Compassion is not just an emotion one might feel after reading something sad or heartbreaking. Our compassion is a source of energy and strength. It is the basis for our actions in the world.
From Zooburbia: Meditations on the Wild Animals Among Us, by Tai Moses
As a young child, I flew the Atlantic several times to spend school holidays with my parents in Quebec.
It always seemed odd to me that the air stewardesses (as they were called in those days) gave this instruction.
A diet of British films, featuring the incomparable British stiff upper lip, had always given me the idea that it should be “Women and children first”, not everyone look out for themselves. so it took a while to work it out.
I suspect that many of us feel uncomfortable putting ourselves first, thinking that this makes us selfish, bad people.
But this is not the case.
For some reason, in the West, something strange seems to happen when children get to be about eight years old. Instead of being nice to people, we start to be critical in quite subtle ways. We stop saying “That’s a nice picture, what is it? ” and instead say “Oh is it a horse? You got the head wrong”.
Such incessant, minor criticism takes it’s toll, and we internalise such remarks so that they become part of our model of who we are. This contributes to the modern trend to be self-critical about the things that we do, and we start to give ourselves a kind of psychic beating up.
- “I am no good.”
- “I cannot do anything right.”
- “I am stupid.” etc.
Our self-esteem and self-worth suffer and contributes to increasing levels of depression and anxiety.
The antidote to such an unhelpful view of the world is to develop a new relationship to ourselves based on compassion. Adopting a self compassionate world view has many advantages.
- A greater sense of personal wellbeing.
- Less depression.
- Less anxiety.
- Stronger emotional coping skills.
- Greater resilience.
- Compassion towards others.
Compassion is about making a shift in perspective about ourselves and the world. Coming to see the connection between the everyday events in our lives and how we feel and think. Treating ourselves with the same gentleness that we would show to a friend or loved one in similar circumstances. When our child has a success or set back we share their pain, celebrating what they did well and worrying about their distress when things go wrong.
As humans we all share attributes in common. We all want a happy life with enough to eat, shelter, the least suffering, a good future for the next generation. If we reflect upon this we can come to see how complex are our relationships to other people in the world.
At the moment I am enjoying a glass of Tasmanian Pinot Noir. Several hundred people have played a role in bringing me this momentary pleasure. From the wine growers who originally brought the grapes from Europe, to the wine maker, loggers who chopped the trees down, coopers who made the barrels, truckers, glass makers etc.etc. Many of whom have had hard lives, working to feed their families and make a better life for themselves.
This complexity of interactions makes me appreciate the wine all the more. Our hunter gatherer ancestors gave thanks to the spirit of the animal they killed for food, taking no more from the environment than they needed. Perhaps it is time for modern man to pause and give thanks to all those who have worked to make our lives possible on a more regular basis, to recognise our common humanity, and what we all share in common rather than the things that set us apart.
Compassion makes this easier.
True horrors are only really possible where humans become indifferent to others. The Killing Fields of Cambodia, Rwandan massacres and Hitler’s ovens would all be impossible in a truly compassionate world.
Everybody struggles with the world, has their own successes and failures, joys and sadness. When we are alone, we tend to feel alone and isolated and that no-one else has been through our current experience. The perception that we are alone with our dilemma is inaccurate. Others get things wrong, make mistakes, fall ill, lose loved ones, and are rejected and fail just as often as we do.
The Buddha gently demonstrated this to a distraught mother whose child had died. She implored him to bring her baby back to life. He told her that to be able to do this he would need a mustard seed from a household where no-one had died.
The mother rushed off, going from house to house desperately imploring people to give her a mustard seed. However, she could not find a household where no-one had died. She slowly came to realise that she was not alone and that everyone shared her experience of death.
Such struggles are part of the shared human experience. The recognition of this enables us to become more understanding, kind and gentle. To treat both ourselves and others in the same fashion.
To do this, we need to develop an awareness, or mindful approach, to life and our inner world as it currently is. We become aware of our thoughts and their contents without being judgemental about them. Nor do we deny our thoughts or push them away and suppress them. The same holds true whether we see our thoughts as good or bad.
How can we go about developing greater levels of compassion towards ourselves?
This is an ability that improves with practice, and once we get over the initial self-indulgent feelings that many westerners have when doing this, it can lead to a general improvement in our sense of wellbeing and our mental and physical health.
The first step in this process is to become more aware of the times when we are not treating ourselves with compassion. It can be helpful to monitor our “self-talk”, the background commentary that we provide to our lives. It is interesting to find out how often we are harsh and critical towards ourselves without our realising it.
- What are the words that we use towards ourselves?
- What tone of voice do we use?
- What emotion do we feel towards ourself?
- How would we treat someone to whom we are close in the same predicament?
If the language that we would use to other people in the same situation is different from that which we use to ourselves, then we are almost certainly being self-critical. We need to take stock and break into this critical cycle, treating ourselves with greater kindness.
- Use milder, less critical language both towards ourselves and others.
- Comfort ourselves physically by doing something that will get us out of our heads and into our bodies. Giving ourselves a hug, taking a bath or shower,.
- Physical contact with someone we care about. This releases a hormone called Oxytocin into the bloodstream, this plays a significant part in the process of bonding and generating wellbeing. There is a good physiological reason why we tell each other to give ourselves a pat on the back.
- Using self talk with compassionate phrases or affirmations can be helpful when we are giving ourself a hard time. When something goes wrong it is usually because there has been an unintentional error. We can replace the negative remarks such as “I am crap.” or “I am useless.” with kinder more accurate phrases “It was a difficult catch to take.” “May I be gentle with myself.”
With self talk we need to find other phrases that are gentle but true, to put in place of the harsh ones we are accustomed to use.
Practicing mindfulness and loving kindness meditations can be helpful here and the Buddha taught several ways to do this.
I find that the Wildmind site, run by Bodhipaksa and his small team, to be a very helpful resource for meditation. Several guided meditations are available to help. There is also an active on-line community of compassionate people on the Wildmind Google+ group.
These resources can be found at
and will greatly help with our first or other steps along this journey.
May we all be happy.