Compassion has been creeping up to tap me on the shoulder lately.
While in Aruba over the holidays, I listened to both part 1 and part 2 of Karen Armstrong’s conversation with Oprah on her Super Soul Sunday podcast, which went deep into compassion. During the episode, Karen Armstrong said:
“You are your best self when you give yourself away to other people… if you do, all day and every day look into your own heart, discover what gives you pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever to inflict that pain on anybody else, somehow you achieve new capacities of mind and heart. Just as a dancer who practices and practices for years; once you do it, everything falls into place.”
That episode moved me so much that I decided to make compassion the center of one of my 2019 intentions. “Return more quickly to compassion when I’m upset, frustrated or annoyed,” I wrote.
I thought I’d already failed at it after not even two weeks since the near year began. This past weekend, I indulged my ego and lashed out at someone I care about deeply. Almost immediately, I recognized the damage I’d done and apologized profusely. I know that healing can be found in all situations in which both parties are willing to return to compassion. And that situation is no exception.
But then I realized something profound: I didn’t fail at my intention at all. I bounced back to my true self in record time. And that’s the progress I’m striving for. I won’t always get compassion right, but I can always choose to return to it when I get it wrong.
The reality is that we’re all human. And we all make mistakes. We’re all just trying to do the best we can with what we’ve been handed. Having compassion for yourself and for others is one of the strongest and most direct ways to ditch the path of fear and center yourself back on the path of love. Especially when you make a wrong turn like I did.
When anger creeps in, compassion is the cure.
When judgment takes over, compassion is the cure.
When the humanity of a person slips away and you see him or her as an “other” instead of another, compassion is the cure.
When you start to build walls and lock people out, compassion is the cure.
For all things driven by fear or pain or ego or negativity, compassion is always the answer.
But what is compassion? Why is it important? How can you benefit from it? How can you cultivate it? Read on to find answers to those questions and more. Because compassion can heal. Compassion can help love bloom. Compassion is the cure.
What is compassion?
According to Wikipedia, compassion “motivates people to go out of their way to help the physical, mental, or emotional pains of another and themselves.” It goes on to note, “The English noun compassion, meaning to love together with, comes from Latin.”
Here’s how I like to think of compassion. Compassion is watching the sad part of a romantic comedy and really feeling for the struggle that the couple is enduring. Compassion is knowing when you need a spa day at home. Compassion is giving a homeless person food when they ask for it. Compassion sees the flaws in another and forgives them when they make a mistake. Compassion is an emotional bridge between two humans who recognize the tenderness in one another.
Compassion is empathy in action.
Why is compassion important?
As Karen Armstrong mentions in her podcast with Oprah, compassion is the foundation for nearly all of the world’s religions. (Did you know that compassion is mentioned in the Bible some 80+ times?!) The Golden Rule shows up again and again across time, cultural boundaries and territorial lines. And the crux of The Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have done unto you) is compassion.
Truth is, compassion helps you understand the hardships of another. Since we all falter and go through hard times compassion, therefore, strengthens your connection to yourself and the oneness of all things. All of the greatest and highest ideals of the human spirit—forgiveness, acceptance, trust and hope—are based in compassion.
Life can be a struggle. Compassion makes it easier because it shows you that you don’t have to suffer alone. And that’s a comforting truth.
How can compassion improve your life?
Research has shown again and again that compassion can help you lead a happier and healthier life. It’s even been shown to boost your immune system! On a deeper level, compassion can help make the world a more accepting and loving place. Bonus: Compassion may even help you live longer.
Turns out, a little kindness goes a long way in helping elevate yourself and others. Ahh, the power of love!
Eight of my favorite quotes on compassion:
“There is a nobility in compassion, a beauty in empathy, a grace in forgiveness.”—John Connolly
“Compassion is about giving all the love that you’ve got.”—Cheryl Strayed
“Look for a way to lift someone up. And if that’s all you do, that’s enough.”—Elizabeth Lesser
“Let our hearts be stretched out in compassion toward others, for everyone is walking his or her own difficult path.”—Dieter F. Uchtdorf
“Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.”—Jack Kornfield
“One of the secrets of inner peace is the practice of compassion.”—Dalai Lama
“Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” ―Albert Einstein
“Compassion is not a virtue—it is a commitment. It’s not something we have or don’t have—it’s something we choose to practice.”—Brené Brown
Five ways to cultivate more compassion in your life:
Instead of jumping to conclusions about what someone else is going through, try to see them in a compassionate light. Imagine what it would be like to go through just a fraction of what they’re going through. Picture yourself facing their hardships and you might find it easier to embrace them with kindness instead of apprehension.
Give kindness to yourself.
You are your own biggest critic. When you make a mistake, it’s easy to pour salt on the wound and make the situation worse by sending your criticism inward. But compassion can help you release all the negative energy you push back down within. Try this visualization technique I wrote about in my deep-dive on forgiveness:
While seated upright with your hands on your knees and your feet on the floor, close your eyes and imagine yourself in a bright white room with only two chairs seated across from one another within it.
When you’re focused and can see that setup clearly in your mind, call forth two people—yourself and a close friend. Ideally this person should be a supportive and kind presence in your life.
Picture the person seated across from you. Simply look him or her in the eyes. Then, imagine yourself sitting exactly where they are seated across from you, looking back at yourself through their eyes. Do the best you can to see yourself with the kindness of an objective onlooker.
Get to the source of your disturbance.
If you’re like me, you struggle with being compassionate on a daily basis. More often than not, that’s because you carry the negative energy of another situation with you throughout the day and allow it to close your heart and block your inner compassionate self from leading with love. And that’s perfectly normal. Instead of indulging the negative energy, try to get to the root cause of what’s bothering you. Think back to where the disturbance in your energy first occurred and focus on it. Call it forth in your mind until you feel those emotions again. And then allow them to flow through until you fall behind them. Experience them fully and allow them to pass. Only then will you stop projecting a previous situation onto someone—or something—else. And finally choose compassion instead.
One of the most loving and compassionate things you can do for someone is give them your time and undivided attention. That means allowing yourself to be fully present and listen not just to wait until you can speak, but to truly understand what the other person is saying. When you actively listen in this way, you create a compassionate space for a genuine conversation to unfold. When you intently lend an ear, you make room for vulnerability and connection. When you honor someone with your presence in this way, you lift both of you up in the process.
Believe it or not, studies show that compassion is a muscle that can be strengthened with exercise and attention over time. There’s even a full-blown Compassion Cultivation Training offered by Stanford University that can help you become more kind and compassionate over the course of the eight-week program. So, you can literally train yourself to become more compassionate if you want. The choice is up to you.
How have you shown compassion to others throughout your life? What are some ways you’ve found that have helped you demonstrate more compassion over the years? Tell me in the comments below—or Tweet me @crackliffe.
For even more essential wisdom, check out 12 Timeless Truths to Live By.