At a recent workshop I was at, the topic of compassion was discussed. It is a concept that I believe is important for many reasons so I will explore it here.
What is Compassion?
Many popular dictionaries provide a common definition of compassion along the lines of:
a feeling of pity, sympathy, and understanding for someone who is suffering
Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others
I think that these definitions fall a bit short and also omit two important elements often associated with compassion, namely: an element of loving kindness and a desire to help.
Compassion is sometimes mistakenly considered to be the same as empathy. Empathy refers more to the ability to take the perspective of another person and to some extent feel the same emotions. Interestingly, neuroscience experiments 1 have pointed to some differences in brain activity between people practising empathy and those practising compassion. In addition, those practising empathy were shown to have a tendency toward 'empathetic distress' where the focus included: their own emotional state; experiences of negativity and stress; burnout and non social behaviour. On the other hand, those practising compassion were focussed on other's emotions; feeling positive feelings for example love; good health; and social behaviour.
One way in which the difference can be summarised is that unlike empathy, compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other. Empathy as a starting point for healing can be ineffective and I have referred to it in a previous article where I describe the idea of 'connecting without sticking' ie avoiding becoming 'stuck' in empathy.
Some Physiological Benefits of Compassion
As noted, compassion has been found to have some physiological benefits. It is perhaps unsurprising that Mattheiu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who has been dubbed 'The World's Happiest Man' practices compassion meditation. As a subject of extensive scientific studies over a twelve year period, it was found that when Ricard was meditating on compassion, brain scans showed activity suggestive of an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced tendency towards negativity.
Other research supports the mental and physical benefits of compassion. Some scientists have speculated that there may be an evolutionary purpose to being compassionate. When we feel compassion our heart rate slows, we secrete oxytocin - a hormone linked to relationship building and generosity, and regions of the brain linked to pleasure are activated. All positive benefits supporting well-being.
It is conclusions like this that lend weight to the idea that when you are healing others and the planet you are also healing yourself. Compassion can be a driver to want to make the world a better place and in the process, you personally benefit. This of course does not just take place on a physical level, but on an emotional and spiritual level too.
Compassion is often thought of as being directed 'out there' to other people, creatures and circumstances. However, an aspect that is sometimes overlooked is compassion which is directed at ourselves. In his excellent book 'It’s Time to Come Home: With Kindness and Compassion We Come Back to Ourselves’, Stewart Blackburn sheds light on the compassion that we can show ourselves. I like this definition of compassion that he provides:
….a feeling of wanting things to be much better than they are. it is a desire for more pleasure in the broadest sense of the word, for others and ourselves.
Very often we are self-critical and lack compassion for ourselves. This essentially is an act of self-abuse resulting in many effects from low self-esteem to physical illness. Compassion towards our self is a way to change such damaging behaviour. As Stewart writes:
Each time we alter our pattern of self-abuse, we claim a little more of that self love that is our birth right. And the more we treat ourselves with love, kindness and compassion, the more we add those qualities to the world.
And here we have a double whammy, based on the interconnectedness of everything: being compassionate to ourselves, also benefits others and the world around us.
There are many ways of practising compassion including the offering of physical healing and support to help others.
From a Huna perspective, the Little Pink Booklet of Aloha provides some excellent ideas which can be used to practice compassion.
Another effective way to practice compassion, is to develop a regular meditation practice and include a focus on compassion. There are many variations of compassion meditations originating from many different traditions. Here is a simple variation on the theme based on the Aloha Spirit approach.
Assume comfort, centredness and focus through whatever method you prefer. I usually use still point breathing.
Build a Wave of Love
Begin by focussing on the idea of love and allow these feelings to build inside your body.
Focus on someone that you love. Bring the person to mind (you may want to imagine a connection between you- a cord or light if that helps) and feel the feeling of love in your body and imagine it filling the other person.
Bless the other person. In your mind make any blessing statements that you consider appropriate e.g be happy, be joyful, be peaceful, be loved.
Relax deeply into the feelings that accompany this process.
Compassion for Other People
Now, if there is someone close to you that is suffering in any way, bring that person to mind and focus on that person. Allow a feeling of loving kindness towards that person to build and as it does so in your mind make appropriate positive blessing statements for that person.
You can then repeat the process for other people. This can be other people you know, people you have not met and even people who you do not personally like.
Compassion for Nature
If you wish you can continue the process by focussing on specific animals, plants and other natural phenomena. Bring them to mind, build a feeling of loving kindness and make positive blessing statements.
Compassion for Events and Circumstances
If you wish, you can continue the process by focussing on specific events and circumstances. Bring them to mind in turn and build a feeling of loving kindness and make positive blessing statements.
Compassion for Self
Now do a similar process with yourself. Initially you may find it easier to bring an image of yourself to mind outside of yourself. As before build a feeling of loving kindness and say positive blessings with intent. Over time (or for some right away) you may be able to focus on yourself fully embodied where you are situated during the meditation and do the same process and really connect with the feelings for yourself.
I end the meditation with a blessing for anything and everything that would like it and benefit. I assume my Ku is connected to whatever is required and I make general positive blessing statements that I trust will get where they need to go.
The following are some reflections about the process.
- At any time during this process, the quality of feeling may change depending on what you are focussing on and that is fine – keep focussed on doing the process.
- I start by focussing on love in general as that seems to be an easier starting point.
- Some or all the elements can be included. Blanket compassion is a great catch all meditation in it’s own right.
- Some variations of compassion meditation, focus on the suffering aspect e.g I want X’s suffering to stop. I find that it is more powerful if you focus positively on what you want for that person or situation rather than what it is now. Focussing on the suffering also risks tipping into empathy rather than positive compassion.
- Some people find it easier to start with feeling compassion for others rather than themselves, hence the order of steps above - although any order will work. Some people find it easier initially to see an image of themselves and work with that. Over time it becomes easier to be fully embodied when focussing on compassion for yourself.
- Trust and confidence in the process is important.
- Regular practice develops the habit of volitional compassion in the Ku. It can be practiced with or without formal meditation.
- Singer, T & Klimeci, O. Empathy and Compassion. Current Biology. Vol 24. Issue 18. 2014. pp 875-878
Pete Dalton ©2018
This article first appeared on Aloha International.
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