We may hear the word compassion around and ask ourselves why would we actually want to become more compassionate? Would we become a push-over? And how about being self-compassionate….do I have to bathe in a tub of scattered petals sending well-wishes to myself and to foreign lands?
In a word, no.
Researchers have found that being compassionate is not only very good for our mental and physical health, but also to the wellbeing of those we help. There are plenty of studies to show that being compassionate results in high levels of reported happiness. Some even suggest it may even lengthen our lifespans!
As our brain releases feel good hormones we get a sense of pleasure. We are probably all familiar with the kind of “glowing” feeling we get after we have been compassionate to another person. This is part of what’s called the ‘tend and befriend’ response and it’s evolutionary. It’s part of our brain and biology. This ability to care and be kind is probably one of the major reasons why the human race has survived for so long.
We have evolved neural networks that care!
So, explain compassion to me…
The root of the word compassion literally means “to suffer with”. It’s related to empathy, where we see a person’s experience from their perspective and are able to empathise with their emotions. Compassion is when confronted by another’s suffering, we have a motivation to want to relieve it – so we don’t walk on by, we take action.
It’s likely that a person who has experienced a compassionate act goes on to be more compassionate to others. It’s a bit like an epidemic – but in a good way : ) So, one compassionate act spreads like the ripples of a pebble thrown into a pond.
Compassion isn’t passive or fluffy, it’s not about letting yourself be walked over and finding a way to condone bad behaviour. Having compassion doesn’t mean you have to like everyone or agree with what they think.
It means you take action in the face of suffering.
Becoming more compassionate requires practice and discipline – can we notice suffering and turn towards it? Can we be moved by it, and seek to have a non-judgemental understanding of its causes? Most importantly, as best we can, do what we can to alleviate it?
Lots of us would probably say we find it far easier to be compassionate towards others than ourselves. Our relationship with our self is complex and at times we don’t like ourselves much.
So, what’s that all about?
Let’s start a long time ago.
When our ancestors lived in small groups of around 25-30 people it was necessary for them to know their place in the hierarchy to avoid being kicked out of the clan: they may then have died due to lack of shelter and resources…or become lunch for a passing lion! This is simplifying the complexity of human relationships, but basically our brain evolved not only to encourage dominant behaviour if we were at the top of the pile but to allow us to be subservient if we were nearer the bottom.
Are you familiar with that critical voice that pops up when we judge ourselves to have acted in a way that may be detrimental to us or others? That voice that can make us cringe or want to argue back? In a nutshell, this is an evolutionary response and it’s trying to keep us safe and in-line so we don’t get kicked out of the clan and die!
One of the ways we can work with this voice is through self-compassion.
Self-compassion has been shown to support our mental and physical health, just like being compassionate to others.
Can we start to recognise our own suffering and want to alleviate it? Can we begin to observe our critical voice with some objectivity?
Self-compassion is something we have to actively practise.
It’s very important to recognise that if we have experienced lots of criticism, it’s most likely we are highly self-critical and may need support in cultivating any kindness or warmth towards ourselves in the face of difficulty. But even if you’ve been raised in the most loving environment possible, it can still be an incredibly difficult practice. It requires a determined but gentle approach. It’s not something else to add to the “fail list”. Telling ourselves that we are in some way deficient because we can’t even be kind.
Very often when starting out we can feel that others deserve compassion but not ourselves.
By recognising our imperfect nature and imperfect lives as just part of being human, we can feel more connected.
Common Humanity – suffering is what connects us.
When we realise that others are just as vulnerable and fallible as we are, we realise that this is what connects us. It’s not what separates us as a ‘faulty individual’. This is our ‘common humanity’.
So, when we can learn to give ourselves self-compassion it allows us to feel safer and stronger in our world.
So how do I practice it?
This is a big practice, one that we cover on our graduate course (for those who have done the 8 week Mindfulness course). As a start, you may like to offer yourself some compassionate words of your choosing such as ‘it will all be ok’ or ‘go gently now’ – these words are not fluffy but are an essential soothing mechanism to offer ourselves.
You may like to give yourself time and space and cultivate Mindfulness through meditation and mindful living so you can be more aware of the inner critic when it starts operating.
Understanding that this shared experience of difficulty is the human condition. Self-compassion may not remove the pain, but it can lead to feeling connected rather than isolated. And feeling connected is linked to happiness and wellbeing.
Go gently as you practise.
By Karen Asprey – Mindfulness Teacher and Mindfulness-Based Therapist, Mindful Pathway. You can find out more about Karen in her biography on our about us page.