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How to Cultivate Compassion

Here's how to cultivate compassion for others—and why opening your heart helps you too.

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Lila is a 30-year-old actor and yogini, the daughter of a successful TV producer. Last year, Lila’s mother died after a long illness. Grieving and burned out by the process, Lila imagined a long vacation with her boyfriend and the opportunity to throw herself into the off-Broadway play she’d been cast in. Then her father got sick. His friends were sympathetic, but everyone simply assumed that Lila would be the caregiver. It was the last thing she wanted to do. And what made it worse was the fact that she felt no sympathy for her father at all. “He’s so self-centered,” she told me. “I know it’s hard for him. But all I see is this selfish guy who always had to be the center of attention when I was growing up. So, yes, I’m doing it. I’m over there every day. I’m supervising the nurses. But I hate every minute of it. I know it would be easier if I could feel some compassion. I just don’t know how to find it!”

Leslie, on the other hand, seems to have too much compassion. Two years ago, Leslie drove 1,000 miles to rescue a colleague having an emotional breakdown and got him into a treatment center. When the colleague wrote to denounce Leslie for intervening in his process, Leslie still offered to take him in after his release. Ex-girlfriends call Leslie in the middle of the night to commiserate about their love lives. Friends borrow money and never pay it back.

I can relate both to Lila and to Leslie. I know what it’s like to feel a compassion deficit in myself just when someone needs it the most. I’ve also found myself extending limitless sympathy to people who, in hindsight, would have been better off with a dose of cold-water truth.

Healthy Compassion

So what exactly is the right level of compassion? How do you cultivate compassion when you don’t feel it—for instance, when you’re faced with a really difficult person or someone who has hurt you? If it’s true, as many evolutionary biologists now claim, that human beings are innately compassionate, then how do you let yourself feel your own natural compassion? And how do you differentiate true compassion from what one spiritual teacher called “idiot compassio”—the apparent kindness that actually enables other people’s destructive or dysfunctional behavior?

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” When you’re feeling compassionate, you recognize that another person is suffering and want to do something about it. This capacity for tuning into another’s distress and wanting to help is instinctual. Charles Darwin wrote that sympathy—not aggression—is our strongest instinct. More than that, he believed that the species with the most sympathy are the ones that thrive.

There are deep reasons why the yogic and Buddhist traditions consider the ability to feel compassion such a crucial quality. Practicing compassion is not just the prerogative of enlightened beings. It is also what evolutionary biologists call “adaptive.” And it is definitely one of the factors that make this life both joyful and painful. The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Research into empathy and compassion is just getting started, but neuroscientists now believe that the ability to feel another person’s pain as if it were your own is hardwired in us. Empathy occurs, they say, because our mirror neurons give us the capacity to feel and respond to the emotions of others. In fact, all mammals have this capacity for noticing and responding to others’ feelings. The normally standoffish kitty that used to live next door to me always showed up at my door when I was feeling sick or sad. She would climb up on my lap and invite me to cuddle her—something she almost never did at other times.

The urge to soothe the distress of the beings close to us is built into the limbic system, allied not only to our empathic mirror neurons but also with the production of the brain chemical oxytocin. This “love hormone,” as it’s sometimes called, is associated with mother-infant bonding (it’s released during breastfeeding), cuddling, and the impulse to get up in the middle of the night to make your insomniac boyfriend a cup of cocoa. The role of oxytocin is to soothe us and give us the feeling of being held, accepted, and at ease.

In other words, when you take care of or bond with someone, it feels good not just to the person being held but also to the person doing the holding. That may be why Leslie says he enjoys helping other people, even when it’s inconvenient. And it’s certainly a reason Lila feels so bad when she can’t empathize with her father. Compassionate action, new scientific research shows, activates pleasure and rewards circuits in the brain. It lowers stress hormones in the blood. It strengthens the immune response. All of which means that Lila is suffering in measurable ways from her own compassion deficit. She’s not only withholding love from her father; she’s also withholding it from herself.

As Lila and I discussed her situation, I asked her to think about how compassion feels. “If you did feel compassion, how would you be?” I asked her. “Soft,” she said. “My heart would feel more tender toward him. I wouldn’t have so many judgmental thoughts.” I suggested that she try role-playing as compassion, as if she were in an acting class. So Lila began to imagine herself being compassion. She asked herself, “How does compassion walk? How does compassion come into a room? What tone of voice does compassion use? How does compassion think about her father?” As Lila “played” compassion, her whole affect changed. Her eyes softened and her voice dropped into her chest. As she began to talk about her father, tears came to her eyes. “He’s never felt so alone,” she says. “He knows he wasn’t the perfect husband and father, but that was because he was trying to prove himself in the world. And now he feels that none of it made any difference.”
“Oh my god,” she said after a minute. “I’m scared too. When I look at him, I see how much I need to prove myself. I’m afraid I’ll end up like him.”

And Lila began to cry. Lila had stumbled on one of the truths of compassion. Compassion literally means “suffering with.” The essence of compassion, as the Dalai Lama has often said, is the recognition that someone else is just like you. You experience someone else’s suffering as your own. You feel it inside. You step out of your self-preoccupation and realize that the other person has the same desire to be happy and safe that you have.

But suffering with another person is challenging. This is especially true when that other person is a family member, close friend, or partner. In some ways, it’s easier to “feel with” a stranger than with someone close to you. But even with strangers, experiencing the truth of another’s pain can bring up your fear of your own pain, fear that we often hide from ourselves. When you realize another person is just like you, you realize that you too could be in their situation. You see your own fragility. You see that anyone can suffer. If, in that moment, you feel not only your commonality but also an inner need to help in some way, your empathy has become compassion.

Compassion Play: To cultivate compassion when you just can’t seem to access it, try a 10-minute practice in which you play the role of being compassionate.

Begin by breathing in the feeling of compassion. Now imagine how a person filled with compassion sits. Ask yourself:

  • How does this compassionate person before you walk?
  • How does she think about others?
  • How does she drink water?
  • How does she eat food?
  • Assume the character of a person who is feeling compassionate.

You can do this practice for a few minutes or a whole day. At the end, reflect on how you felt. Take a deep inhalation, breathing the feeling through your body. Then consider a compassionate act you can perform. This can be anything from calling a sick friend to giving money to a homeless shelter to committing yourself to some form of volunteer action. When you do it, see if you can stay present with the feeling of being compassion.

Dissolve the Boundaries

Most of us find that when we kindle compassion, even for a few minutes, it changes the way we speak and act with others. (So will meditation; a group study recently done at the University of Wisconsin revealed that the meditators in the group were significantly more prone to actions like giving up a seat to a limping stranger than the nonmeditators.) Even more interesting is the fact that when we act on our feelings of compassion, it can change us. Acting with compassion opens us to capacities we didn’t know we had, powers that seem to come from beyond the personal self.

A friend who worked for 36 hours straight helping rescue people trapped by the 2004 tsunami in Thailand told me that there came a point when she realized that it was no longer “her” helping. “Something took over,” she said. “I don’t have that kind of energy on my own. And after a while, I wasn’t seeing a difference between these other people and myself. It became me helping myself.” My friend was experiencing one of the gifts of compassion. This is the state Buddhists call bodhichitta, or awakened consciousness, in which the barriers between you and another person dissolve, and you actually—rather than intellectually—experience profound interconnection with others.

You can cultivate bodhichitta by cultivating your awareness of fundamental commonality. Try meditating on the fact that all of us are connected to each other, that all of us suffer, and that all of us are embraced by the universe. You will begin to know that all of us have the same needs, the same drives, the same desires and doubts and struggles. So when you help another person compassionately, it’s without a feeling that it’s “me” helping “you.” It’s much more as if “I” am helping another form of myself.

Develop Empathy: This is one of the classical practices for cultivating compassion. It’s particularly good when, like Lila, you need to find compassion for someone you dislike or resent.

First, bring to mind someone in your life who is facing difficulty or in pain. It could be someone you know well, someone distant, even someone you saw on TV. Now, consider this:

  • Like me, this person desires happiness.
  • Like me, this person wants to be free from suffering.
  • Like me, this person has experienced grief, loneliness, and sorrow.
  • Like me, this person is trying to get what he or she needs in life.
  • Like me, this person is evolving.

Next, consider that person’s suffering. Imagine that you are suffering the same way. Think about how you’d feel. Think about how much you would want to be free from suffering.

Now imagine how much less alone you would feel if someone actively felt your pain and wanted it to end. Can you do this for the other person? Can you actively desire that their suffering end?

Put yourself in the other person’s place, and then feel for a moment that their pain is also yours. Hold the wish that their suffering ends.

Then, if possible, do something kind for them. It could be a phone call, a donation, picking up groceries, or just sharing a meal. Doing something is important here. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it’s important to make a real-world gesture.

This practice can be so transformative that it’s worth doing daily. You’ll see how it can affect your opinions and interactions with every person in your life. That’s because the real key to activating your compassion is to recognize this feeling of interconnectedness.

See Your Inner Obstacles

I once worked with someone who had a hard time accepting feedback. I was his boss, but I soon learned that whenever I suggested that he do something differently, he would take on a deer in the headlights look and immediately make a joke or just pretend I hadn’t said anything. After a while, I became intensely annoyed by his defensiveness.

One day, when he had stonewalled another colleague’s mild suggestion, I heard a tone in his voice that I recognized. It was a tone I’d heard in my own voice over and over again when someone else’s feedback had triggered my shame about not doing something perfectly. In other words, the defensiveness that so annoyed me in my colleague was also in me. I prided myself on being able to accept feedback, but that impulse to withdraw into a defensive shell was still there. As I recalled my own moments of defensiveness, I could feel the shame behind it, shame that probably came from childhood and some adult’s unthinking criticism. At that moment, I understood why my colleague couldn’t take criticism—and also why his reactions annoyed me so.

Suddenly, a warm feeling swept over me—a feeling of warmth for my colleague but also for myself. I saw each of us as we might have looked at three years old—sweet, soft, malleable, innocent. I thought of all the ways adults unthinkingly trigger shame and fear in three-year-olds, and for a moment, I thought of all the three-year-old selves we have buried inside our functional, coping adult selves. It was a moment of purest compassion—for my own bumbling qualities, for my colleagues, and also for the entire human race, stumbling through this life as best we can. I loved my colleague, and at the same time I loved myself.

Help Others, Help Yourself

That brings us to another of the secrets of real compassion. If you want to exercise real, lasting compassion, you need to develop some compassion for yourself. Lila’s difficulty with her father arose in part from her intolerance for certain qualities in herself. If you haven’t learned how to see your own shortcomings compassionately, you’re not going to be able to look at others without judging them. Then, no matter how nice you are to someone else, part of you is going to be noticing their mistakes, feeling impatient with their failures, and secretly wondering if their troubles aren’t all their own fault. At some point, developing compassion for others is going to require you to extend compassion to yourself.

Cultivate Self-Compassion: If you’re accustomed to being your own worst critic, cultivating self-compassion may be challenging. Try this exercise in which you treat yourself with the care and love that you would a small child.

Sit quietly, and watch your breath for a few minutes.

Then bring to mind a time when you felt cared about—even in the smallest way. See if you can access the feeling of someone caring for you. Notice how your heart feels, how your body feels.

Now imagine yourself as a child. You might even remember a time when you felt unhappy as a child.

Imagine that your adult self is cradling the child. Feel the instinct to care for the child. Tell the child that you’re here. Begin to tell the child how you see the innocent, loving, gifted essence within him or her. This is a very significant part of the practice. You want to become aware of the uniqueness in your child-self, a uniqueness that you carry to this day.

Notice the effect on your heart.

One reason it’s so important to cultivate self-compassion is because it helps keep you free of what we’ve already called “idiot compassion”—the kind that my friend Leslie sometimes demonstrated. One on-line quiz about compassion contains several questions that measure your compassion for your partner by how much you are willing to sacrifice for them. Several of the comments point out that self-sacrifice in a relationship may not be true compassion at all but a form of weakness, like the “kindness” of a parent who won’t discipline his child for fear that the child won’t like him, or the sympathy of a friend who keeps listening to you complain about your unfaithful lover or your unsatisfying job without ever suggesting that you do something about it. At its worst, idiot compassion enables negative and even destructive traits and behaviors, and actually prevents growth.

It takes discernment to know how to help another person and when to suggest they help themselves. Some discernment can come only from experience—acting compassionately and watching the results. But as we cultivate compassion, we can also cultivate reflection. One way to do this is by asking ourselves questions. I like not only, “How can I help?” but also, “What’s motivating me to help?” “How can I help in a way that connects this person to his own resources?” and “Who’s really helping whom?”

This kind of self-inquiry has shown my friend Leslie how to draw boundaries without closing his heart. He tells me that these days, when he listens to a needy friend, he first checks into his own state. He tries to center himself in his own awareness. Then it’s more likely he can be a mirror to the other person’s higher Self rather than simply a sympathetic ear. He says that more and more, he finds himself coaching people on next steps rather than taking the other person’s steps for them.

Leslie got to this place by cultivating self-compassion. Over the years, mostly through meditation, he has grown a deep connection with his own Self, his essence, the part of him that is intrinsically worthy and wise. These days, he’s not just a person you go to when you need sympathy. Being around him lets other people step into their own connection with the universal Self. Just as a skilled yoga teacher can tap a student’s natural ability to hold a Handstand or a backbend, a person whose compassion comes from the essential Self can help others see their own essential beauty and strength.

If you’ve ever had a moment of recognizing the part of yourself that is uniquely you yet free of the contractions of the false-self ego, you know what it feels like to be connected with your essential self. She is naturally generous, confident, wise, and loving. She has no problem giving blessings and no problem receiving them.

Look Beneath the Surface: One of the most compassionate gifts we can give a person is to see that person as their esssence—to look beyond their masks to the beauty that everyone holds inside.

Sometime, when you’re walking or riding a bus, glance around. Notice which faces draw your sympathy and which faces seem off-putting. Then picture the strangers as small children, looking at the world with hope and joy. (As in the self-compassion practice, thinking of someone as a child can trigger loving feelings.) See if you don’t feel the rise of something like sympathy—or compassion.

Go another step. See if you can see the essence in that person, the loving, wise, being that lives inside them.

Then ask yourself, “What is the highest gift I could offer this person?” Imagine yourself offering it to them.

Notice how that blessing softens your heart. Notice how connected it makes you feel. Hold the possibility that your compassionate glance might—just might—have opened them up to feeling a little stronger, a little happier, a little more compassionate themselves.

Sally Kempton is an international teacher of meditation and the author of Awakening Shakti.