Compassion isn't simply opening a spigot and coating everything in a treacly, all-purpose goo. It requires a gut hunch that whatever I do unto others, I do unto myself. It calls for appreciating not only what comforts us, but what pierces us. --Marc Ian Barasch in Field Notes on a Compassionate Live
Offering kindness in the face of suffering is a powerful and sometimes daunting act. Our first instinct may be to turn away, to avoid the pain, to react in a way that we think protects and distances ourselves. Yet to witness our own or others’ pain and to reach out in kindness is not only an act of compassion, it expresses our profound connection to each other.
Pain and suffering can trigger fear, anger, hopelessness, and despair, leaving us feeling alone and isolated, or it can bring us together, like our collective responses to the earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan and Southeast Asia.
It is easy to think we can avoid suffering by diverting attention from harsher realities and succumbing to distractions or indulgences that entice us away from our uncomfortableness. More seductive still, we can get lost in a cloud of thought that plunges us deeper into isolation and separation from others.
In fact, our sense of self—the thoughts that differentiate us from others—while a natural part of being human, can contribute to our feeling separate, vulnerable, fearful, and polarized. Protecting that sense of self can cause us to view the world in terms of "us" and "them" and override our empathic tendency. We only need glimpse the latest news to see examples. At the extreme, focusing too much on ourselves breeds anxiety and depression, while connecting with others can actually boost our health and well-being.
Distracting ourselves, with work, social media, or alcohol, for example, is a natural, protective reaction, but pain and suffering remain. By witnessing and accepting the world as it is, we are able to respond with honesty, clarity of purpose, and compassion. For most of us, this takes ongoing effort and practice. Yet being fully present during our moments of pain or despair provides a profound opportunity to communicate immediately and directly from the heart—as it breaks open and connects us with one another.
Compassion can be cultivated
A University of Wisconsin study led by neuroscientists Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz suggests compassion can be cultivated by concentrating or meditating on compassion. The findings support Davidson's and Lutz’s working assumption that through training, people can develop skills that promote happiness and compassion.
Cultivating compassion asks that we return to that initial instinct of “fellow feeling,” be open to our own and others’ suffering, and practice forgiveness, kindness, and gratitude. Compassion returns us to something that is not only a key part of our social nature, but part of our survival: our connection to each other and to our heart.
“It is not about assuming a new self-image or manufactured persona; it is about being compassionate naturally, out of what we see, out of what we understand,” writes Sharon Salzberg in The Force of Kindness. “Compassion is like a mirror into which we can always look. It is like a stream that steadily carries us. It is like a cleansing fire that continually transforms us.”
Qualities that underpin and support living a compassionate life
Empathy. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view [...] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” said Atticus Finch in the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Empathy is a central theme in this enduring story. Its characters illustrate the power of our moral imagination to gain a glimpse into another person’s life and circumstance and, in that moment, open to a new understanding of them, of ourselves, and our interconnection. Our ability to feel empathy for others lays the foundation for being kind, charitable, and compassionate. The more we can personalize others’ experiences, the more we challenge misperceptions or generalizations of others and begin to understand the “other” as ourselves.
Facing suffering. We all suffer. Opening to our own and others’ suffering is not easy. It’s a natural response to turn away or avoid it. As painful as things can get, we can take a risk, share our pain, and use suffering to bring us closer. It’s a way of deepening our understanding of and connections to each other. Practicing mindfulness can help us experience our suffering without clinging to it, avoiding it, or projecting it onto others. It can help us change our relationship to our own and others’ suffering, gain perspective on painful emotions, and better navigate difficult experiences with clarity, awareness, and perspective.
Forgiveness. Forgiveness provides an opportunity for transformation, both individually and collectively. It not only contributes to emotional, mental, and physical well-being, but it offers the possibility for change, redemption, and restoration—for hope and love to blossom from pain and suffering. It can stop a cycle of hurt and create opportunity where there seemed to be none. Most of all, it has the potential to heal and open our hearts to love, as well as strengthen and build our capacity for compassion and understanding.
Kindness. Through small and large acts of kindness, we breathe life into the practice of compassion. Whether given or received, kindness can soften our frame of mind and open our heart, both to ourselves and others. Despite its reputation for being warm and fuzzy, kindness is not about creating a façade of niceties, but instead, expressing that deep understanding that we are all interchangeable, we are all connected. Being kind, too, can reduce stress and positively affect our health and well-being.
Gratitude. Gratitude brings into focus what we often take for granted and elevates it to a place of importance and value. It can balance our compassionate actions with a grounding in humility. Being grateful is an acknowledgment that life is a process of give and take, that none of us has all we will ever need or want, and that none of us will leave this life without experiencing difficulty. Practicing gratitude returns our focus to what we hold dear, to the gifts we receive in whatever form they come to us. It, too, is good for our mental, emotional, and physical health. People who are grateful are happier, healthier, less stressed, and more socially connected.
Play. Even in the most serious of moments there may be room for play or laughter. It allows us to be more expansive, creative, and even more connected to others. Play is about exploration, not perfection. In practicing compassion, we will make mistakes, experience difficulty, and witness pain and suffering. Bringing play into our lives opens up space where we can be more free, more authentic, and more accepting of our imperfections and those of others. In play we are able to experience our own and others’ joy in a collaborative dance of affirmative empathy.
This article is excerpted from our free, downloadable Conversations About Compassion guide.
Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.