“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
~The Dalai Lama
People come to therapy for a host of reasons, but the thread that unites them is the overwhelming desire to feel happier. After all, who among us does not want her or his life to be more peaceful, joyful, and rewarding? So we seek help, hoping to find a way to heal from the experiences and relationships that have alienated us from ourselves and others.
It is human nature to want to avoid pain. And it is a fact that none of us can. Yet it is this very pain that can lead us to our higher selves. As we experience our own losses, hurts, disappointments in this life, we are acquiring the essential elements for a loving, compassionate relationship with ourselves and others — if we choose it.
Most of us know others whose lives have been inordinately difficult. Regardless of the challenges we have faced, there are those whose journeys seem far more painful. For some people their pain becomes hardened and surrounds them like armor. They grow bitter or cynical and self-protective, hoping to guard themselves against further pain. Ironically, their self-protection only serves to hurt them more as they become isolated from the love and support that could ease their burden. However, there are those who seem to absorb their pain like a sponge, and their heart grows fuller and softer in the process. They learn that their pain can be an opening that allows them to move beyond their own experience to connect with the hearts of others. They grow in compassion.
Compassion is Ecumenical
Compassion is the basis of all major religions. It is the essence of “The Golden Rule” and figures prominently in spiritual teachings across the ages. According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, compassion “is a profound human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering.” A person acting with compassion will not only feel a shared sense of suffering with others, but will attempt to do something to help that person feel better.
Karuna is the Sanskrit word for compassion. If you look closely at our online home page, you will see that it describes the aspiration “to find a way to be truly helpful to oneself and others.” That definition is particularly significant because it emphasizes the need for compassion toward ourselves, as well as others.
Compassion for ourselves begins with understanding our humanness. Pema Chodron, in her book Start Where You Are: a Guide to Compassionate Living, writes that compassionate action begins with loving kindness for oneself, which then leads us to loving kindness for others.
“As the barriers come down around our own hearts, we are less afraid of other people. We are more able to hear what is being said, see what is in front of our eyes, and work in accord with what happens rather than struggle with it….the way to act compassionately, is to exchange oneself for other. When you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, then you know what is needed, and what would speak to the heart.”
I am often struck by the way some people talk so disrespectfully about themselves. They think nothing of referring to themselves as “silly,” or “stupid,” or “an idiot.” Often surprised when I point it out to them, they will acknowledge that they frequently say such things because they feel the need to reprimand themselves for their behavior. However, they will also agree that this pejorative self talk does little to change their behaviors and much to reinforce their feelings of inadequacy.
That kind of insensitive behavior, whether intentionally hurtful or automatic and unconsidered, does nothing to evoke a sense of peace, joy and/or happiness in that person’s life. Moreover, similar thoughts and behaviors directed at others, again whether there is intent to hurt or not, add to our unhappiness, even though we may experience a sense of satisfaction in the moment.
Most of us feel compassion in some situations. We find it easy to care deeply for a friend or loved one who has suffered a difficult loss or is undergoing a painful illness. Often the first thought in such cases is how to help that person. We may also feel compassionate toward those who have suffered a major disaster and volunteer time and money to assist them.
It is far more difficult to feel kindness and compassion toward the co-worker who gossips about us, the driver who abruptly cuts in front of us, or the politician whose platform directly opposes our own beliefs and values. In these instances we may feel judgmental and critical, and justified in doing so. But true compassion is not selective. It does not distinguish between those who deserve it and those who do not. When we decide that one group deserves compassion while another group does not, then our compassion is flawed.
Nor is compassion a sign of weakness. It is not a passive acceptance of abuse nor does it mean that we will gladly accept whatever anyone wants to do to us. Instead, it is described by Sharon Salzberg as:
“the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal. To develop this mind state of compassion …is to learn to live, as the Buddha put it, with sympathy for all living beings, without exception.”
Compassion and Happiness
Compassion is one of the few things that can bring immediate and long term happiness to our lives. If we want our world to be a happier, more peaceful place to be, then compassion is one of the quickest routes. In struggling with choices and decisions in our lives, it often seems as if there are too many variables to make sense of. How can we know what is best for us? I find that many questions resolve themselves if I can ask myself what is the most compassionate action I can take in a particular situation? What can I do that will create the greatest sense of happiness and well-being in my life and the lives of those around me? Moreover, the most compassionate action I can take for myself is usually the most compassionate action toward others, as well.
In addition to the spiritual and emotional benefits of compassion, there are physical benefits. Some scientific studies have shown that people who practice it produce 100 percent more DHEA, a hormone that counteracts the aging process, and 23 percent less cortisol, the “stress hormone.”
Compassion is called a practice because it requires our ongoing attention and dedication. And there is no shortage of opportunities to incorporate it into our lives. We can begin by increasing our awareness of it, thinking about it in our interactions with others, and reflecting on it at the end of the day. In this way, it becomes a part of our daily lives.
How to Practice Compassion
The Dalai Lama offers the following practice as a simple way to increase loving kindness and compassion in the world:
1. Spend 5 minutes at the beginning of each day remembering we all want the same things (to be happy and be loved) and we are all connected to one another.
2. Spend 5 minutes — breathing in – cherishing yourself; and, breathing out – cherishing others. If you think about people you have difficulty cherishing, extend your cherishing to them anyway.
3. During the day extend that attitude to everyone you meet. Practice cherishing the simplest person (clerks, attendants, etc., as well as the “important” people in your life; cherish the people you love and the people you dislike).
4. Continue this practice no matter what happens or what anyone does to you.
These thoughts are very simple, inspiring and helpful. The practice of cherishing can be taken very deep if done wordlessly; allowing yourself to feel the love and appreciation that already exists in your heart. As this practice becomes a part of your life, it can become a way of life.
Or, as the Dalai Lama also said, “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
Chodron, Pema. Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living. Boston and London: Shambala Publications, 1994.
The Dalai Lama. An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life. Nicholas Vreeland, Ed.) New York: Back Bay Books, 2002.