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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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second aspect of the eight-fold path is living responsibly. We can achieve this
by being mindful of our communication, actions and livelihood.
communication is a big part of this path and can help us live a more
responsible life. Traditionally, there are four different aspects of this, and
they are refraining from lying, divisive speech, using abusive words and
sure the majority of us wish to live in a kind and compassionate place where
people communicate wisely and appropriately, contributing to a more harmonious
world. We can go some way in achieving this by being truthful, using words that
bring us together, being polite and talking meaningfully. These are skilful
ways for us to connect with each other.
course, we shouldn’t fool ourselves and think that we can always be truthful,
polite and meaningful. There are going to be occasions where it makes sense to
stretch the truth, talk harshly and spend time in idle chatter.
Not telling the truth
we have lied to someone, we invariably have to tell another lie to cover the
first one, and then another, and another, until we have created a web of lies.
It truly harms someone when they realise they have been lied to, and it will
harm us when we are branded a liar.
say they lied so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings, but have you
considered how they will feel when they find out you lied? Maybe the truth is
painful or difficult to say, but there are various ways of breaking it to
someone. You can tell them in a kind and sympathetic way. You can support them
once you have told them the truth. What you do not have to do is charge in like
a bull in a china shop. However, it is kinder in the long run to tell someone
very upset when I have been lied to, as most people do, and so I keep this fact
in mind when I am talking to others.
people use divisive speech they are hell-bent on causing a severance between a
person and a group of people. Divisive speech is never positive or productive.
It is used only to harm.
type of speech mainly stems from jealousy, pride or hatred. I have come across
it several times in the workplace. A colleague has been promoted and some
people are jealous, so they try to split the workforce. This is divisive
are jealous of your sibling, so you tell divisive stories to your parents in
the hope they will favour you over your sibling. This is divisive speech.
I lived in London, before I was a monk, I had a large group of friends who used
to meet at least once a week to have some fun. One of the group members
introduced to us a very attractive woman he had gone to school with. Several of
the guys took a fancy to her and started to flirt. Several women took a dislike
to her because of her beauty and bubbly personality. All of them started to be
divisive. It eventually split the group and we stopped meeting. This is
divisive speech and shows how destructive it can be.
are just a few examples, but what is clear is that we must refrain from this
type of speech because it will harm others and eventually harm ourselves. You
will get a reputation for being someone who is always trying to cause trouble,
and people will disassociate themselves from you.
are swear words, bad language or words that are said only to cause harm. They
are never useful or kind, and usually stem from anger or impatience.
someone upsets us we can lose control and say things we do not really mean. The
words are meant to hurt the other person, but usually, after we have calmed
down, we regret them and the words come back to hurt us also. We must stay
mindful of our speech and not allow this to happen.
we get impatient with people when they are not doing what we want, they are
doing it wrong or just differently, they are not being open and truthful or
they are not doing anything and it is just us who is irritable. At these times
we tend to get angry and start saying harsh words. Obviously, the way around
this is to be more patient and have respect for other people’s viewpoints and
time you raise your voice or say harsh words, you have lost the argument. When
your voice goes up, your credibility comes down.
stems from jealousy, hatred, aversion, ignorance or just having nothing better
to do with your time. It is very destructive, cruel and can never be classed as
helpful. At the time we may enjoy spreading some rumour or other, but just
think how you would feel if people were saying the same things about you.
is both harmful and a waste of time. I do believe that social networking sites,
such as Twitter and Facebook, encourage such unhelpful and wasteful gossip. I
am not saying these sites are not of any use—I use them every day—but they can
be used wrongly and end up ruining someone’s reputation or career.
the antidote to these four unhelpful ways of talking are: speak only truthful
words, words that spread harmony and not discord, words that are kind and
compassionate, words that help and not harm others.
understand that this isn’t always possible, so let’s look at some examples. If
a seriously ill person asked you if they are going to die and by telling them
the truth you would be making matters worse, it is better to lie to them and
allow them to have some peace. Maybe one of your friends has gotten in with the
wrong crowd, so you decide to speak divisively and try to break up the group.
Your young child is about to put their hand into a fire and out of compassion
you speak harshly to stop them. A work colleague is having a rough time and is
finding it hard to open up, so you indulge in idle chatter to win their trust,
so they can finally feel comfortable to talk about their problems.
these examples show that appropriate communication isn’t always black and
white. I think as a rule of thumb, we should ensure that if we do lie, are
divisive, talk harshly or gossip it is for the benefit of others and not just
for our own selfish gain.
final word I will give to Buddha, he said this is appropriate communication:
‘It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken
in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken
with a mind of goodwill’.
action traditionally covers those actions we should refrain from. We are
advised to avoid violent acts, to refrain from taking what has not been given,
to limit our consumption of intoxicants and to refrain from causing harm
through sexual activity. However, I believe the concept of appropriate action
should cover all the actions we undertake in our lives. The more we can bring
mindfulness to our everyday actions the more our life improves and the impact
our life has on others will also grow.
doesn’t just cover violence towards humans; it also covers animals, big or
small. I should make it clear here that I am talking about intentional and/or unnecessary acts of
violence, which include killing as well as physically harming. We have to
understand that all beings have the equal right to live and be free from
suffering, so that is why we have to refrain from doing them any intentional
very difficult to go through life without unintentionally killing or harming
things. When we wash vegetables, we are more than likely killing small insects,
but this is not our intention. Our intention is to prepare the vegetables for
eating, so this is not what I am talking about here. Having said that, we
should check the vegetables beforehand to ensure there are no insects on them.
you get into the habit of killing, it is very hard to break that habit. You may
see a mosquito on your arm and squash it. You do the same the next time a
mosquito lands on you and the time after that. Eventually you do not even have
to look; you just automatically squash it. This is when the act of killing has
become a habit.
way to prevent ourselves from killing/harming is to understand that all beings
are the same as us. They want to be happy and not suffer. So, if we know this,
a feeling of compassion will rise in us and it will become much harder to
what has not been given
take something that has not been given or belongs to someone else, this is
stealing, no matter how big or small the item is.
first time we steal we may feel guilty and scared of being caught. However, the
more you steal the less guilty and scared you are. In the end you steal just
because you can and not because you need to. This is when stealing has become a
In Buddhism, we
talk about five factors relating to taking what has not been freely given and
they are: someone else’s belongings, the awareness that they are someone
else’s, the thought of theft, the action of carrying it out, the taking away as
a result of it. All five factors have to be in play for a theft to take place.
don’t like people stealing from us, so we should refrain from stealing from
them. Once we get the reputation of being a thief, it will be very hard for
people to trust us. So, by stealing we are hurting both ourselves and others.
is causing harm to someone by the use of the sexual act, such as rape, sex with
someone underage or sex with a married person—here the victim being the
person’s partner. If we physically, emotionally or mentally force someone into
sex, this is causing him or her harm and must be refrained from. There are many
people today still carrying the scars of sexual misconduct. So, this precept
should not be taken lightly.
It is important to keep in mind
that Buddha taught the precept on sexual misconduct to help us refrain from
harming someone through the sexual act. He did not teach it to be moralistic or
make people feel guilty for their sexual orientation.
is an important aspect of the path and one we probably do not give a lot of
thought to. We should aim to engage in compassionate activity and earn our
living in a way that does not cause harm and is ethically positive. Most
of us spend a large part of our waking hours at work, so it’s important to
assess how our work affects us and those around us. We need to work to earn
money, without money we cannot survive, this is an unavoidable fact of life.
But have you ever stopped to think whether your work is helping or harming?
Come to think about it, have you ever stopped to think what is an ethically
appropriate livelihood at all?
you have an appropriate livelihood? It may not be as black and white as you
first think. You may sell guns to the army to keep the country safe, but those
guns could fall into the hands of a terrorist and be used to kill innocent
people. You may make cars, so people can get around, but one of those cars may
be involved in an accident and someone is killed. You may make rope and it is
used by someone to commit suicide. I know I have given extreme examples here,
but I just want to get you thinking about the consequences of your livelihood.
would be impossible to examine all the possible effects our work has in the
world, but we should certainly contemplate whether we are causing harm in any
obvious or direct ways, to humans, to animals, and to the planet.
recently met a young biologist and he had a dilemma. He had just graduated and
was looking for work, but every job he applied for required testing on animals.
He said he just couldn’t bring himself to kill animals, even if it meant he
might discover a new way to help humans. Our choices are not always clear cut,
we need to think very carefully about what path we decide to take. We should
consider the consequences, to ourselves and to others, of any choice we make.
fully understand that we need to work to earn money and sometimes we have to do
the jobs we find unpalatable. So, I am not being judgemental here. I am just
pointing out that we have to be mindful of our livelihoods, and reiterating the
fact that actions have consequences.
Pause here for a moment and give your livelihood some thought.
- Is it ethical?
- Am I forced to do things that go against my redlines?
- Do I fully understand the consequences of my livelihood?
responsibly highlights the importance of acting in an appropriate way
physically, verbally and psychologically. If we don’t, we can often
inadvertently cause conflict and bitterness amongst the people we come into
contact with. We must integrate this part of the path into our daily lives and
be constantly mindful of the actions we are carrying out.
key point about living responsibly is to have integrity. I find that the best
way for my actions to remain skilful is to keep the view of cause and
consequences in the forefront of my mind. Whenever a thought arises, I try to
gauge whether it will be helpful or harmful and what the consequences are going
to be. This is no easy task and requires us to be mindful of our thoughts.
we are being mindful it gives us the space to think before we act. An alert
mind has the opportunity to override unhelpful or destructive thoughts. It
brings awareness into whatever we are intending to do. This is how we can
ensure our actions are appropriate and skilful.
This ends the ‘living responsibly’ aspect of the eightfold path.
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