What is compassion?

Compassion is an action we take to relieve suffering. It can be towards ourselves, as in self-compassion, or towards others. It can be as simple as telling someone, “I’m sorry you’re going through such a tough time,” or just being with someone in their pain so that they are not hurting alone.

Why practice compassion?

Because compassion is as good for us as it is for others. Compassion enhances happiness, self-esteem, and the fulfilment of meaningful connection with others. Compassion reduces stress. Compassion promotes strength, resilience, and courage. Compassion reduces the suffering of painful emotions. When we act with compassion, we feel less empty, more connected, and more loving. Practicing compassion brings about true and lasting happiness.

Developing compassion requires an intentional daily practice until it changes our brains and becomes a way of life and a default way of being.

So how do we practice compassion?

First, start with a morning intention to love, including to reduce suffering in yourself and others. Make this part of your morning ritual, or morning spiritual practice of stillness.

Second, practice empathy. Compassion starts with empathy. To be empathic, we must get out of our default habit of just thinking about ourselves and our concerns. Empathy is an active practice of inquiry into what others are feeling and thinking. Make an intentional effort to think about the people you know in your life. Put yourself in their shoes. Actively imagine their suffering. Be attentive to those around you. Look for nonverbal signs of distress. Then ask people how they are doing. Listen deeply with a silent mind, attending fully to both what they say and to their nonverbal communication. Be fully present. It is profoundly healing when someone knows you understand their experience. Often this is enough to relieve suffering.

Third, practice self-compassion. Notice negative self-judgments and feelings of shame, self-hatred, or unworthiness as they arise in your awareness. Smile at them, and gently let them pass. Show yourself kindness by saying something such as, “I’m sorry there is so much pain.” Lovingly parent your experience as if you were your own child. Forgive yourself for your mistakes and shortcomings. Practice holding yourself in your mind with self-reverence. Through this practice, you will gradually heal your own trauma.

Fourth, see that fundamentally we are all the same. Recognize our common humanity. See that we all want to be happy and to not suffer. See that we all want the same things. See that each of us is just trying to get by as best we know how. We are more the same than we are different. Imagine yourself and others as innocent babies. See our common human vulnerabilities. Mindfully notice judgments of others when they arise and let them go. Practice holding others in your mind with reverence for their sacred nature.

Fifth, practice lovingkindness throughout the day. Do things to make yourself and others feel better. Smile. Be kind. Affirm yourself and others. Show hope for yourself and others. Help others. Give of yourself to others. Take very good care of yourself and others.

Finally, end the day with stillness and your ritual of reflection on your day. How did you do? How could you have done better? The other day I bought the last two ears of roasted corn from a vendor. I saw the look of disappointment in the faces of the young women in line behind me. As I reflected that night on my day, I realized I would have been much happier had I given my roasted corn to them. Next time I will do better.

Practicing compassion is easier with people who are good to us. It is harder with people who mistreat us. When people hurt you, don’t hurt back unless it is to save your life. Instead, protect yourself. Get away and get safe, because you need time to process your pain. First, remind yourself that whatever they did, it was not about you. It was about them and their feelings, beliefs, needs, vulnerabilities and flaws, and perhaps their lack of skill. See that if you had their genes, upbringing, conditioning, and were in their circumstances, that you would have acted the same. Now, imagine that you were to hurt someone just as you were hurt. Imagine the person you hurt responding, perhaps with limits on you, but also with kindness. Now imagine them retaliating against you and hurting you back. Which response would make things better for everyone? See that responding with compassion to those who hurt us makes things better for everyone. Love is always better than hate. This spiritual practice takes just that—practice. We need to be patient with ourselves as we gradually develop the capacity to spiritually override our default neurobiology to hurt others.

As with all the love practices, engage in the daily practice of compassion that you too may realize your full bounty of happiness.

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