(This post contains affiliate links. See my full disclosure about affiliate links here.)
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
– Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness –
Compassion is much more than just an emotion. It is a skill, an emotional capability, that needs to be nurtured and practiced if one wants to be really good at it. Compassion is not only a simple reaction of kindness when we see someone else suffer. It goes much deeper than that. We can improve by practicing compassion, incorporate it into our daily live, and in turn increase our happiness.
What does compassion mean?
According to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language compassion is a feeling anchored deep in the essence of our humanity. It is a “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” (Oxford Dictionary of the English Language). It derives from the Latin origin compati, which means “to suffer with”. But, what does that mean exactly?
It means that feeling compassion stems from a desire to treat those who suffer with kindness and relieve them from it. Compassion and empathy are very strongly connected and very similar to each other. It is all about trying to understand the other person, imagining how they feel, and trying to see things from their perspective.
However, the concept of compassion is much older than that. It stems from the old practices and traditions of Buddhism. The Sanskrit word for compassion metta was often translated as ‘loving kindness’. For the old Buddhist monks compassion was all about having an attitude of empathetic care that liberates others and oneself from the cycle of suffering (meaning the cycle of birth and death). So, for me, according to this, compassion is a much, much deeper emotional concept than I first imagined.
The Importance of Self-Compassion
It is always easier to feel with others and see their pain, wanting to easy their suffering, and open our hearts to aid them. But what about treating ourselves with loving kindness, warmth and understanding, when things get difficult?
If we don’t release ourselves from the destructive powers of self-hatred, negative thinking, guilt, shame, or harsh judgements, we will ultimately reject in others what we reject in ourselves. Acceptance of ourselves as a whole, with all our shortcomings, is key for truly embedding compassionate behavior. We too, are people who deserve warmth and kindness from our own self.
It can be helpful to take a step back and try to see ourselves from a more objective point of view. Imagine that you look at yourself as someone who sits further away from the actual situation and the actual emotions that define you. What do you see? Who is sitting across from you? Do you see a friend? Do you see a vulnerable child? Do you see someone who suffers and is in pain because they are experiencing a difficult time? And do you feel like that person too, is worthy of love? Can you see that you can treat yourself as a loving friend who is hurting?
What would you ask that friend? How would you treat him? How can you comfort that friend (who is yourself)? How can you care for that friend (who is yourself)?
Without feeling compassionate towards ourselves, we are most often our own worst enemy. By looking at ourselves like someone would look at another loved person, we can learn to accept ourselves as we are. And we can forgive ourselves for things that didn’t quite go as planned.
Compassion – A 3-Step-Process
These days it becomes such a habit to just function in a world that works like a Hamster’s wheel and you see stress, stress, stress wherever you look. Compassion can help us out of this anger-loop that plays on repeat way too often. It is the intention we set in our heart that makes the difference. A heart that is closed to empathy strongly inhibits our human interconnectedness. It does affect the way we treat others and speak to them.
The three sentences, that can help us enhance a compassionate heart are:
I feel you.
I understand you.
I want to help you.
Those three affirmations cover three layers of the emotional processes going on inside of us while practicing compassion: feelings, mind, and intention. Those three sentences can almost work like a mantra. If we choose to say them often, in our minds or out loud, especially when another behaves negatively towards us, we can build a stable emotional foundation for truly authentic compassion, that comes from the heart.
How can mindfulness help develop compassion?
Mindfulness in its essence creates the foundation for compassion. Mindfulness and Acceptance change the relationship we have with each and every moment, our thoughts and feelings, and our environment. Part of mindfulness practice is to improve our relationships to others and ourselves by cultivating more compassion. Awareness, the present moment, and accepting things as they are, are the basis of mindfulness training and consequently increase compassion and self-compassion.
Mindfulness opens up our hearts. It brings tenderness and ease into our behavior and our thinking. Mindful exercises return the focus to our breath. We pay attention to whatever arises and notice it non-judgmentally. As a result, we create room in ourselves to nurture a feeling of loving kindness.
How can we practice more compassion?
Frame your Day
Start your morning with a compassion ritual. You can use affirmations for compassion to restructure your thinking. With that, you set a compassionate intention for the rest of your day. The things we focus on more tend to become more visible to us. So, if we pay attention to compassionate thoughts as soon as we wake up, we are already creating an habitual mindset that aids us in becoming more compassionate.
And since you started your day with a morning ritual, why not end it accordingly with an evening ritual? Maybe you want to take a moment before you close your eyes and choose 3 things of the day that you’re grateful for. Or you could focus your attention on one or two moments of the day, where you felt you successfully implemented your compassionate intention that you set in the morning. Write it down, or meditate on it before you go to sleep. Choose whatever makes you feel most comfortable.
Related Post: How to Have a Mindful Morning Commute and Reduce Stress
Another great way to practice compassion can be the harnessing of your empathy skills. First of all, it is important to let go of any form of judgement you have against you or someone else. And then, try to ask yourself: How would I feel if I were in the other person’s shoes?
By doing so, you open your heart to the humanness in others. After all everyone is human. And we all go through some tough times in our lives. Try to find similarities between you and that other person. Maybe you’ll notice that suffering is a universal phenomenon and that we’re all in this together.
This way, you’ll kill two birds with one stone. You can develop a feeling of empathy for the other and also realize that you too are the same and deserve your compassion.
The basis for compassion is a place of loving kindness that comes from the heart. But sometimes it can be difficult to open that channel. But interestingly enough, the same principle that works here is the same one that applies, when you feel down and force yourself to smile. Your brain will change its course of thinking if you physically start practicing a different attitude first. So, what this means is basically bringing compassion and empathy from the outside to the inside. (I know, usually it’s supposed to work the other way round. But I believe that sometimes our environment influences us more than we would like to admit.)
13 Simple Acts of Kindness
Exercise being compassionate by making small gestures towards others. To help you get started, I collected a few ideas:
- Write your partner, or another loved one, a list of Top 5 things you love about them. Without a reason. No questions asked. Just because.
- Buy some extra food for animals and drop it at the animal shelter.
- Offer to return a shopping cart to the store for someone who is loading up their car with a huge load of groceries.
- Hold the door for another person.
- Give your seat on the bus or public transit to an elder or pregnant woman.
- If you pass a car with an expired parking meter, put a couple of coins in it.
- Or pay for the person behind you at a toll station.
- When you hear people gossiping about someone, don’t participate. Instead point out one or two nice things about that person.
- If someone serviced you with a great attitude or a smile, let them and their manager know. Or write a positive online review.
- Volunteer to help out if you know a person that just moved. Or offer to watch your neighbour’s kids, while they run a quick errand.
- Make it a habit to send a nice note, message, or email to someone first thing in the morning, or when you first arrive at work.
- Leave sticky notes with positive messages on the bathroom mirror.
- Surprise a loved one with a flower bouquet. Just because you appreciate them for who they are.
Consider the Source
There are two sides to this one. Sometimes it can be tough to extend a compassionate thought or feeling towards a friend or family because we feel like we are bombarded with accusations, or we just had a heated argument with someone. But then, it is time to take a step back. Recall the situation, or if you’re skilled enough even do this while being in the conversation. Really try to listen to what the other person is saying. Why are they so upset? Could it be that you just got caught up in the crossfire because your friend or husband got a nasty email from his boss today? Try to get to the bottom of why the other person is really upset. What lies behind the anger?
On the other side, the same concept can also be applied to yourself. What has been your trigger? Sometimes we don’t realize that we let out our anger on other people, mostly loved ones, that are actually not at fault at all. In some situations our defenses are up and running because something happened at work for example, that we cannot see the person next to us is innocent and deserves our compassion.
To prevent those situations from happening in the first place, adjust your environment accordingly. Try to not use mobile devices during meal time, or family time. Be there. Be present. Or try to not check your emails or social media first thing in the morning.
Make a list of rules to counteract those stressors. In the end, it will allow you to better connect with the people around you and deepen your relationships with your loved ones.
I discovered this exercise through the work of Kristin Neff. She is one of the world’s leading experts on compassion. Her book Self-Compassion, is a true must read, if you want to have a more detailed insight into the topic.
The exercise is based on mindfulness techniques, common humanity, and kindness. It starts with realizing that a situation that you recently encountered causes you trouble, pain, or anger. Picture it in your mind, and notice how you feel. Say to yourself:
1.This is a moment of suffering. / This hurts./ This is stress.
Saying a phrase like that out loud, is the acknowledging and recognizing of things that are painful, difficult, or just simply not easy. Everything that comes after is built upon this realization.
2. Suffering is part of life. It is universal./ We all struggle./ I am not alone.
The second part embraces the interconnectedness and shared suffering, that is a basic feature of the word compassion itself. Next, put your hands above your heart. Spread the warmth of your fingers. Feel it gently and soothingly blanket your heart. And then ask yourself: What do I need to hear right now that will help me be kind to myself?
3. May I be kind to myself./ May I forgive myself./ May I learn to accept myself as I am.
You practice self-compassion by being kind to yourself. You give yourself the gift of understanding what is going on inside of you without any judgement. This exercise can be practiced whenever you feel like you need a dose of self-compassion. It may also be a nice addition to your morning or evening rituals.
Changing Critical Self-Talk
We all have that tiny voice inside our heads, that is always quick to put us down. And that voice can be really hard on ourselves. “I am not good enough.”, “I should have done things differently.”, “I am a failure”, and so on and so on.
Even so our inner critic is harsh, unrelenting, and often times destructive, he does it with the intention of protecting us. It is basically a vulnerable child that seeks comfort in putting ourselves down, before anyone else does. And if we can recognize that, then we can have more sympathy for our inner critic, and therefore, with ourselves.
One way to approach critical self-talk is by stating and pointing out the opposite. Ask yourself: Is all that negativity really true?
Find positive statements that focus on your strengths rather than your weaknesses. So, for example:
If your critical self-talk is trash talking you about your looks today. Then instead of making yourself feel small by acting on a statement like e.g. “You are so unattractive”, have compassion with yourself and say: “Well, I kind of like my hair today. And I like the way this blouse fits me. I think I am taking a lot of small steps to looking more attractive every day.”
And then give yourself a smile. 🙂
For more information see How to overcome Self-Doubt:10 Tips to Silence Your Inner Critic
“Om Mani Padme Hum”
The Sanskrit mantra “om mani padme hum” is the mantra of compassion. It is one of the oldest and most popular mantras of the Tibetan culture. The mantra calls for the blessing of all Buddhas to relieve living beings, and loved ones (if you dedicate this mantra to a person or maybe even yourself) from suffering.
Each syllable has a cleansing effect on the soul and is related to the purification of the six transcendental virtues generosity (Om), ethics (ma), patience (ni), diligence (pad), renunciation (me), and wisdom (hum).
The repetition of this mantra enhances our compassion and empathy skills, feeds clarity and understanding, and awakens the wish to act to the benefit of all living things at all times. This mantra can especially help in moments of weakness or when we feel discouraged. The sound of the respective syllables reaches our hearts on a much deeper level than our consciousness is aware of.
In general the mantra can be translated as
“Om” = embodying the impure body, speech, and consciousness, as well as relating to the embodiment of all buddhas at the same time.
“Mani” = meaning “jewel” or “bead”
“Padme” = the Lotus flower (which is the Buddhist sacred flower)
“Hum” = the spirit of enlightenment, the symbol of embodiment for the thoughts of all Buddhas, and the end syllable of many mantras.
So putting it all together, one version of a translation could be something similar to: “You jewel in the Lotus flower, you buddha in my heart.”
I really love the version of Deva Premal & The Gyuto Monks of Tibet. I always find it very touching and relieving when listening to it. (It is actually playing in my head right now writing this :))
You can also practice this mantra with mala beads. If you don’t know yet how to use them, I’ll give you a quick run-through
You touch every bead while saying the mantra (out loud or in your head) and let them glide through your fingers. This way you can completely focus on the mantra instead of counting in your head how many times you have said it already. 🙂
Compassion can increase your happiness long-term as well as short-term. It is about learning to accept as well as being with discomfort. And then kindly recognizing it. Research has shown that practicing an attitude of compassion towards others and yourself will have lasting improvements on your self-esteem and self-worth. There is a strong correlation between self-compassion and physical wellbeing. Different techniques, like watching out for your own self-talk, acting kind to others, or realizing the universal feature of suffering, can enhance a compassionate heart. By supporting tenderness, hope, and good will towards others and yourself, you create a natural buffer against emotional problems. And our emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing is all we can hope for. 🙂
What is your experience with compassionate behavior? Do you believe in it, or do you think it is not worth the effort?
Neff, Kristin: Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2015
Siegel, Ronald D.; Germer, Christopher K.: Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Publications, 2013