Cultivating Wise Compassion

Photo by Jakob Owens

Compassion is openness to the presence of suffering combined with the desire to eliminate it and its causes. In this culture we can easily find ourselves swimming in a sea of fear and pain. Immersed every day in stories and images of danger and loss, we may feel we are barely able to keep our own heads above the fray. We turn our heads away and refuse to see it. Or we unconsciously begin to live as though harmful people and things await us around every corner.

To add insult to injury, when we suffer, we are taught that it is our own fault for not seeing danger coming and preventing it from happening. So, we tend to carry a certain level of skepticism, defensiveness and stinginess with us at all times. The costs of this approach to life are many, but at its core is a life lived regretting missteps of the past and anticipating the dangers of the future, rather than truly experiencing each moment as it unfolds. We are less present in our lives.

A common defense against suffering is hatred – a profound feeling of aversion. It drives us to act in a way that is intended to reduce our unpleasant feelings – generally by fighting against, escaping from, or ignoring the perceived source. In this sense, hatred can be highly motivating and may result in behavior that at least partially or temporarily alleviates our own suffering. However, hatred also has some unfortunate longer term side effects.

It takes an amazing amount of mental space and energy to hate. Although it may be directed at our “enemies”, anger also burns us from the inside. Chronic anger has harmful effects on our health and what we practice only becomes stronger. Not only is prolonged resentment and disdain bad for the health of the individual, anger can also become a threat to public health. It is easier to mistreat those we judge as fundamentally bad, thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle of hatred and counter-hatred. Research shows that punishment is not nearly as effective for behavior change as reinforcement and people generally live up to or sink down to the expectations we set for them.

More obviously, self-loathing also has detrimental consequences. When we have very little compassion for ourselves, we have no choice but to go on the defensive. We feel we must avoid mistakes at all costs, which inhibits creativity and learning. Without self-compassion, we are less resilient to life’s slings and arrows that inevitably come our way.

Fortunately, practicing compassion is good for us, creating feelings of pleasure, improving physical and mental health, and lengthening our lifespans. An angry and punishing approach to behavior has deleterious effects on us all. While its important to be discerning, there is often more space than we believe to care for ourselves and others, as long as we do so in a wise and skillful way.

We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths. – Desmond Tutu

So how might we escape our conditioned, habitual way of being and cultivate greater compassion? We do it in much the same way that we cultivate the other attitudes of mindfulness – through practice:

  • Pause and Reflect: Consider pausing before reacting to threats, taking a moment to examine your own thoughts, emotions, body sensations and urges to action. Remind yourself that there are many causes and conditions that come together to create a situation and there is no simple solution. This may prevent you from letting someone else’s harmful behavior plant the destructive seeds of hatred inside you. In this small but powerful way, you can step out of the cycle of suffering.
  • See the Good in Everyone: Do you believe there is a glimmer of goodness that resides in everyone – even yourself? If so, it can be helpful to remember this when you encounter behavior that makes someone hard to love. Remind yourself that this person too was once a helpless baby and that, underneath it all, they too desire happiness (though they may not be pursuing this common goal wisely).
  • Cultivate Humility: Having compassion for someone who might seem hard to love takes humility – a modest estimation of one’s own importance in the grand scheme of things. Humility comes from the Latin word humilitas meaning lowliness – or – humus, the earth beneath one’s feet. How can we truly care for another when we believe they are less deserving? We also must be humble about what we know. When we acknowledge the limits of our control and understanding, we realize that we can’t fully know the heart of another.
  • Remember Our Common Humanity: It helps to remind ourselves that we are all very small in the big picture and we are inextricably connected – the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Is it possible to see that we aren’t separate from or above anyone else – even from humanity’s worst offenders? It can also be helpful to recognize that each of us is not immune to the misfortune of others. Right or wrong, societal unrest and dissatisfaction ripple out in ways that impact us all. Everyone benefits when we value one another. Its possible to respect the disrespectful and love the unloving without endangering personal integrity. Set an intention and a wish for the happiness of all beings – understanding that if we were all truly happy, the world would be a better place for everyone.
  • Engage in Formal Practice: Make a regular practice of lovingkindness or giving and taking meditation. Through practice, we relearn how to open to experience and see things as they are without judgment, even in the face of great difficulty. We begin to accept uncertainty. All of this creates space within us for allowing suffering – our own and that of others – so that we can respond skillfully and with wise compassion, fulfilling our intentions.

If we can incorporate these compassionate practices into our daily lives, our automatic reactions will be more likely to come from a place beneficence. We may begin noticing the ways in which judgment, pride, and anger show up in our relationships with ourselves and others. This creates space for making choices that benefit us all.

Wise compassion can be firm and even fierce, but it is never angry – love can be a powerful force for transformation. For example, it takes great courage and determination to set and maintain a boundary or to sit unwavering in the burning heat of another’s disapproval. Remember that setting a limit does not mean closing your heart. It means seeing the bigger picture and allowing your intention to help outweigh your desire to be comfortable.

…forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed? – bell hooks

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