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4 Ways to Practice Compassion in a Pinch

Personal-growth guru and former professional snowboarder Katie Brauer shares her four-step plan for connecting with empathy—even when others try your patience.

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When someone cuts you off on the highway, is your initial reaction to let them speed away or to show them as much of your middle finger as possible? Coming out of any confrontation (road rage included) with a cool head boils down to learning to tune into compassion—and just like reflexes, compassion can be trained.

Meet Katie Brauer, your new compassion trainer. A former professional athlete and yoga entrepreneurship leader with more than 10,000 hours in yoga certifications, Brauer developed the Yoga Professional, a six-month online immersion business school for independent yoga teachers that merges the personal growth and business development necessary for success. Bottom line: She’s well practiced when it comes to marrying mindfulness with practicality. Here, Brauer outlines her approach to practicing compassion like a champ in four basic steps.

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Step No. 1: Pause


Putting even just a beat between you and your reaction allows space to introduce the first step in responding to a situation with compassion. For example, imagine someone cutting you off in traffic. Instead of reacting with hurt or anger (How could he do that to me? I have a baby in the car!), take a moment to pause and consider the other driver’s perspective (he must not have seen me). Doing this opens up more space for understanding—which inevitably drives compassion. “Give people the benefit of the doubt,” says Brauer. “On this day, under the circumstances of what they’re experiencing, they’re doing the best with what they’ve got in that moment.” 

See also 5 Ways To Practice Compassion—and Get Better at It

Step No. 2: Take a breath


Once you pause to delay reaction and introduce understanding, bring your attention inward. “Take a breath and notice the sensation that’s present in your own body,” says Brauer. “Allow that sensation to rise and to fall, and then bring yourself to your heartspace and acknowledge that not only are most people doing the best they can, but you are too.” Being able to recognize when you are triggered is powerful, says Brauer, because it brings objective (as opposed to emotional) awareness to the situation.

While the Metta meditation practice—sending out love and kindness—can be useful, Brauer suggests breathing in acknowledgement and breathing out whatever it is you feel that person needs in the moment, be it love, patience, or strength. “On the inhalation, you expand your capacity to hold space,” she says. “On the exhalation, you breathe out support.”

If that’s a struggle, a precept of tantric philosophy might resonate. Hold that all three of these statements are true: I’m nothing like you; I’m something like you; I’m nothing but you. Essentially, even though we’re composed of the same matter, we’re still somehow our own person. And yet, we’re in this human experience together—no matter how different we are, there’s always going to be some way to relate to one another.

See also 4 Ways to Take Down Your Inner Critic

Step No. 3: Check yourself


When we’re triggered by external factors, two things can happen: We merge with that person (their pain triggers our pain, and we lose autonomy as a result), or we’re activated by them (their action irritates us, and we dissociate them from their humanness). Neither is healthy. In both cases, we lose the ability to hold space for the other person. “Checking yourself is recognizing the impact a person’s action has on you,” says Brauer. When you own the impact, you get clarity on what happened and the story you’ve created around it. Draw a clear line between those two things, Brauer says, circling back to the road rage example. “What happened is he cut you off. The storyis he deliberately came at you.”

Noticing what’s true in your experience and differentiating between the action and the impact creates a distinction between fact and the emotional impact that the story incites. Your nervous system has been activated, says Brauer. “Checking yourself is like putting your oxygen mask on. You have to regulate yourself to then be able to calm your sympathetic nervous system.”

See also The 5 Stages of Detachment: Learning How to Let Go

Step No. 4: Remember the iceberg


At any given moment, only a quarter of the moment’s entirety is revealed—three-quarters remains concealed—which means that every minute, situation, or confrontation is like an iceberg: you can only see so much. In tantric philosophy, it’s an idea known as rahasya, which Danny Arguetty articulates in his book, The 6 Qualities of Consciousness. “In that concealed space is where we have the opportunity to cultivate empathy—not just empathy for other people but self-compassion as well,” says Brauer. “The idea that you don’t know what you don’t know—that drops you into the heart and creates connection with this understanding that there’s so much under the surface, that we’re all just in this crazy human experience doing the best that we can.”

Part of that human experience is that whatwe’re experiencing is constantly changing. Tomorrow we’ll know more than we know now. Next year, we’ll know even more. It’s a simple but powerful realization. “There would be no point to life if we knew everything,” says Brauer. “The practice is savoring the guarantee that there’s always more that will be revealed to us—more sweetness, more learning, more joy, more experiences.”

See also 5 Ways to Infuse Your Self-Talk with Self-Love

About the Author
San Diego–based journalist Hannah Lott-Schwartz tells stories for National Geographic Traveler, in-flight magazines on United and Delta airlines, Sierra, and others.