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Research is revealing that compassion is so much more than just a kind reaction to others’ suffering. It’s also an essential skill, one that can be improved over time to transform your life and increase your happiness.
There are times when we hear about a tragic event and we feel compelled to respond with an act of compassion. It can be intended for those far away from us—say, organizing a donation-based yoga class to help victims of a recent natural disaster—or very close, like making dinner for a friend who has lost a parent. We’re connected to others’ suffering in these moments, which is difficult, yet we also tend to experience something surprisingly positive: “When we help someone out of our genuine concern for her well-being, our levels of endorphins, which are associated with euphoric feelings, surge in the brain, a phenomenon that we call the ‘helper’s high,’” says Thupten Jinpa, PhD, adjunct professor of religious studies at McGill University, author of A Fearless Heart, and principal English translator to the Dalai Lama for three decades. “The warm feeling that we get from our own compassion has been found to help release oxytocin—the same hormone released by lactating mothers—which is associated with bonding with others and even reduced levels of inflammation in the cardiovascular system, an important factor that plays a role in heart disease.”
Despite the natural healing benefits that compassion can bestow on others and ourselves, it’s not always an automatic response, thanks to the stress and demands of daily life. But research is now showing that we can actually foster our capacity for compassion, so when painful situations arise, we are better at effectively relating to the person in need. In a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, people who were instructed to listen to a half-hour of compassion-meditation training daily for two weeks were more generous with their money during a computer-game experiment and had greater activation in the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain associated with pleasure and rewards, compared to those who underwent a different type of training that re-contextualized people’s suffering. “We think people are learning to find caring for others rewarding,” says Helen Weng, PhD, a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist who studies mindfulness and compassion meditation at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “You realize it may be painful, but it makes you feel connected with that person.” (To listen to meditations from the University of Wisconsin-Madison study for free, go to investigatinghealthyminds.org.)
To tap into more compassion, it’s best to start with the type that comes most naturally—for those close to you, such as family and dear friends. Next, focus on compassion for yourself (it can be surprisingly tough). And finally, practice compassion for strangers. Just as beginner yogis don’t go straight to Astavakrasana (Eight-Angle Pose), it’s important to build your compassion practice slowly. The following helpful exercises can be incorporated into your day and your yoga practice, so you can strengthen your awareness of suffering (in both others and yourself) and learn how to respond to it deftly. Before you know it, you’ll be connecting with others in a more meaningful way, making the world a better place, and basking in a warm, fulfilling feeling.
See alsoHow to Cultivate Compassion
Compassion for loved ones
When someone you care about is in pain—for example, a friend has lost her job or a family member is sick and in the hospital—compassion tends to be your go-to offer to share and hopefully relieve that pain. But taking on another’s pain is a big task, especially if you have pain of your own, and it’s surprisingly unnecessary. Instead, the true goal of compassion is to be present for what’s happening, without trying to fix things or absorb the pain. So, instead of rushing to make a to-do list, simply offer a hug.“Part of compassion is learning to be aware and with the person who is suffering, without going after the urge of wanting to solve the problem,” Jinpa says.
Other times, you’re actually part of the conflict or painful event. Consider a fight with your mom, in which a phone conversation got heated and you said things you didn’t mean. “When things cool down, revisit what happened and think about what a more compassionate response would have looked like,” Jinpa says. Then, the next time you call your mom, before you dial, think about how you’d like the phone call to go—perhaps vowing to use it as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship.
Speaking with hurting loved ones in a thoughtful, constructive way also carries physical benefits that aid you in stressful situations. For instance, when practicing compassion, your heart rate and breathing start to slow, evidence of your calming parasympathetic nervous system at work. “It puts you in a physiological state that is centered and grounded, which is a better state to make decisions in,” says Kelly McGonigal, PhD, yoga teacher and co-director at Stanford School of Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in Palo Alto, California. That way, if, say, a family member provokes you during the holidays, your reaction won’t be a hurtful verbal volley, but rather a considered response that will help mend the situation instead of exacerbating it.
Exercise: Consider the source
Sometimes we’re not able to extend compassion to our friends and family because we feel like we’re under siege ourselves by deadlines and time vampires. Think about that heated conversation with your mom: Maybe it was less about what she said and more about the snarky email your boss sent you after work hours that left you dreading the next morning. As a society, we used to leave work at work, but now the barrage of email and the fact that it’s always with us (thanks, smartphones) can make us feel that someone’s always after our time. This constant overwhelm can rouse our defenses, so we may neglect to see the person nearby who needs our compassion. To counter these stressors, create a physical environment that allows you to better connect with people important to you. Write down a list of rules for yourself, such as not checking email first thing in morning and setting an email cut-off time in the early evening. Make all meals you share with family or friends phone-free. And if you can, make email off-limits over the weekend. “If there’s something urgent, someone can ring!” Jinpa says.
Compassion for yourself
In modern society, self-compassion can be a stumbling block. We live in a competitive world where, from a young age, our accomplishments are compared against those of others. “It creates an environment where children have a sense of self-worth contingent on outer criteria, like getting affection from parents for good grades and punished for Cs,” explains Jinpa. As we get older, we tend to confuse self-compassion for selfishness. Women tend to suffer more because there’s more societal pressure to put others first—particularly children and significant others—so that a one-hour yoga class with your favorite instructor or tea with a friend is regularly back-burnered. Add in low self-esteem, also epidemic among women, and a person starts believing she doesn’t deserve self-compassion, Jinpa says. When we allow self-consciousness to usurp self-compassion, life becomes less joyful. It can make us uncomfortable in social situations and cause us to worry that people are judging us.
A great trick for tapping into your self-compassion is through recalling a benefactor moment, which Jinpa explains is an instance in life “when we felt seen, heard, and recognized by someone who showed us genuine regard and affection.” For instance, say you are speaking during a big work meeting when a colleague suddenly talks over you. Now you’re questioning whether your point had value. But when he’s finished, your boss redirects the conversation back to you, because she wanted your take. Benefactor moments like these make us feel valued, not judged, helping us find the space to expand our own self-worth. So each time you question your sense of purpose or usefulness, you can call upon these moments as a reminder that you do have value, and thus are also deserving of self-compassion.
Exercise: Practice Pigeon Pose
Of all the ways to strengthen self-compassion, yoga is one of the best. “Almost no matter what form you’re doing, you’re cultivating courage, presence, and compassion through tolerating discomfort,” McGonigal says. Staying in uncomfortable (but not painful) poses forces you to be aware of your body and proud of your courage to stick with it; hip openers, such as Pigeon Pose, are effective because they tend to unearth tightness and resistance. Later, when you’re out in the world and faced with a difficult situation, you can draw on your experiences in the studio and know that you can handle discomfort.
Compassion for strangers
Compassion researchers contend that people have an inherent desire to be kind. Consider that when a newborn baby cries in the hospital nursery, inevitably other babies erupt into wails. “But as we grow up, society teaches us who deserves our empathy and who doesn’t,” Jinpa says. “This process is slow and probably involves discrimination.” So practicing compassion for others isn’t about developing a new skill, but rather about reacquainting ourselves with an instinct we’re taught to quell. Think of a man begging for money on the street. You may have the impulse to turn away, because seeing how little he has makes you feel guilty for what you have or for not doing more to help. Alternatively, not turning away is compassion. Spending a minute talking to the man, even if you don’t give him money, gives him the gift of feeling cared for.
Exercise: Intention and reflection
Set an intention for the day and, later, reflect on whether you succeeded in fulfilling that intention. Setting an intention is like making a plan ahead of time, so when an opportunity presents itself, you’ve already chosen the path you’re going to take. Otherwise, you may hem and haw for so long that the moment passes you by. In the morning, spend five minutes meditating or drinking tea and journaling about what you plan on doing that day and why you are doing it. Contemplate the questions “What is it I value deeply?” and “What, in the depth of my heart, do I wish for myself, my loved ones, and the world?” The answers, Jinpa says, could be things like, “Today, may I be more mindful of my body, mind, and speech in my interactions with others, and may I relate to myself, others, and events around me with kindness, understanding, and less judgment.” Before you go to bed, consider if you met your morning intention. Were you able to do something that brought it to life, such as staying cool when someone cut in line at the grocery store? Did you take time out to help a new hire at work find her way around? Repeat over days and weeks; reinforcing this exercise makes compassion come more easily and feel even more fulfilling.
Open Your Heart to Compassion in Surya Namaskar
McGonigal often takes her yoga class through Sun Salutations, offering a different dedication each round. “When you increase awareness of the physical sensations around the heart, you’re more open to compassion,” she says. “And as you connect to bigger-than-self goals, you’re creating a positive state that increases your hope and courage.” Here, her tips for getting started:
Sun Salutation Round One
An expression of gratitude. When in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), give thanks to someone: “I’m grateful for my partner and his support and love.”
Sun Salutation Round Two
Dedicate it to someone who’s struggling, worried, or lost, and send her your support: “May this practice contribute in some way to her happiness and freedom from suffering.”
Sun Salutation Round Three
Picture someone in your life with whom you feel conflict or difficulty, and think of this round as an offering of forgiveness to her and to yourself, setting you both free: “In times of stress, I will remember that my daughter sometimes says things she doesn’t mean,” or, “Even when my boss is short with me, I recognize that she has pressures in her life that I may not know about.”
Sun Salutation Round Four
Find space for a stranger you don’t know well, such as the barista who makes your coffee in the morning or the UPS guy. Recognize that, just like you, that person wishes he could be happy and also struggles, and let it reflect your care: “May he know joy.”
Sun Salutation Round Five
Acknowledge something in your own life causing you difficulty and pain. Recognize the stress for a moment and accept it as an opportunity to sense your own strength and courage: “May this practice strengthen my ability to show up in the world with courage and kindness.”
Marjorie Korn is a health, fitness, and lifestyle writer based in New York City.