It is widely believed these days that compassion is an innate phenomenon. We have a natural, automatic desire to help others who are suffering. We have a built-in urge to engage in compassionate behaviours to help fellow humans overcome obstacles without obtaining any reward. The act of helping is itself a reward.
When we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in us feeling like we want to care for other people.
It is my understanding that we are born with compassion as part of our survival instincts, which means compassion is essential to human relationships and to help humanity. The problem is these days we spend an awful lot of our day in the fight or flight mode, and this blocks our compassion. This is because we are stressed and under pressure for large parts of the day and the brain sees this as a threat. It is difficult for us to be compassionate if our brains are focused on survival.
Compassion involves feeling another person’s pain and wanting to take steps to help relieve their suffering. The word compassion itself derives from Latin and means “to suffer together.” It is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. That means it’s not simply an emotion, it is accompanied by a strong desire to act and alleviate the suffering you witness, which makes it a verb.
If you break it down to its essential parts, it means we have a strong aspiration that all beings are happy and free from suffering.
Though compassion is innate it does not always come easily. Here are seven ways to help build your compassion.
Self-Compassion We can be hard on others, but usually the person who gets the brunt of our harshness, is ourselves. It is hard to offer compassion to others when you can’t even extend it to ourselves.
Self-compassion isn’t about loving ourselves, being self-indulgent or narcissistic. It’s about being kind and supportive to ourselves when we are facing difficulties or have made a mistake.
We all know that life can be challenging, and it can be difficult to have compassion for ourselves when we must face suffering on a daily basis. But we have to understand that being human is a difficult thing and we are doing our best. We are not failing when we’re having a hard time, we are just being human.
Being compassionate to ourselves means offering support by empathising with ourselves. We can do this by talking positively with ourselves, take time out to reflect and regroup, giving ourselves a hug (I especially recommend doing this. It feels so supportive), give ourselves reassurance and be kind.
It’s important to understand that we are wired to feel, and these feelings are important. They give meaning to our lives. So, the first part of self-compassion involves accepting that it’s OK to feel. Don’t override or suppress feelings – just feel them.
Nobody knows us like we do. Nobody understands us like we do. Nobody knows just what we are going through. This is why we have to care for ourselves, have compassion for ourselves and become our own best-friend.
Similarities Look for things we have in common with others, not differences. It can be easier to identify how you differ from another person, but we should at least try to find commonalities.
This will help you to relate to them and not see them as a different. In the end, this will help you create a bond with them enabling you to feel compassion.
Communication When speaking to others we need to engage our brains before we open our mouths. Check that what you are about to say is helpful, kind, and compassionate. If it isn’t, I would suggest you stay quiet.
We all know that words are powerful tools which can empower or harm, uplift or drag someone down. So, in order to build compassion, we need to ensure our words do not bring about harm.
Perspective We can get caught up in our own viewpoints. It can be a real challenge to step outside of ourselves and see another perspective. Try to consider how another person is influenced by a situation, and ask yourself some simple questions:
How would I be feeling if this happened to me?
How would my family and friends feel if it was me?
How would I respond?
What would I find helpful at a challenging time like this?
By considering the other person’s perspective, you are more likely to feel positive and connected to them.
Listening When in conversation with another person, we don’t usually full listen to them. After a certain time, we start thinking about what we want to say next, and sometimes even interrupt them.
When trying to generate compassion for another, try to abandon your desire to give advice. Instead, actively listen. Suspend making any conclusions and simply offer the other person you full attention. It isn’t easy to do but with practice it is certainly achievable.
Present Moment When we are distracted by our thoughts, emotions, memories, imagination, and perspectives, we cannot focus on what is right in front of us. That means we are unable to identify those in need of compassion. The only way we can do that is by being present in the moment.
You can help yourself to become more present by practicing mindfulness. By bringing yourself back to what is happening right at this moment you will be better able to concentrate and focus on the people around you who may need your time and attention.
A simple way to bring yourself back into the moment is to count your breaths. Count ten
in-breaths and then ten out-breaths. Ensure you focus your whole attention on the breath, and this will bring your awareness back to the here and now.
Giving Generosity is a wonderful way to build compassion. Try contributing your time, unwanted possessions or make donations.
Compassion is contagious. Acts of generosity and thoughtfulness inspire more of the same, into a chain reaction of goodness.
Getting caught up in ourselves and our needs can kill compassion. But if you can look beyond yourself, cultivate compassion for yourself and others and truly engage with others, your life will be more fulfilling. Not only that, but you will also feel more connected and less stressed and anxious.
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We are usually told about things that will benefit us
but Gampopa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher from the Kagyu school of Buddhism,
taught ten things that are of no benefit to us.
No matter how much respect and honour are payed to your illusory body, it is certain that it is impermanent and will perish. Hence, such things are of no benefit.
It doesn’t matter if people show you lots of respect or shower you with honours, your body is impermanent and at the time of death that respect and honour will count for nothing. So, don’t let your ego and pride lead you down a wrong path. The kind and respectful things people say to you are just their perspective, so don’t believe the hype, because it is of no benefit to you.
No matter how much greed and stinginess we feel towards wealth and possessions, we will leave naked and empty-handed once we cross the threshold of death. Thus, such things are of no benefit.
A life spent accumulating
vast amounts of wealth is going to be of no benefit at the time of death. You
may have lots of money in the bank or in offshore accounts, but when you die
that money will instantly belong to someone else. Surrounding yourself with
lots of possessions you don’t really need is only going to clutter your life
and mind. Instead, live a simple, contented life. So, don’t waste this life
hording money or possessions, because neither are going to be of benefit to you
when you die.
No matter how much effort we put into building nice homes and mansions, we cross the threshold of death alone with our corpse being taken out the door. Hence, such things are of no benefit.
Spending all of your
time, money and effort on building a big house is not going to benefit you when
you die. You will not be able to take it with you. So, build a simple house
that suits your needs and not your ego. You may like showing your beautiful,
big home to others, but once you die the home is going to belong to someone
else. So, there is no benefit of wasting your time and money on a luxury home.
No matter how many gifts you lovingly bestow upon your children and grand-children, there’s not even an instant of benefit at the time of death. Thus, such things are of no benefit.
It is always nice to give gifts to our children and grand-children but
spoiling them with lavish gifts is of no benefit to them or you. You are not
helping them by being over generous. You are just feeding their egos. Nobody is
going to benefit from such acts at the time of death.
Since all of your children and grandchildren are impermanent, even if they keep the things given by you, it is certain they will be left behind. Thus, such things are of no benefit.
Even if you do spoil your children and grand-children, they will not be
able to find any use for your gifts once they have died. This means your gifts
are of no benefit.
No matter how much love and care you have for friends and relatives, when you die you depart without anyone to accompany you. Hence, such things are of no benefit.
Getting attached to family and friends is not going to help you on your
deathbed. In fact, they will disturb your mind be crying and telling you not to
go, which is going to make your departure from this world extremely painful.
When we go, we go alone, so don’t allow yourself to get attached to family and
friends, because it is going to bring you more suffering at the time of death.
No matter how much one strives in working for the nobility and their subjects for the aims of this life, one will cross the threshold of death having been completely cut off from their land. Hence, such things are of no benefit.
You may spend your life accumulating land and property. What benefit
will they be once you die? They will become someone else’s land and property.
This means you have wasted your time and money on things that have no lasting benefit.
Even though one may have faithfully entered the gateway to dharma (Buddha’s teachings), if one does not practice according to the dharma, the dharma will become a cause for one to take rebirth in the lower realms. Thus, it would be without any benefit.
Instead of wasting this
precious life on wealth, family, friends, property, etc., we should study the
Buddha’s teachings. But if we only study them and don’t integrate them into our
lives, what would be the benefit? It would mean you will have a lot of
knowledge about Buddhism but would not have gained any wisdom.
No matter how much dharma you know, having trained your mind in study and contemplation, without putting it into practice there is no way to take such things with you at the time of death. Hence, it would be without any benefit.
If you have had many teachings on Buddhism and you have trained your
mind to study and meditate, but you don’t actually use the practice in your
daily life, why bother? Buddhism is not a belief system or a religion, it is a
way of life. So, we need to study, meditate and then take what we have learned
and use it to help ourselves and others. There really isn’t any benefit in
being able to recite Buddha’s teaching from memory if you are not going to put
them into practice. The world doesn’t need intellectual Buddhists, it needs practicing
No matter how long you stay in the presence of a spiritual master, if you yourself do not believe what they are teaching, you won’t receive any of their qualities. Thus, it would be without any benefit.
We cannot just surrender to a teacher and think, ‘Job done.’ The teacher is there to guide, mentor and support you. They are not there is magically pass on blessings or do the work for you. It is your path and only you can walk it. Of course, at first, we have to have faith in the teacher and teachings, but once we have experienced for ourselves what the Buddha taught, we no long need faith. Remember, the teacher is there for us to learn from and not lean on. So, find a teacher, study Buddha’s teachings, meditate and implement them into your life, that is the way to benefit from the Buddha dharma.
Gampopa is making here is that we are all heading towards death and so we
should not waste our time on unimportant things. By that I mean, things that
are not going to help us at the time of death. Studying and implementing the
Buddha dharma is one thing that can help us at that point. This is because it
trains our mind to be peaceful, stable, open and compassionate. So, when we are
on our deathbed our mind will be calm and able to let go without any regrets. I
can’t think of anything worse than being scared to take your last breath
because you didn’t want to leave behind your big house, luxury car and
impressive bank account.
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