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What is compassion?

Compassion is one of the Four Brahmaviharas or sublime states or limitless qualities: loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. It is considered a great virtue in all major faiths and is said to be present within each person, either as a potential or an actual quality. We can allow these qualities to flower by removing obstacles to them. While kindness involves a generous or thoughtful act in order to make someone happy, compassion is kindness in the face of suffering and usually involves an active desire to help.

What it’s not

A common barrier to self-compassion is the belief that self-compassion is self-indulgent, or that it will undermine personal motivation. Paradoxically, it is the lack of self-compassion that can lead to passivity as when the self is harshly judged “the protective functions of the ego will often act to screen inadequacies from self-awareness so that self-esteem is not threatened. Self-compassion provides the emotional safety net needed to see self clearly” (Neff, 2003).

Balancing the virtue of compassion against the virtue of justice may sometimes be necessary in order to avoid Idiot Compassion… if someone has done something that causes harm to others, then relative compassion is utilized. Absolute compassion is reserved for those who suffer yet have done nothing wrong.

Why are we not more compassionate?

A Princeton academic study was carried out with theological students, where they were asked to give a lecture on the Good Samaritan. Some were told that they had plenty of time to get to the lecture hall, while others were told they were already a little late. An actor, pretending to be a suffering, homeless person, was planted on their route to the hall. The study revealed that only the students who felt they had plenty of time stopped to offer help. Compassion appeared to be dependent on whether they felt hurried. Social neuroscience has revealed that we are all wired with mirror neurons, which allow us to empathise with others. However, self absorption means that we don’t notice other people, and their needs, particularly when we feel rushed and stressed.

It is emphasized that to manifest effective compassion for others it is first of all necessary to be able to experience and fully appreciate one’s own suffering and to have, as a consequence, compassion for oneself. The Buddha is reported to have said,

It is possible to travel the whole world in search of one who is more worthy of compassion than oneself. No such person can be found.

Compassion Practices

We can experiment with different mindfulness and yoga practices in order to develop the sublime states. Becoming aware of our own body, with all its frailty and grace, allows us to become more compassionate towards all of life.

1. Pranayama, meditation, philosophical understanding and karma yoga (selfless service) help to grow joy, compassion, and equanimity and deepen the effects.

2. Breath: slowing down the breath relaxes the nervous system, and the mind settles too. Patanjali talks of focusing on the exhale to develop cheerfulness, equanimity and compassion. Work towards 1:2 ratio of in-breath and out-breath. Importance of practicing with patience and care, without straining. We can also start with nadi shodhana to balance the two hemispheres of the brain.

3. Mindfulness Meditation: Neff’s Self Compassion Break is a great complement to mindfulness meditation, during times of difficulty. More traditional Buddhist practices include metta (loving kindness) or tonglen (giving and receiving).

4. Karma yoga: when working with others in need, your own problems seem less severe. Like forgiveness, it is the giver, not the recipient, who tends to benefit most from the service! Research has shown that acts of kindness does not only benefit receivers of the kind act, but also the giver, as a result of the release of neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of contentment and relaxation when such acts are committe.

5. Gratitude: count blessings every day before bed – write down a gratitude list. Go round in a circle, naming things that made us happy that day. Feel how it builds.

6. Bhakti yoga: chanting – a powerful way to connect to something deeper ie connection to the universe.

7. Svadharma – individual life purpose – gain access to inner wisdom, learn to listen to the heart, so you know what uses of your life energy feel most meaningful, what you find fulfilling and what you don’t. Steer your life according to this deep wisdom, and greater access to joy, compassion and gratitude is sure to follow. (Timothy McCall, Yoga Journal)

In Buddhism, the Buddha is reported to have said that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice… The Dalai Lama has said,

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Increasing compassion is the sign that your spiritual practice is bearing fruit.

This blog post was taken from a talk, given during the April 2014 retreat at the Tara Rokpa Centre.

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