Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.
Without them humanity cannot survive.
The fourteenth Dalai Lama.
In the media we seem to hear almost as much about compassion as we do about mindfulness.
Every time there is a natural disaster the newspapers express concern about compassion fatigue.
The Dalai Lama is held up as a great example of what it is to be truly compassionate.
So what exactly is compassion?
Compassion is a basic human emotion.
It arises as a natural response when we witness suffering.
Compassionate feelings come from our own experience of suffering, or from witnessing the suffering of others.
Compassion is an emotion which demands that we act, and has three major components.
- It arises when we are confronted by suffering. This may be our own suffering, or when the suffering of other people resonates with us .
- Witnessing suffering, we feel driven to relieve that suffering.
- This wish to relieve suffering creates action, based upon an authentic desire to help
When we have this experience of connectedness, it becomes important to look after ourselves and our world.
Compassion arises out of our mindful awareness.
When we practice mindfulness, we become conscious that everything in the world is connected. We come to see that events have both causes and consequences, every physical, or mental state, arises because of a particular set of conditions, and passes once those conditions no longer exist.
Each passing phenomenon becomes a condition that contributes to the arising of a new experience. When we become aware of what is going on in our internal world, and around us, in the external world, we can act to relieve the suffering we witness.
Compassion arises out of the recognition of common humanity.
What generates our experience of compassion?
There are two aspects to the mental state of compassion.
The first is an innate instinct, and the second is an emotion that can be learnt and strengthened through the practice of various meditation techniques.
One result of evolution is that humans have developed a strong sense of compassion. Several other species also show behaviours that suggest thar they act out of what appears to be compassion. Chimpanzees, elephants, and even rats are among the species that show compassionate behaviours. Even human toddlers show spontaneous helpful behaviours towards other children and adults.
Acting in such a non selfish way, gives marked advantages for the survival of both communities, and species. Helping other people may seem to reduce an individual’s chances of survival, and the associated ability to pass on their genes. however, when times are hard it makes sense to look out for others.
When communities pool their resources it provides the best chance for the highest number of people to survive. When we band together in this fashion, we give our children, siblings, or other relatives a better chance of surviving. This means we are more likely to pass on the greatest number of genes.
For most of us, adults or children, our first instinct when confronted by others in trouble, is to help. It is common to read headlines reporting the deaths of adults or children, who have tried to rescue other people, or even their pets, from dangerous situations.
This impulse to help others is innate, but it can be easily blocked, especially if we believe that other people think we are acting out of selfish self-interest.
Being compassionate is an adaptive phenomenon. It is one of the elements that makes us attractive to other people, maximizing our chances of leaving our own genetic legacy. Both men and women find kindness a very desirable trait in a partner.
The evolutionary benefits of compassion and other positive emotions, were given a high status by Charles Darwin in his writing. He expressed a belief that the social and maternal instincts had a greater strength in human behaviours than any other instinct, or motive that we might display.
Working together gives communities the opportunity to raise the greatest number of healthy children, and as such, gives people the best chance of passing on some, if not all, of their genes. It also means that any species will have the best chance of surviving down the generations.
Compassion is an emotional skill that we can both learn, and strengthen through practice. Like many of the skills that children develop as they grow up, compassion is strengthened when we see it displayed by other people. When we also take the opportunity to practice compassion, it gains even more strength.
This is a skill that we can choose to practice, and develop on both a mental and physical level. When we choose to develop compassion, we need to practice. On the physical side, activities like volunteering, can help us to deepen the emotional experience of compassion. Mentally, the practice of meditation is a great help.
Mindfulness meditation has an indirect effect on developing compassion. Being mindful allows us to experience the inter-relatedness of all things. This in turn, leads to a greater understanding of those things that we hold in common. It is easy to be compassionate once we understand this.
We can also use directed meditation techniques to strengthen and develop compassion and other positive emotions. In Buddhist practice, the “Divine Abodes,” or Brahmaviharas, are practices that are used to develop positive emotions. These include feelings such as loving kindness(Metta) and compassion (Karuna).
Compassion is strengthened when we witness it in other people.
We are all human and we all suffer.
We have disastrous failures in our lives. People die, we lose our job, or our relationships break down. Nobody wants to suffer, but because we are human, we are subject to suffering in its many forms: ill-health, pain – whether physical or mental, and ultimately the knowledge that we are all going to die. No matter how hard we try to change things, the underlying, unsatisfactory nature of life , remains a constant feature of the human experience.
Recognition of this shared humanity originates in our own lived experience of being human. When we understand our personal experiences, emotions, and motivations, it is much easier to understand those of others, while at the same time it becomes harder to reject them. Compassion for others arises from this recognition of our common humanity.
Compassion is directed in two directions.
The first is our own suffering, and the difficulties that we have living in our world. Everyone suffers, even if on occasion it is because the beautiful sunset only lasts for a few minutes. This sense of impermanence leads us to recognize that we are not alone in our suffering, and to becoming more attuned to the suffering of others.
The second is the suffering of others. When we are open to the experiences that define the limits of normal human life, we are in a position to notice other people’s struggles. Because we share these experiences, we are more likely to be moved by them. This understanding leaves us able to respond in an appropriate fashion.
Kindness is compassion in action.
Recent research has shown that kindness is not only good for the person who is on the receiving end, but is also more beneficial to the person being kind.
So take a risk.
Put compassion into action.
It is not only good for you, but might just attract the love of your life!