By Zachary J. Thieneman, Psy.D.
Compassion is an oft-forgotten but ubiquitous part of human character. Inherent in many cultures and evident in the altruistic acts of others, compassion is an integral part of our survival as humans. Across religions, many people are taught the moral underpinnings of compassion. In Christianity, Jesus aided the downtrodden and outcast, saying the last shall be first to enter the kingdom of heaven. In Islam, Muhammad preached compassion for enemies. In Judaism, compassion is seen as divine and obligatory for humanity. In Hinduism, compassion is an integral part of ahimsa, a tenant of Hindu spirituality focused on non-violence in thoughts, deeds, and actions. In Buddhism, compassion starts with compassion from the self, towards the self, connecting our own suffering to the suffering of others. Outside of religion, compassion is typically looked at through the academic lens of altruism and morality, identifying the many benefits of kindness to fellow humans. The commonality of such diverse origins for the same message speaks to the importance of working with, not against, our fellow people.
In a routinely divided and complex modern society, now is the time to practice what is preached. For yourself, for your friends, family, fellow people, and those different than you. Make no mistake, compassion is a practice. However, the more you practice, the more it becomes habit. While challenging, practicing compassion for others, including ourselves, may allow us to better understand the people around us and work together rather than against. It is practicing humanity. In times of fear and sorrow we practice compassion inwardly to be our own source of guiding light. It’s when practice is put to the test. A genuine expression of compassion to another person can soften negativity for those feeling forgotten. To meet negativity with kindness, inward and outward, is to challenge the very notion of adversity. Doing so can create the change you may wish to see. Below is a meditation for loving kindness, an excellent place to start when cultivating compassion.
In your mind’s eye, picture yourself and say the following phrases:
May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be free from suffering, inside and out. May I be safe and protected. May I live in this world happily, joyfully, peacefully, easily.
Now, in your mind’s eye, picture somebody who invites feelings of kindness, such as a close friend or family member. Say the following phrases:
Now imagine somebody neutral, who invites neither kindness nor resentment. Say the following phrases:
Imagine somebody who invites feelings of resentment or discontent. With them in mind, say the following phrases:
Finally, imagine your community. Maybe it is your immediate community or your workplace, state, country, or even all beings. Say the following phrases:
May you feel a sense of interconnectedness to those beings.
Taking the first steps towards compassion can be as simple as being empathetic towards yourself, the people around you, and those people who do not welcome it. I ask this directly as a challenge: how can you be compassionate today?