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site-map Life Beyond The Happiness Trap #4: Compassion

Dear Friends,
Welcome back. Last week we looked at curiosity: one of your greatest allies on the journey of mindful, valued living. Today we’re looking at another great ally: compassion. Compassion comes from two ancient Latin terms: ‘com’ which means ‘together’, and ‘pati’ which means ‘suffering’. Thus compassion literally means ‘suffering together’. In its modern usage, the word has a much more complex meaning. Compassion involves noticing and paying attention to the suffering of another living being, with a spirit of kindness and caring, and a genuine desire to help, nurture or support.

For most of us, compassion comes naturally under extreme circumstances. For example, we may feel compassion when we watch the news, and we see young children starving in Ethiopia; or a mother crying over the lifeless body of her young son, amidst a pile of rubble in war-torn Iraq; or the survivors of September 11 sharing their horrific first-hand accounts of loved ones jumping to their deaths or dying in flames. Closer to home, we are often spontaneously compassionate when our friends or family face a major life crisis: death, illness, injury, trauma, divorce. However, on a day to day basis, we all too easily lose touch with compassion – for both ourselves and for others. And this is problematic. Without compassion for others, we all too easily turn a blind eye to their pain and suffering. Without compassion, it becomes easy to judge others; to look down on them, scorn them, neglect them, reject them, or hurt them. Without compassion for another human being, they become reduced to little more than an object instead of a real person. And what effect does that have on your relationships?  What happens when you treat a human as an object?

Compassion for yourself is equally important, if not more so. When you fail, or get rejected, or make mistakes, or act in self-defeating ways, then without compassion, you can easily start beating yourself up and putting yourself down. And we’ve already looked at the futility of that, earlier in this course. After all, if beating yourself up was a good way to change behavior, you’d be perfect by now, wouldn’t you? When developing compassion, the best place to start is with yourself. The more you can develop self-compassion, the easier it is to be compassionate towards others: so everybody wins.

The most simple model I’ve discovered for self-compassion was developed by Dr Kristin Neff, an American psychology professor at the University of Texas, who has done much research in this area. Neff suggests there are three elements for developing self-compassion:
a)    Kindness
b)    Commonality
c)    Mindfulness
Let’s take a look at these in more detail.

a)    Kindness
As we go through life, we will screw up and make mistakes. We will get caught up in unhelpful beliefs. No matter how much we develop our mindfulness skills, there are times we will forget to use them: instead, we will go onto auto-pilot, and allow ourselves to be controlled by our thoughts and feelings. And when this happens, we will act in self-defeating ways; we will say and do things that are far removed from our true core values. We may hurt the very people we love most. Or we may avoid them, because we feel we are unworthy of their love. At times we will all feel inadequate or stupid or foolish or unlovable or dumb or just NOT GOOD ENOUGH. And it hurts, And we suffer. Wouldn’t it be great if during those times you could reach out to someone who unconditionally accepts you? Someone who sees you as you are, with all your human foibles and flaws and weaknesses, but does not judge or condemn or criticize you? Someone who basically says, ‘Hey. I’m here for you. Let me help. I can see you’re in pain. You’re hurting. I know how bad that feels. Please, let me help.’ With self-compassion, rather than hoping someone else will do this for you, you choose to treat yourself in this very manner. You reach out to yourself with acceptance, and kindness, and caring and warmth.

b)    Commonality
When you are hurting and suffering, what does this experience show you that you have in common with all other human beings? If you’re feeling guilty or fearful or angry or inadequate or lonely or ashamed or resentful or inadequate – it can be helpful to remember these are all normal human experiences. That all over the planet, in this moment, there are millions upon millions of other humans, suffering in ways very similar to your own. Often when you’re suffering, your mind tells you that you are the only one. That everybody else out there is happier than you are! That others don’t feel the pain that you feel. That others don’t screw up or make mistakes or fail – at least, not to the same extent that you do. And if you buy this story, it will make your suffering all the more intense.

The reality is, all humans suffer. Of course, they don’t all suffer to the same degree. Poverty-stricken children growing up in war-torn Iraq are likely to suffer much more than Western kids growing up in wealthy middle-class suburbia. But that is not the point. The point is, if you allow your suffering to cut you off from your fellow humans, then you will hurt even more. You will feel isolated, or cut off; as if you have been singled out for punishment. Recognizing your commonality with others helps you to reconnect with the human race. Every human life will be touched by loss, rejection, and failure. Every human being will lose their temper and do things they regret. Every human being will screw up. The more you can recognize this, and accept your own humanity, the more you will be able to treat yourself kindly and gently.

c)    Mindfulness
Mindfulness you already know a lot about (and hopefully are practicing more and more.) It is a mental state of awareness, openness and curiosity. When we make room for our painful feelings, and hold them lightly, and defuse from our critical, punitive, self-judgmental stories, then this in itself is a great act of kindness.

The more you practice self-compassion, the easier it will be to cultivate it towards others. And the more compassionate you can be towards the people  you meet in your life, the better those relationships will be. This is self-evident. After all, how do you feel when someone criticizes you, judges you, ignores you, rejects you, or comes down hard on you? Not too good, right? And your fellow humans are much the same as you. So here are a few tips for developing self compassion:
1.    When you’re suffering, start with some mindful breathing. Breathe slowly and deeply. Breathe down into your body, into whichever areas hurt the most. Imagine your breath flowing into and around the pain; feel yourself opening up and making room for it.
2.    Place one of your hands on the area that is most painful. Imagine this is a healing hand; the hand of a loving doctor or nurse or parent. Feel the warmth flowing from your hand into your body. As you do so, imagine your body softening up around the pain; holding the pain gently rather than squashing it down or pushing it away.
3.    Say some kind words to yourself. Imagine that your best friend or someone you deeply love is feeling the very same pain that you are feeling; suffering in the very same way. What kind words would you say to them, if you wanted to let them know that you care about them, and you want to help them? Try saying these words to yourself. And say it with the same attitude of warmth, care and kindness that you'd have for your friend or loved one.
4.    Imagine yourself as a young child. Imagine that younger version of you is feeling the very same pain that you are. What words might you say to this young child, if you wanted to let them know you truly care about them? Try saying some similar words to yourself, with the same attitude of care and concern and kindness.
5.    Acknowledge you’re human. If you’ve screwed up, remind yourself, ‘Yes. I’m human. Like everybody else on the planet, I am imperfect and I make mistakes.’
6.    Draw on your curiosity. Ask yourself, ‘What does this teach me about what it is to be human?’ and ‘What insight does this give me into friends, family and all other human beings that suffer?’
7.    Remember this pain tells you several important things: a) you’re alive; that’s a good start b) you’re human; this is what humans feel when they suffer c) you have a heart; if you didn’t care about anything, you wouldn’t be having these painful feelings.

I’ll leave you once again with some relevant quotes:
Peace is not the absence of war; it is a virtue; a state of mind; a disposition for benevolence; confidence; and justice. - Spinoza:
I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it. -Thomas Aquinas:
A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. - Albert Einstein:

All the best, and take care,
 Russ Harris

© Russ Harris 2008


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