I just finished reading The Book of Joy, which captures learnings from a dialogue on wellbeing and happiness between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It is a simple, profound and delightful read. The book made me reflect on the many opportunities to be compassionate that my life offers daily. I have organized these opportunities in increasing order of difficulty moving from my in-group to my out-group.
When there is unconditional love
Compassion for my baby daughter and cat comes the easiest to me. I see both of them as beings who live in the present and who usually have a simple basis that drives their behaviour. Instead of feeling disturbed when my cat comes to my workstation, my palms gently pat his coat until he starts to purr. Similarly, when my daughter is cranky, I assume it might be her hunger, wet diaper or sleeplessness that may be at play and begin assessing and addressing the situation. Both of them are greeted by a warm smile. Their needs for nourishment and nurturance are met without a grudge because I see them as no different from my needs.
When there is trust
Compassion for people in my inner group is effortless to access. This group is composed of friends and family with who I have open, accepting and trusting relationships. Therefore, I can see the commonalities between them and me, understand their suffering and hold space for it. The pandemic has offered plentiful opportunities to extend compassion to this group. We all know people who felt:
distressed at seeing the state of a member of their community
anxious about contracting Covid and not finding a hospital bed
lonely due to being alone at home
hopelessness seeing the bad news all around.
I am also mindful not to over-extend myself unless asked and don’t shy away from telling people, “I sense you are feeling _____. If you want anything of me, just ask.” I have observed people mostly want first to be heard and then expand their perspectives on a situation. They request this space only if they get it from no one else.
When there is a little shared history
Compassion for strangers comes rather quickly to me. Giving them the benefit of the doubt is straightforward due to the lack of shared history I share with them. When the milkman is struggling to deliver the required quantity of milk, I text him, “It is okay. You can get it when your stock is replenished or give me an alternative item.” I add a smiley given text messages are devoid of tone! If a food delivery person is late, I tell them, “Was navigation on maps a problem? We will reheat the meal in the microwave. I will give you a five-star rating.”
These people are trying their best but are also facing other pressures outside their control. I know I have been in similar situations myself where I would have liked someone to offer me a kind response.
When there is a lack of trust
Compassion for family members and colleagues with who I don’t share an open, accepting and trusting relationship is more problematic. The mind wants to attribute the person’s behaviour to an absence of positive intent or even malintent. I remember the Dalai Lama sharing how even holding such a thought is a subtle form of violence that we practice in our lives. Forget having the thought; it feels impossible to control your reactions because my mind is hard-wired to misconstrue the person’s actions.
For instance, a family member may say, “Why do you always leave the light on?” Earlier, instead of accepting that I left the light on right now and addressing the issue, I would focus on them questioning my intention. I would retort by saying, “You left the fan switched on yesterday. I didn’t question you in this tone.” or worse, hold the grudge and, when given the opportunity, repeat what they said to me in a sarcastic tone. It does nothing but escalates the situation into a negative spiral. However, with compassion, my first instinct is to tell myself, “It is okay. It is human to forget. I forget. She forgets. Everyone does at some point. No big deal.” Therefore, my response at the moment becomes, “Sorry, I will switch it off right away.” Such a response comes from a place of compassion for both myself and the other person.
Realizing I cannot change the other person, but only my response has helped me make my compassion unconditional. It works wonderfully over time. Even in my seemingly trivial example, I have seen how the same family member now turns off the light without calling it out to me. I have seen how changing ourselves can create ripples that touch others in micro-ways. I have also shifted my attention to focus on everything good about people in these groups, which has made responding harmoniously easier.
When there are values in conflict
Most challenging is holding compassion for people with whom my values are misaligned and often contradictory. I feel this way, for instance, with public figures who propagate hatred, fear and division in people. Through tracking, I have realized I feel a visceral reaction that shows up in the form of heat in my body.
Here is where the compassion training was beneficial. I was able to see that people in this group also fundamentally desire to be happy and well. However, their understanding of the path is different from mine. Moreover, I have realized that my reaction to them is one of hate and fear too, where I want to push them away and want nothing to do with them or those who support them. How is this reaction any more compassionate than this person’s action or words? So now, instead of seething in my rage for days, I offer them my compassion by wishing them wisdom and empathy towards others.
I have realized that by holding on to my anger and resentment, I am the only one suffering. It reminds me of the Nelson Mandela quote:
“Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”
By operating from a compassionate place, I am saving myself. Personally, compassion has been highly beneficial to me:
My perception of situations has been more balanced.
My emotional state has been calmer and more constructive.
My relationships have become more harmonious.
My response to challenging personal and societal situations has been empowered but realistic.
My acceptance of myself has increased.
(You can read more about research on the benefits of compassion here)
I have used many steps to build compassion. To list a few:
Training your attention muscle.
Seeing our shared humanity and that the other is like me. Understanding and feeling the others’ suffering.
Understanding our interdependence
Feeling gratitude and warm-heartedness.
Taking actions and sometimes, just holding thoughts and intentions, to alleviate their suffering.
I understand why the Dalai Lama says:
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
What are some barriers you face to unlocking compassion?