Read the paper or listen to the news, and it will make you wonder if there is any compassion left in the world. Most people will agree that there is a need to increase global compassion, but what really IS compassion, and how do we develop it?
Wikipedia defines compassion as: An emotion that is a sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering of another; to show special kindness to those who suffer.
While we need to be compassionate towards others, we first need to be compassionate towards ourselves, for if you cannot feel empathy towards you, you are unlikely to feel it towards anyone else. When you are able to truly accept yourself, others, and unfortunate circumstances, when you can recognize that negativity and hostility arise out of pain and suffering, and rather than react negatively you feel and act with care and compassion – You will lead a happier life, and will help others around you to be happier, too.
So, how do we cultivate compassion for ourselves and others?
1. Develop Empathy For Yourself and Others. When you are hurting, angry, or you feel “messed up” and unlovable, don’t berate yourself and make yourself feel worse. Instead, realize that you are a human being, experiencing pain, making mistakes, but doing the best you can. We all feel “less than” at times, we all make mistakes, we all hurt – but that doesn’t make us bad people, it makes us human. When someone you know says or does something hurtful, in as much detail as possible, imagine the pain they may be going through. Imagine what it feels like, how alienating it can be, and recognize how that pain affects how people act. Just as an injured animal may bite when we try to help it, we are not truly ourselves when we are in pain.
2. Recognize What You have in Common with Other People. To feel more compassionate towards yourself, instead of feeling inferior, realize that you have things in common with the people you idolize, or people who seem to have “more” than you. It may be as simple as the fact that you are both people who “put your pants on one leg at a time”, or that you both work for the same company. The point is, while you can easily find differences, it is the commonalities that matter in life. And if you think other people are important, or special, and you have things in common with them, then you are important and special, too.
Additionally, when you find yourself angry, disappointed, or hurt by someone else, identifying what you have in common can help you find compassion and therefore minimize your negative feelings towards them. In an article from Ode Magazine, they suggest that you remind yourself that this person is “Just like me.”
3. Create Relief From Suffering. Nobody wants to suffer – not you, not him, not her…. Once you feel empathy for yourself and others, you will want to end suffering. Writer, Leo Babauta, suggests this exercise: “Imagine the suffering of a human being you’ve met recently. Now imagine that you are the one going through that suffering. Reflect on how happy you would be if another human being desired your suffering to end, and acted upon it. Open your heart to that human being, and if you feel even a little that you’d want their suffering to end, reflect on that feeling.” THAT is the feeling you want to develop – and you can with practice.
4. Be Kind. If you are suffering, what would you want someone to do to help end your pain? In some cases, once you identify what you would want done for you, you may need to do that for yourself. Be kind to yourself by doing what YOU can to eliminate your own suffering. Kindness starts at home, and grows from there. As you are kind to yourself, open up and be kind to others in the same way. Remember: When you see someone suffering, imagine what you would want done for you, and then do that for them to help ease or eliminate their pain. It doesn’t have to be a BIG demonstration. Sometimes a smile, a compliment, or a small favor can make all the difference. Find a way to do this daily.
5. Take the High Road. Developing understanding and compassion is easier when you are doing it for yourself, or people you care about. However, it can be VERY difficult to find compassion for someone who mistreats you. When someone is negative towards us, we generally feel negativity towards them, too. I have had a perfectly nice day ruined because a co-worker was angry and snapped at me, which made me snap back, and then I was fuming the rest of the day. Instead of reacting with anger, it is better to walk away and calm down. When you are calm, think about the person who was negative towards you and try to imagine what may be going on in their life. What their childhood was like, what their home life is like now, the pain they must be going through that led them to treat you poorly. It is important to recognize that most people treat others bad when they, themselves are hurt, and it has nothing to do with you or me. Do NOT take it personally. Again, do NOT take it personally. Find the compassion inside you by recognizing that you, too, have lashed out at someone due to things that were not about them. How would you have wanted to be treated? How could someone have reduced your pain or negativity when you lashed out? What would have made you feel better? Find the answers to these questions, and then put them into practice and help alleviate the other person’s pain.
Compassion, whether for ourselves or others, takes practice. It is not something you can just decide to have. By recognizing what you feel inside and how you want to be treated when you are in pain, and then understanding that everyone experiences pain and suffering, and everyone needs compassion – YOU can cultivate compassion in the world. Look beyond your pain, and that of others, and strive to ease suffering through kindness. When you show compassion for yourself, you will be able to show compassion for someone else, then they are more likely to show compassion for another, and eventually, someone will show compassion for you. It is a powerful and enlightening circle, and it can change the world.
So, how are you going to create compassion for yourself or someone else today?