Cultivating Compassion

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?
— George Eliot in 'Middlemarch'

The word compassion derives from the Latin for “suffering-with.”  Which doesn’t necessarily sound so appealing, right?  I mean, we all have enough with our own suffering, why take on more?  And taking on the suffering of the world, that sounds overwhelming and depressing.  So we close ourselves to the suffering of others, especially those who don’t appear to be in our in-group.  This seems like a rational protection mechanism, but wisdom traditions say otherwise. 

We all have mirror neurons, and naturally feel for others.  When someone stubs their toe we flinch, it’s automatic.  It’s the foundation of community, and an integral part of being human.  We suppress or deny this natural response in order to avoid it.  But we are habitual creatures, and if we don’t allow ourselves to feel one type of feeling- especially one so prevalent- we shut down to other types of feelings.  Mark Nepo writes, “we unknowingly slip something on, some added layer of protection that keeps us from feeling the world, and often that thin covering is the beginning of a loneliness which, if not put down, diminishes our chances of joy.”

The truth is that compassion feels good.  We all crave connection.  And connecting to someone going through a tough time is both incredibly helpful to that person and rewarding to us.  Scientifically, compassion has been shown to trigger the brain’s pleasure networks.  More and more research has documented positive health outcomes for people who help others, including enhanced immune response and increased longevity.  Both receiving and offering compassion seem to diminish depression and anxiety.

So how do we begin to shift our attitude and behavior?  The teachings of Buddhism offer a guide to navigating the path of compassion.

First, we want to distinguish between empathy and compassion.  Empathy is a doorway to compassion.  But if we’re purely empathetic, then we’re just as upset as the person we are with, and not much help at all.  Instead, we want to evoke some measure of equanimity, the quality of emotional balance.  That way we can be available as a resource.

If we lose our equanimity, we will likely shut down to the other’s experience.  We may try to exert control by giving unsolicited advice or saying that everything will be fine when we don’t truly know.  Or we might find ourselves feeling righteous anger- it’s not okay that this happened to you!- and go off on our own trip.  These are defense mechanisms, blocking tenderness and open-heartedness.

To remain both sensitive and equanimous, we need to acknowledge that we can’t necessarily fix the pain of another.  Of course if we’re able to act in assistance, great.  But when that’s not available, we can do what the Zen Peacemakers call bearing witness.  We can simply acknowledge the suffering of another, and offer loving presence.  Think of a time when someone was able to just be with you at a difficult time.  Or if this hasn’t happened to you, consider a time when it would have been helpful.  This is perhaps the most amazing gift we can give, to not leave someone alone in difficulty.

As we engage, the second distinction we need to make is between sympathy and compassion.  Sympathy is condescending, like pity.  We need to imbue our presence with respect for the other person for our care to be meaningful.  Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life.  When you help, you see life as weak.  When you fix, you see life as broken.  When you serve, you see life as whole.  Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”  When we offer respect, we dissolve the boundaries between people.  We come out of isolation and into communion.  We meet in acknowledgement of the universality of suffering, and find joy in being together.  We touch the liberating experience of oneness.

The following practice is adapted from Roshi Joan Halifax:

Slowly become aware of your breath and your body.

Be present to a sense of gravity.  Let your whole body experience the strength of your stable, grounded connection with the earth.  Relax into this stability.

Now bring your awareness into your spine.  Appreciate how straight, strong, and flexible it is.  The strength of your spine allows you to uphold yourself in the midst of any condition.  You can remind yourself of this strength by silently saying, “strong back.” Feel the sense of uprightness and flexibility in your mind.

Now let your awareness go to your belly.   Let your breath be deep and strong as your belly rises and falls.  Feel your natural courage and openness as you breathe deeply into your belly.

Shifting your awareness to your chest, touch the tender, open feeling of this space.  Let yourself be present to your own suffering and to the fact that, just like you, others also suffer.  Imagine being free of suffering and helping others be free of suffering too.  Feel the strength of your resolve rising up from your belly.

Let your heart be open and permeable.  Release any tightness you feel as you allow your breath to pass through your heart.  Remind yourself of your own tenderness by saying, “soft front.”  With gratitude, remember that your life is supported by each breath.  The whole front of your body may begin to feel open, receptive, and permeable.

Through your open body, you can feel the world, which lets you feel compassion.  Through your strong spine, you can be with suffering, which gives you equanimity.  Your open heart allows you to be with your strength of mind.  Let all these qualities— of equanimity, and compassion, and strength— intermingle.  Let them inform one another.  Let them give you genuine presence.  “Strong back, soft front.”

It’s important that we cultivate compassion slowly and gently.  We may encounter fear along the way, this is natural.  When we do experience true compassion, we can take the time to acknowledge it, in order to gain confidence.

It may seem counterintuitive to turn toward suffering, but the alternative is to avoid it, and in tensing against it we carry our fear around with us.  If we instead practice opening to the suffering of ourselves and others, we allow for the possibility of kindness, connection, and deep well-being.

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson