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Exploring Compassion: Part One

In lots of different circles, we talk about compassion. A lot. Compassion for ourselves. Compassion for each other. But are we just… talking?

Personally, I like the Merriam-Webster definition of compassion: "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it."

Other words for distress? Suffering. Pain. Hardship. Problems. 

Other words for “desire to alleviate”? Wanting the best for someone. Helping. Kindness. Taking time to consider others.

When I teach loving-kindness meditation (also known as metta), we talk about the power of even speaking words for others with the desire to alleviate their suffering. May you be happy… May you be healthy… May you be safe… May you be loved… May you live with ease.  We talk about different people that you can do the practice for. Usually we start out with ourselves, move on to loved ones, neutral people, and then the “difficult” people in our lives. This practice can be really hard, but sometimes it’s still easier than some more active ways of showing compassion.

It’s become really clear to me that compassion is hard to come by. We could all probably say that it’s been missing for a long time, but the divisiveness we’ve seen really cement on a grand scale in America and around the world, the us vs them attitude, the disregard for others… There’s that picture of the couple in Trump shirts that say “fuck your feelings.” That about sums it all up, doesn’t it?

So how do we counter that? How do we try to bridge divides whether they be on that large scale of politics or in the more personal world of relationships and family? 

I might suggest compassion. 

The truth is that we are all suffering. I know that can sound like a depressing view of reality, but really it’s looking to embrace what’s really there. The Buddha taught that we all suffer and we do so many things to get rid of that suffering (maybe even wearing “fuck your feelings” t-shirts?) or to ignore it, stomp it down. Sometimes when we think of suffering, we think of underprivileged children in third world countries, but there are many types of suffering and varying degrees. Your suffering might not be like someone else’s, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real or doesn’t deserve compassion.

So how do we even find our ability to be compassionate?  It’s a big question. What does it look like in life and not just talking about or meditating on it? How do we steer tools we learn in meditation or mindfulness toward that purpose?

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m planning to share some examples — mostly from my own life — of searching for that ability. It’s easy to talk about compassion and empathy in the abstract, but in real life, it can be hard to even find the direction of the path towards those things. 

Let’s take some time to explore that together. Maybe you have examples that you’d like to share along the way too. 


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It's Not About You

The title of this post is a phrase that I think about a lot.  I think about it in traffic when someone cuts me off.  I think about it when I find something that a person does annoying or when someone is rude. I take a breath and remember: it's not about me.  

 

Because it probably isn't.  99% of the time, we take things personally when they don't have anything to do with us.  We get upset at someone in the movie theater using their phone as if it is a personal insult. We rage in traffic because someone won't let us merge. We get angry at our spouse because they forgot to pick up the bread. We get riled up about the opinions of strangers on the Internet. We take everything so personally when it isn’t meant to be.

 

So then what if it isn't about us?  Well, if we can see that, we can see the space between the action, the person acting, and ourselves. In that space, we have room to recognize and then let go of the anger or upset.  We can stretch out there and make the space for the reality of the situation.  Someone cuts you off? Maybe they didn't see you. It doesn't mean that they're a jerk whose sole purpose in life is to make you miserable. A store clerk doesn't help you? Maybe they're getting pulled in ten different directions by other customers, not making a judgment on you as a person. You never know the whole story of someone else or what their reality is like.  Why? Because it's not about you.   

 

Does this idea excuse someone's poor behavior? No.  It doesn't mean that you shouldn't confront someone who insults you or that you shouldn't say "hey, that really upset me.” It also doesn’t give you a free pass to treat others poorly. It just means that you don't have to take everything personally, so you don't have to carry the weight of it and pass that onto other people. Snapping at someone in traffic easily leads to snapping at people in your office or at home who had nothing to do with it.  It weighs heavily on your well-being to take these things on as personal affronts every single time.  

 

We've all had these encounters (both on the giving and receiving end) and our self-involved society has convinced us that everything is about us.  What if it's not? What if there can be that space where it isn't about you? What if we can just breathe and live in that space where compassion and understanding reside?