Analytical and Stabilizing Meditation on Compassion

Differences in the Direction of the Energy in Discerning and Stabilizing Meditation 

Because His Holiness was so incredibly profound and helpful in explaining it, I must share with you the difference between doing analytical meditation (a vipashyana type of meditation) and shamatha (formal stabilizing meditation). The difference is in terms of the energy, the direction of the energy. Here, we shall look at the difference of both types of meditation using meditation on compassion as an example. 

It’s very important to try to quiet our mind down enough so that we are sensitive enough to our energy. We don’t have to do profound tantra meditation for this. We’re talking about just being quiet enough to be sensitive to our energy and how it’s flowing.

When we are doing so-called analytical meditation (I prefer to call it discerning meditation), it’s not that we’re analyzing something during the meditation. It’s rather that we are trying to perceive something in a certain way that we have analyzed before. In the thinking process, about compassion in this example, we’ve already thought through all the reasons why we would develop compassion and all the steps of how we would develop compassion (thinking, “Everybody’s been our mother,” and so on). Now, we want to do discerning meditation to discern others with compassion.

On a beginning level, we might have to think through all the steps first in order to generate that compassion (“Everybody’s been our mother,” and so on). When we’re really familiar with it, we don’t have to go through the steps; we’re able to just generate it. 

In discerning meditation, we want to focus on all limited beings and discern them with compassion. So, having generated the wish, “May you all be free of suffering and the causes of suffering,” our energy is going out toward others with compassion.

Then, how do we do the stabilizing meditation on compassion after that? His Holiness explains that, in this case, the direction of the energy is going inwards rather than going outwards. There’s still that feeling of compassion present, but it’s not that the energy is going out toward the objects of compassion. We are aware of the objects of compassion, it’s not that we lose awareness of them, but the energy is going inwards, which means it is becoming more subtle. If the energy becomes too weak, however, we have to alternate the type of meditation we are doing by having the energy go outwards again with discerning meditation. 

I’d never heard any explanation in my 50 years of studying the Dharma of what really was the difference between these two aspects of compassion meditation, but His Holiness explained it very clearly.

This sensitivity to our energy and how it is moving is something that we can develop on the sutra level as well. Obviously, in Kalachakra practice, this becomes very significant, to have that sensitivity. It really just requires quieting down and paying attention.

Discerning Meditation on Compassion 

To generate and meditate compassion, we need to build up to that positive emotion. First of all, our meditation needs to be a Mahayana practice. We’re thinking in terms of everybody, not just a few people, so our meditation has a huge scope. 

There are many different forms of compassion and many different ways of developing it. Compassion can be generated with an understanding of the suffering of the objects of our compassion, or an understanding of their impermanence or their voidness. There are many different types of compassion described by Chandrakirti and others in the literature. Chandrakirti speaks of those three types of compassion. I’m just speaking here of basic compassion.

Developing Equanimity

Just the most basic form for generating compassion entails first developing the equanimity with which we are not attracted to some, repelled by others, or indifferent to yet others.

Recognizing Everyone as Having Been Our Mother

Then, on the basis of that equanimity, we can develop our emotion further by thinking of everybody as having been our mother in a previous life or equalizing our attitude about self and others. There are many ways to reach that emotion of a Mahayana compassion toward everybody.

Remembering the Kindness of Motherly Love

We then think, “Everybody’s been my mother in some life and has shown me tremendous kindness.” At the minimum level, she didn’t have an abortion. No matter how horrible she may have been, she didn’t have an abortion.

Repaying the Kindness of Motherly Love

Here’s one point that is often slightly misunderstood. It’s usually translated as thinking, “I want to repay the kindness of my mother.” It sounds as though we have a debt and feel obligated: “It’s my duty to repay it; otherwise, I’m a bad daughter or a bad son.” That way of translating it suggests that we should feel guilty if we don’t repay that kindness, and so we are kind to others out of a sense of guilt. That’s totally not what we are looking for here. 

Words are very strong with their connotations and can unconsciously suggest something to us that in our Buddhist practice does not lead us into practicing in the proper way, but in a very neurotic way. What is the emotion that we need instead to generate when we think of how kind others have been to us? It’s an emotion of gratitude and appreciation. We are so grateful for what they did and that is why we are automatically drawn to wanting to be kind back to them.

Heartwarming Love and Compassion

What follows from that gratitude is called heartwarming love; we’re so grateful that, just by seeing them, our heart warms and opens up because we are so grateful for how kind they have been. Automatically, the emotion arises of this heartwarming love. It makes sense. If the step before heartwarming love were feeling guilty if we didn’t help them, then why would we be so delighted and just light up with a warm feeling when we see them? We would feel, “Oh god, I have to help this person. Well, I’d better do it because they were so kind to me.”

The sequence, instead, is that when we have this heartwarming love, the first thing that arises from it is a thought of love: “I really would love for you to be happy and have the causes for happiness.” However, then, we see that they’re suffering, and this is horrible, so we think, “But you’re suffering, so may you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.” In this way, compassion arises naturally next, in sequence.

If we are so grateful for what they have done, then, of course, we are very happy to see the person, we light up, we’re completely open, and then love and compassion naturally arise. 

The Direction of Our Energy in Discerning Meditation 

Focusing on compassion, we’re focusing on various beings or groups of beings one at a time. It is hard to focus on, literally, all limited beings. But, as Tsongkhapa explains, basing his explanation on Asanga, an Indian master, in the context of generosity, but it applies here as well, that whomever we are focusing on is just a part of the larger Mahayana picture. The scope of our compassion is all limited beings, everybody. This person or group of beings that we’re focusing our compassion on is just a little piece of the larger picture of “everybody,” and so we need to be aware of that and not lose sight of the larger picture. It’s very profound what Asanga and Tsongkhapa elaborate on this point.

Further, as for the suffering that we are focusing on, thinking, “May they be free of this suffering and the cause of that suffering,” we need to recognize that it is also just a little part of all the suffering, the all-pervasive suffering, every type of suffering that they have. This is just one part of that all-pervasive when we are wishing, “May you be free of that.” We don’t lose the larger scope and have it just become a very limited, worldly type of compassion for various beings.

If we have generated compassion in the proper Mahayana way, then our energy – if we’re sensitive to our energy – is completely open to the whole universe. Now, we’re focusing on this one little part here, like the telescope is open to one little portion of the sky, and this individual on whom we are focusing is a representative. There’s nothing special about this one individual on whom we are focusing, so there is no attachment or repulsion or indifference. They’re nothing special. That’s always there. In discerning meditation, our energy is going out toward this person. We’re directing our energy toward them, thinking, “May you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering,” within this much larger scope. 

The Direction of Our Energy in Stabilizing Meditation 

Then, once that compassion is established, we want to stabilize it. With the stabilizing meditation, it’s not so much that the energy goes out toward the person. This is very, very difficult to describe, I must say. I usually describe it as just to have the energy sink in, but that’s much too vague. His Holiness explained that it’s the energy going in the inner direction, so moving in, not going out.

What could that possibly mean? That’s a very interesting thing to examine in our own meditation. The energy is, in a sense, becoming more subtle. It’s not that we are losing our grand scope. It’s still Mahayana, but the direction of the energy is not so much in terms of the object as it is in terms of just maintaining the emotion itself (but without losing sight of the object). It’s a matter of the movement of the energy, and obviously, this is in our mind. Is it moving toward the object, toward the mental hologram of the individual being discerned, or is it stabilizing, not really moving, so withdrawn from the hologram?

Alternating the Two Types of Meditation 

Now, this becomes very tricky, and it’s described in the meditation texts. How is it described? It’s described that when the stabilizing meditation becomes too weak, we need to alternate it with discerning meditation. When we are trying to stabilize that compassion, the energy is, in a sense, going in, becoming a little bit steadier, not so actively going out in discernment. The difference is sometimes explained using the terms active and passive. But passive isn’t correct. Passive implies that something is happening to us. So, the difference is between active and not active. When it’s not active, the energy isn’t moving so much. Then what happens is that the actual strength of that emotion tends to weaken. We don’t actually feel that emotion so strongly because we’re not focused on actively applying it to an object. So, when it starts to reach the point where we’re not really feeling anything, then we have to actively project compassion out toward the mental hologram of the representative object for whom we are feeling compassion.


Can we do this kind of stabilizing meditation when we do mantra practice?

No, not really. We can do the discerning meditation with a mantra, but the energy is moving too much with a mantra to do the stabilizing with a mantra. I mean, I’m not talking about advanced stages, like the isolated-speech (ngag-dben) stage of complete tantra, where we have joined the breath and the movement of the energies with the mantra OM AH HUM. I’m not talking about that level. I’m talking about basic recitation of OM MANI PADME HUM while doing tonglen, for example. Isolated speech, where we make the breath and energy and mantra inseparable, that’s a whole other level.

Let’s look at tantra practice. In the generation stage, we’re reciting the mantra together with visualization, where there are lights going out, and all this sort of stuff, so it’s very active. In this stage, we get more of this development of the sensitivity of energy flow where we have things being generated and emanated (energy going out) and things being reabsorbed (energy coming in). I think perhaps that if we’ve done enough of that type of practice, then we start to become sensitive to how our energy feels. With that practice, we gain the sensitivity of the direction of our energy, not just by quieting down. 


This is the way that the actual discerning and stabilizing meditation of compassion is done. 

Original Audio from the Seminar