Compassion, or ᴋᴀʀᴜɴ̣ᴀ̄ in Sanskrit, is often misunderstood as pity or sadness. But in reality, it's about being willing to face the difficulties in life - whether it's our own suffering or that of others - and having the courage and wisdom to respond to that suffering in a constructive way. Both spiritual traditions and modern psychology agree that compassion is a fundamental aspect of human nature, rooted in our instinctual drive to care for and connect with others.
Compassion and Action
Compassion arises from recognizing that in a certain situation, there is suffering, and that suffering matters to us (empathy).
But compassion goes beyond empathy: it includes the intention and motivation to alleviate that suffering or prevent future suffering. In fact, empathy and compassion activate different areas of the brain: empathy activates areas related to pain (which allow us to feel others' pain as if it were our own and resonate empathetically with it), while compassion activates areas of the brain related to love, belonging, and reward.
Empathy says, "I feel for you."
Compassion says, "I hope you feel better. I want to do something to make it so."
So, let us not just feel for those who are suffering, let us also act with compassion to make a real difference in their lives.
The true essence of compassion lies in its ability to inspire action. It gives us energy, courage, and inner strength to act with kindness and empathy towards others. The seed of compassion exists in all of us and can be nurtured through daily gestures, meditation, and practices. As we cultivate compassion in our thoughts, words, and actions, we can see it spread and reflected in the world around us. Let's embrace compassion and watch it grow.
Nourish your heart with love and compassion in three distinct ways:
Giving to others,
Receiving from others
Giving to yourself.
Maintaining balance between these channels is essential to infusing and sustaining the compassion and love we pour into those around us. But how do we extend that same concern and care to ourselves? Simply put, start by gifting yourself with the same generosity, protection, support, and affection that you freely give to others.
Looking for ways to connect with yourself and feel supported? Try these simple gestures with your eyes closed, tuning in to the sensations that arise:
Place both hands in the centre of your chest, or one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take a moment to observe your breath and the movement of your hands, allowing yourself to feel held.
Place a hand on your cheek or cradle your face between both hands, as if to say "I am here to support you, you can rest."
Make a fist and place it over your heart, surrounded by your other hand, to remind yourself "I have the strength to overcome challenges, I am not alone."
Give yourself a self-hug by placing your right hand under your left armpit and your left hand on top of your right shoulder, as if to say "I am here for myself, I am taking care of me."
Science has shown that being compassionate triggers a physiological response that's incredibly good for you.
It releases oxytocin, the hormone of love and connection, which protects your heart, and dopamine, the reward hormone that makes you feel good (just like chocolate!). Compassion also tones your vagus nerve, a key indicator of general health and wellbeing.
It lowers emotional reactivity, leaving you feeling happier, calmer and more connected. With increased physical and mental wellbeing, better emotional regulation, greater resilience, purpose and meaning, and reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation, the benefits of compassion are scientifically proven. Start practicing compassion and feel the beautiful benefits for yourself.
The Dalai Lama beautifully describes that the key to inner peace lies in developing love and compassion for others.
By caring for their happiness, we increase our own sense of well-being. Being kind and caring towards others quiets our minds. We will inevitably face challenges in life, but if we lose hope and become discouraged, our ability to face these difficulties diminishes. On the other hand, remembering that all beings suffer, not just ourselves, can give us a more realistic perspective and increase our determination and ability to overcome these obstacles.
Expanding the Circle of Compassion
Compassion is born from empathy and spreads when we embrace our shared humanity - perhaps the most powerful lesson of this journey. The recognition that we are all connected and equal in the joys and sufferings of life.
All beings, humans and non-humans alike, share a deep desire to be happy and free from suffering.
Recognizing this truth of our shared humanity allows us to expand our circle of compassion, feeding the desire to contribute to the well-being of all. This includes not only our loved ones (towards whom compassion often arises instinctively), but also those who are less known to us, even strangers, and difficult people.
Let us open our hearts to a wider circle of compassion and work towards a more compassionate world for all.
Albert Einstein once said:
Human beings are just a small part of the universe, limited by time and space. We often believe that we are separate from others, with our own thoughts and feelings, trapped in an illusion that restricts us to our personal desires and affections for those closest to us. But we must break free from this illusion and broaden our compassion to include all living beings and nature itself. So let's break out of our limited perspective and open ourselves up to greater empathy and understanding.
Transforming our inherent compassionate nature - a seed that lies within all of us - and widening our perspective to encompass our shared humanity is crucial in tackling the social, political, and environmental crisis facing us today. Let us take action constructively and nurture our hearts to make the world a better place.
According to Geshe Thubten Jinpa, a master of the Buddhist tradition and a leading scholar on compassion:
As human beings, we are never truly free from compassion. We were born at the mercy of the care of others. We have grown and survived because we have received the care and affection of others. Even as autonomous adults, the presence or absence of the affection of others largely defines our happiness or misery. This is human nature - we are vulnerable, and that is a good thing. A heart without fear embraces this fundamental truth of our human condition.
May we all water and nurture the seed of compassion that already resides in our hearts, for our own benefit, the benefit of all beings, and our beautiful planet.
Let us embrace this mission with open arms, and spread love and kindness wherever we go.