Compassion For Our Humanity—Slowing Down To See Each Other

Mindful self-awareness can be humbling and is best undertaken with a large dose of forgiveness and compassion. The more I peel the layers of the onion off my conditioning and behavior patterns that seem to be woven into the DNA of my being, the more I need to practice from the heart. Without this warm holding of myself, I would possibly dive into despair about the harm I have caused myself and others throughout my life.

We have all caused harm to ourselves and others, mostly out of the desire for safety and for the wish to be loved. I truly don’t believe that we wake up in the morning wondering who we can piss off or hurt today. But more often than we would like to admit, things that we do or say or don’t do or say will rub up against another human and there will be misunderstandings and unintended harm.   

For instance, I recently texted someone a request that I found out later, much to my surprise, was characterized as “pissy.” From my end, I simply requested that the person communicates with me in a particular way so that I could attend to a problem that had arisen sooner rather than later. On second look, however, I could have taken my time and been a little nicer about it. My apologies!

I was in a hurry, and I think the idea that we don’t have enough time is a big issue that gets in the way of being more considerate to others. Much of my life has been spent in a hurry and being in a hurry is epidemic in this culture. I say this after having been almost run over by three big pickup trucks on my way home from St. Louis recently. Please don’t get mad if you drive a pickup truck. I know you don’t all drive that way. My Dad drove one and is the only person I know that got stopped by the police for going too slow.  But, road rage is real and people seem to be in a very big hurry to get somewhere. I wonder what they do when they get there?

As I am blessed to have a little bit more time on my hands, I am looking at the effect of all this busyness and hurry. Yes, people in a hurry might get a lot done. And getting a lot done gives you a feeling of accomplishment, but at what cost? Couldn’t we get “enough” done and balance the doing with a larger dose of compassion, generosity, and gentleness towards ourselves and others?  A friend of mine, recently retired, was expressing her regret at the impact of the pressure to do more and be more on the people around her during her time on the job. She accomplished wonderful feats that benefitted the lives of many, but there was a cost.

Yesterday, in an attempt to reverse some of my conditioning, I walked around more slowly than usual smiling at everyone—a really big “I love you” smile. The impact was amazing. I had conversations that I would have never had if I had been in a hurry. I learned new things. I’m sure I had lots of dopamine and serotonin (the feel good hormones) soaring through my body. I often encourage people to undertake the smile challenge and weave it into my yoga practices. It really does make you feel better and may even help you live longer!

In the classical teachings of the Buddhist tradition, compassion is defined as the heart that trembles in the face of suffering. Compassion for ourselves and others is actually a natural instinct and has a biological basis in the brain and body. Humans can communicate compassion through facial expressions like a smile and touch. When we practice it, compassion overrides selfish concerns and motivates altruistic behavior.

I have been contemplating compassion since the Oscars as I felt it as my initial response to what happened there. Social media, where everyone has an opinion, has had a heyday since Sunday and the responses have been far less than compassionate on the whole. Or, perhaps, compassionate to some but not to others. Then I ran across this quote from Kelly McGonigal who researches compassion: “In the US, we live in a culture that celebrates cynicism and violence that glamourizes the entertainment value of other people’s problems without connecting to those problems in a compassionate way.” Enough said.

Seeing that we are all imperfect beings trying to make it through the day in a very imperfect world, my hope is that we can all try to be more compassionate to ourselves (for being imperfect) and thus more compassionate to others who also struggle just like us. We are more alike than different. We all have hearts that want to love and be loved.

Here are some ideas for increasing compassion in your life.

1. Practice mindfulness –The practice of being present without judgment can create a space in between what you are experiencing and your critical judgment of it. This leaves a space for the heart and compassion to arise. Ask yourself “How can I practice kindness and compassion in this moment?”

2. Slow down – When we are in a hurry, we are more likely to forget the heart-centered approach to others. Slow down and consider your words and actions. This does not have to take a lot of time. Just a minute can help you move into your heart.

3. Listen – “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” (David W. Augsburger) One of the most compassionate things we can do is listen to the heart of another.

4. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes – It’s always a great exercise to imagine what someone must be going through to have them act or talk in a particular way. I know, sometimes that is hard. But the more you practice, the better you get.

5. Learn the lessons of regret – Although difficult, it is quite useful to reflect on our past and how we didn’t act the way we wished we would have. This is not done in the spirit of judgment but in learning and changing. Review even the previous day as a way of changing your approach to the current day. What worked? What didn’t work? What did you do that increased/decreased your wellbeing? This is a great way for getting in touch with your less than admirable moments and do something about them.

Give yourself lots of tenderness and care as you explore the world of compassion for yourself and others. We are all carrying our own traumas of this world. As Sylvia Boorstein once wrote in the book It’s Easier Than We Think “I think we are all quite vulnerable, like cream puffs, crisp on the outside but fragile inside and very sweet.”