Compassionate Amends

Making amends is an important part of the twelve-step recovery process. As with many things I learned in the twelve-step rooms, the process of making amends is useful to people both in and out of recovery. For anyone who isn’t in twelve-step recovery, amends is a process by which we make amends for any harms we have caused. Amends means recognizing our behavior as harmful, letting the person know we know we caused harm, and improving upong the situation and behavior. I learned to make amends from my sponsor and reading the twelve-step literature, and it really helped me. As I began to incorporate dhamma into my life and recovery more and more, I found a few new tools to put in the “amends toolbox.” The biggest practice that plays a role in my amends today is the practice of compassion, both toward ourselves and those that we have harmed. I recently caused a fair amount of harm to a few close people in my life

Understanding Compassion

Compassion is often misunderstood as being empathy, or simple caring about others. However, compassion is a response specifically to suffering. Compassion is both a quality of the heart and a practice. As a quality of the heart, compassion is responding to suffering with presence and care. Etymologically, the word compassion actually means “to suffer with.” When we respond with compassion, we turn toward suffering. The natural response of the mind is to avert from suffering, creating more suffering for ourselves. Because of this, the heart doesn’t always naturally respond with compassion. This is why we must cultivate this quality through dedicated practice.

Compassion practice is a process through which we intentionally open the heart toward suffering. It isn’t easy, but as we continue to practice we are able to respond with compassion with more ease. We do this by bringing to mind somebody who is suffering, and offering them phrases of care. Compassion meditation is an important part of the path, as are the rest of the brahma-viharas. Cultivating this quality of the mind and heart takes some dedicated effort.

Compassion for Others

Amends generally follow some harm we have caused others. When we cause harm, we are creating suffering in others. Therefore, it follows that compassion is an essential piece of the journey from causing harm to making amends. We generally think of compassion as being for somebody that is suffering because of a reason that has nothing to do with us. We may have compassion for an oppressed people, somebody suffering from an illness, or a someone that is stressed or worried. We also may have compassion for somebody that is suffering because of our own actions. In fact, compassion is an incredibly skillful response to causing harm.

When we have compassion for those that we have harmed, we get in touch with how our actions effect others. With my recent experience in causing harm, compassion practice was really the catalyst that helped me see the harm I had been causing. When we turn toward suffering in this way, we are able to get in touch with how we may have impacted someone. With a compassionate mind, we can reflect on the suffering of others with true presence, and on our own role. To put it simply, compassion is necessary for us to clearly see the harm we cause.

Compassion for Self

When we cause harm to others, it doesn’t feel good! If we care about others, it is natural that we suffer with some guilt or regret. The people that I caused this harm to recently are very close to me, and I felt an immense amount of sorrow knowing the harm I had caused them. I found myself angry at, full of judgement toward, and disappointed in myself. I was suffering knowing that I caused suffering in others. Rather than responding with more judgement and anger toward myself, I decided to investigate compassion.

Bringing compassion to this piece of amends allows us to see clearly how it feels to cause harm to others. We get a good look at kamma, the teaching of cause and effect. When we cause harm to others, we suffer too. Without compassion, we cannot look deeply at our own suffering and truly recognize it. Without compassion we avert from suffering sometimes completely, and sometimes slightly. With compassion, we can really tune into the suffering we experience, and see how unpleasant it feels without averting.

Compassion practice has many benefits and applications in our lives. In my own life, I have found compassion to be absolutely necessary for a health amends process. Of course this takes time and work, but with consistent compassion meditation, we can begin to respond more naturally with care.

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