What is compassion?
Compassion is a loving vibration that is nourishing and healing to all that it touches. We all have within us the ability to generate compassion without and within. As the Dalai Lama says:
“Within all beings there is the seed of perfection. However, compassion is required in order to activate that seed which is inherent in our hearts and minds.”
In short, compassion is the desire that others be free of suffering. True compassion to me means, having a deep love for all sentient beings. Not only does compassion mean identifying with another’s suffering, compassion entails wanting to ease the suffering of others and bring joy to their lives.
The degree to which we all feel compassion varies greatly. Some of us even experience times of compassion overload. I can remember vividly the day I sat blubbering as I watched the horrors of 9/11 unfold. I also remember another sad day when I sat sobbing whilst watching England mourn the loss of Princess Dianna. Both tragedies left me feeling wiped and maudlin for days. Was I carrying compassion and soft heartedness too far? No, I don’t think so; in fact I’m not so sure, upon reflection, just how much compassion was truly involved.
On both occasions I was consumed with grief born more out of fear than compassion. I was not identifying as much with others’ suffering as I was on my own vulnerability. Both horrible events engendered empathy but deep down, if I am completely honest, it was more about me and my place in an unsafe, unsure world.
Dr. Sood of the Mayo Clinic says that compassion overload is always accompanied by fear. He reminds us that there will always be suffering in the world and stresses the importance of balancing our energy, body and emotions so that we can deal with, but still feel and identify with, this suffering. He recommends introspection (meditation) as a means of understanding our fears a process which is both healing and empowering.
Having the capacity to feel compassion for others is also healing and empowering. Research studies, according to Dr. Sood show that feeling compassion increases our wellbeing by reducing stress, increasing happiness and giving us a feeling of greater satisfaction. Compassion also helps us respond and not react in our daily life. Striving to be compassionate entails being present, less self-absorbed and being able to put ourselves in another’s shoes. In so doing, we become more aware of the driving force behind another’s emotional response. We then recognise that another’s aggression and anger is purely an expression of deep hurt and inner turmoil. This understanding enables us to compassionately respond without ego or judgement. This helps us avoid conflict and therefore improves our relationships and our own sense of wellbeing.
We can’t make ourselves feel compassion just as we can’t make ourselves love someone. Deep feelings need to develop over time. Of the two, compassion is probably easier to develop. If we are able to identify with another by putting ourselves in their shoes we get an idea of how it would feel if we were undergoing the same circumstances. This is called empathy and empathy is a great way to start developing true compassion.
A process used to help develop a higher level of compassion is to develop and extend and expand this empathy to a wider audience. Before this can be achieved, don’t forget number one – you. Make your intent to be free of suffering. Nurture the feelings that arise and extend those feelings out to others. If you feel uncomfortable using yourself as the initial focal point you may find it easier to use a loved one or loved pet as your focus. As you think of your loved one make it your intent that they be free of suffering. Nurture these deep feelings and extend them out to others that you know.
As we develop a healthy sense of compassion for others it’s natural that our compassion for ourselves continues to grow. Those that find it hard to feel compassion for other living creatures are generally hard on themselves. Studies show that people who exhibit signs of self compassion have reduced levels of depression and anxiety. They are happier, more optimistic, more connected and have greater self esteem than those who are not compassionate with themselves according to Dr. Sood.
Dr. Tamara Russell (Mindfulness in Motion) concurs. She says that “research on the benefits of mindfulness shows that improvements in managing depression are directly related to increased self compassion.”
So in essence, the kinder we are to ourselves, the more able we are to feel compassion for others, and the deeper the compassion we feel for others, the higher regard we develop for ourselves.