What is compassion? The dictionary defines compassion as, "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering." Can this tender feeling be cultivated towards self and others?
As I think back over my life, I notice the moments where compassion took a back seat. I notice the contradictory inner world of ego. I notice the self narrative influencing decisions in my life. As I sit today, I can't help but wonder about this notion of compassion. Are we programmed for compassion?
I picked up the most recent Mindful magazine, and in it there was an article on Compassion's Biological Fingerprint. In this article, research was published from UC Berkley, as well as from Purdue University. The research focused on the importance of the vagus nerve. It is this 'wandering' cranial nerve that influences our parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system is responsible for the feelings of relaxation, calm, and connection. The overriding theme of this research highlights, "...these studies show that what happens in your vagus affects whether or not you can handle the feelings provoked by another person's suffering-and whether or not you'll feel concerned and motivated to help."
Researchers are beginning to piece together the importance of the interdependent relationships of our bodies operating systems. Social and Biological researchers are uncovering a rich interactive relationship, which is revealing a predictive provoking relationship in our ability to empathize- to practice compassion.
How can you cultivate more compassion in your daily life? In an article by Leo Babuata entitled, A Guide to Cultivating Compassion In Your Life, With 7 Practices, he outlines seven compassion practices:
- Morning Ritual: "Greet each morning with a ritual. Try this one, suggested by the Dalai Lama: “Today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”
- Empathy Practice: Try this practice: Imagine that a loved one is suffering. Something terrible has happened to him or her. Now try to imagine the pain they are going through. Imagine the suffering in as much detail as possible. After doing this practice for a couple of weeks, you should try moving on to imagining the suffering of others you know, not just those who are close to you.
- Commonalities practice: Instead of recognizing the differences between yourself and others, try to recognize what you have in common. At the root of it all, we are all human beings. We need food, and shelter, and love. We crave attention, and recognition, and affection, and above all, happiness. Reflect on these commonalities you have with every other human being, and ignore the differences.
- Relief of suffering practice. Once you can empathize with another person, and understand his humanity and suffering, the next step is to want that person to be free from suffering. This is the heart of compassion — actually the definition of it. Try this exercise: Imagine the suffering of a human being you’ve met recently. Now imagine that you are the one going through that suffering. Reflect on how much you would like that suffering to end. Reflect on how happy you would be if another human being desired your suffering to end, and acted upon it. Open your heart to that human being and if you feel even a little that you’d want their suffering to end, reflect on that feeling. That’s the feeling that you want to develop. With constant practice, that feeling can be grown and nurtured.
- Act of kindness practice: Now that you’ve gotten good at the 4th practice, take the exercise a step further. Imagine again the suffering of someone you know or met recently. Imagine again that you are that person, and are going through that suffering. Now imagine that another human being would like your suffering to end — perhaps your mother or another loved one. What would you like for that person to do to end your suffering? Now reverse roles: you are the person who desires for the other person’s suffering to end. Imagine that you do something to help ease the suffering, or end it completely. Once you get good at this stage, practice doing something small each day to help end the suffering of others, even in a tiny way. Even a smile, or a kind word, or doing an errand or chore, or just talking about a problem with another person. Practice doing something kind to help ease the suffering of others.
- Those who mistreat us practice: The final stage in these compassion practices is to not only want to ease the suffering of those we love and meet, but even those who mistreat us. When we encounter someone who mistreats us, instead of acting in anger, withdraw. Later, when you are calm and more detached, reflect on that person who mistreated you. Try to imagine the background of that person. Try to imagine what that person was taught as a child. Try to imagine the day or week that person was going through, and what kind of bad things had happened to that person. Try to imagine the mood and state of mind that person was in — the suffering that person must have been going through to mistreat you that way. And understand that their action was not about you, but about what they were going through. Now think some more about the suffering of that poor person, and see if you can imagine trying to stop the suffering of that person. And then reflect that if you mistreated someone, and they acted with kindness and compassion toward you, whether that would make you less likely to mistreat that person the next time, and more likely to be kind to that person. Once you have mastered this practice of reflection, try acting with compassion and understanding the next time a person treats you. Do it in little doses, until you are good at it. Practice makes perfect.
- Evening routine: I highly recommend that you take a few minutes before you go to bed to reflect upon your day. Think about the people you met and talked to, and how you treated each other. Think about your goal that you stated this morning, to act with compassion towards others. How well did you do? What could you do better? What did you learn from your experiences today? And if you have time, try one of the above practices and exercises.