when they spend money on themselves
  • If you’re single you might also like to show compassion, as science has proven that we are naturally attract to people who are kind, and not just people who are kind to us but people who are kind in general.
  • Acts of kindness make other people happy too. Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia conducted research into the affect of kindness on group mentality. He showed that people feel happier when they see other people being kind.
  • A subsequent study by UC San Diego showed that kindness is also contagious. When people see someone being kind they’re more likely to be kind themselves.  So, you’re one act of kindness will make you and others happy, and it will also make other people kinder too. This rising kindness then spreads like wildfire and before you know it we’re all being kind and loving to one another (it isn’t as hard as most people think). [5]
  • Kindness has been proven to make you live longer. [6]
  • Many studies have shown that kindness makes you more resistant to illness and helps you to live a longer life.
  • Compassion eliminates stress and depression.
  • And amazingly, science has shown that being kind and compassionate actually makes you feel as though you have more time, not less.

Benefits of Buddhist compassion meditation Include:

  • Promotes compassion and massively increases empathy [whether this is a benefit or not will depend on your point of view because many people struggle with empathy]
  • Improves happiness
  • Heightens connections to other people (read: Relationship benefits of meditation)
  • Reduces the symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Promotes oneness
  • Increases longevity
  • Makes you more attractive (science has shown that kindness is an attractive trait)
  • Leads to reciprocal kindness
  • Reduces the risk of developing illnesses associated with stress
  • Improves your social life (we feel more connected to others, which promotes pro-social behavior)
  • Helps to increase our ability to forgive

How To Do Karuna Meditation For Compassion

Karuna meditation is best practiced after loving kindness.

Loving kindness is like the soil on top of which we build the flowers of compassion.

But before you start being compassionate to others, first be compassionate to yourself.

It can take time to feel genuinely compassionate. Don’t feel bad if you don’t turn into Buddha on your first try. Give yourself some time. When you try the Karuna technique below, be patient with yourself. When you’re compassionate to yourself you will naturally start to be compassionate to others too.

Here’s how to do Karuna Meditation in the Buddhist tradition

1)      Find somewhere quiet where you will not be disturbed. Sit with good posture in a comfortable position.

2)      Take a few moments to do a body scan meditation, focusing on the sensations in your body. You may also do a breathing meditation before continuing.

3)      Bring to mind people who have been unfortunate. Begin with the people for whom you feel the most sympathy. Remember that sincerity is everything in the Karuna meditation technique.

4)      Wish the individual freedom from their suffering. Wish for them to be happier, healthier, more fortunate and more successful.

5)      You may find it beneficial to speak out your wish for this person. For instance, for someone who is ill you may say, “May they become healthy and strong” or for someone who has been unfortunate with money, “May they find financial security, richness and prosperity.” These lines are just examples—express your sincere compassion in the words that feel right to you.

6)      If you feel any conflicting emotions—for instance if you feel judgmental of the person—be mindful of your feelings but do not dwell on them. Simply observe them (if you struggle to do this, you’ll find Vipassana helpful).

8)      Get in touch with the feeling of compassion. Be mindful of it. How does it feel in the body and the mind? Are there any obstacles in the way to true compassion? Be mindful of all that is happening within.

9) Compassion is a feeling, and a feeling is an energy. Connect with that inner energy of compassion. Meditate on it. The more you meditate on the energy of compassion, the more that energy will grow inside of you, making you more and more compassionate, developing your levels of Karuna one step at a time. Before long you may feel like a Bodhisatva!

Remember to use Karuna meditation for self compassion too

While practicing Karuna, remember to use the meditation for self compassion as well as for compassion for other people.

Sure, everyone deserves compassion and as loving people we want to give compassion to others. But we deserve self compassion too.

That’s why we should use Karuna as a meditation for self compassion as well.

When you do the Karuna meditation above, remember that it’s an exercise for self compassion too! Show yourself come love when you meditate.

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Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a meditation teacher and writer. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.

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