Like many of you, I am constantly striving to be a better person….
Kinder and more loving to other people, and of course, kinder to myself, especially when life gets challenging. One age-old medicine that has helped me — probably more than any other — is compassion.
I know it’s strange to call compassion “a medicine,” but in some ways it is. When you fully understand what compassion is, you realize that it is the antidote to a lot of suffering, whether it’s the suffering of others or the self-imposed kind (you know what I’m talking about).
Usually, when I find something that works for me, I steep myself in it to explore what it is, why it works and how I can get more of it!
So that’s what I did last summer when I hosted the first annual Global Compassion Summit with some stellar experts in the field, including Dr. Jim Doty, Karen Armstrong, Thupten Jinpa (the Dalai Lama’s interpreter), Roshi Joan Halifax, Dacher Keltner and many others.
Based on conducting those interviews, below are 7 insights on compassion which inspire me to keep using it as my “drug of choice”:
1. Compassion is an age-old spiritual technology validated by modern science.
Almost every spiritual tradition talks about the importance of compassion and many traditions teach meditation practices for cultivating compassion. His Holiness the Dalai Lama saw the importance of studying the science of compassion and gave Stanford University a $100,000 donation to help start the Center for Compassion Altruism, Research and Education (CCARE).
Since that time, there has been an exponential growth of scientific research on the benefits of compassion such as decreasing negative emotions like stress, depression and anxiety, while boosting the immune system, increasing altruism, social connections, and positive emotions like happiness. That feels like pretty potent ancient medicine to me!
2. To actively practice compassion, it helps to have a solid definition.
Every expert I interviewed had a complementary definition of compassion, but they all included some version of the following, interrelated steps:
- There has to be some sort of mindful recognition that suffering is occurring — in yourself, a loved-one, stranger, etc.
- You are emotionally moved by the suffering, aka empathy aka “I feel your pain.” Note: it’s best not to hang out in this stage too long, or you can get into empathic distress which is not medicinal for anyone!
- You’d like to see the suffering relieved; AND
- You’re willing to do something to relieve the suffering.
Once you understand the nuances of compassion, it’s easier to move from noticing suffering, to taking skillful action to help relieve it.
3. Mindfulness is an essential element of compassion.
Almost every presenter I interviewed mentioned mindfulness as the most important first step. It’s difficult to recognize that suffering is occurring and choose a compassionate response without first being mindful. This is why most compassion education programs include training in mindfulness as a helpful precursor to becoming more compassionate, and why you might consider starting a mindfulness practice if you haven’t already.
4. Human beings are hard-wired for compassion and we can quickly learn to be even more compassionate.
Speaking of ancient medicine, compassion is literally built into our brains, our DNA and our physiology. Because we are hard-wired for compassion with an innate desire to care for our young, we’ve been able to survive as a species. And, thanks to brain plasticity, the level of compassion we are born with can be increased. Within just a couple of weeks of compassion training, we can quickly increase our ability to respond to people — including those outside of our immediate circle — animals and the planet in a more kind and compassionate way.
5. Compassion is possible when we recognize our shared common humanity.
One of my favorite compassion practices is a simple phrase, “just like me.” To truly be compassionate, we must feel that we are equal to, not above others who suffer. When we recognize that “just like me” this person experiences pain, the desire to help comes from a place of equality.
“Just like me” that person is someone’s son/daughter, father/mother, friend or partner and worthy of love, kindness and compassion. This simple technique has been a helpful prescription that I often take when meeting people who might otherwise trigger me or shall I say, stretch my ability to be loving.
6. Compassion toward self is the hardest for Western populations, which is why we need it!
Every human being is deserving of love and compassion. Yet, according to compassion expert, Kristin Neff, 80% of people are significantly kinder and more compassionate toward other people than they are to themselves. Many people have the false notion that they can’t be kind and compassionate toward themselves — perhaps because they are afraid they will fall short of meeting their goals or that they will appear weak or egotistical.
Luckily, with training, we can learn to administer self-compassion and live with more self-love, acceptance and kindness. Yes, please!
7. Compassion is courageous and a powerful path to liberation.
In choosing to cultivate compassion, we learn that we CAN be with suffering. But this takes courage particularly in modern cultures that provide many opportunities to avoid suffering. For example, have you ever used TV, the Internet, food, alcohol or shopping to distract yourself from your own pain? You are not alone!
Through training the mind to be with suffering and by finding a skillful, compassionate response, we gain the courage we need to face our pain as well as the pain of others. In doing so, we truly can liberate ourselves, not only from our own pain, but from harmful habits that can quickly become addictions that lead to even more suffering.
I think you’ll find that compassion is a great elixir that can help us address the suffering in ourselves, others and on our planet. And that, to me, seems like a perfect prescription for peace.