After last month’s post on the importance of compassion, I’d like to follow up with some elaboration on how to go about developing this quality for yourself.
As I discussed previously, many of us exist in a kind of isolation, a self-imposed solitary confinement. We are not necessarily harsh or unkind, but we manage well enough without truly opening our hearts to the suffering around us.
If you’ve decided to learn the skill of truly caring about others – perhaps last month’s post caught your eye – you must remember that compassion is not just a nice idea, but a serious undertaking. To achieve it, you need to slowly build up the muscles of discipline and open-mindedness.
I’ve attempted here to address several points that should assist you in this challenging endeavor.
1 – Take your time
When you begin to delve seriously into this subject, go cautiously. Don’t rush in.
Don’t expect opening your heart to come to you effortlessly. You will surely not be able to achieve 100% compassion in the blink of an eye and immediately care about everyone all the time.
This is simply not possible. If you try, the strain will exhaust you and maybe even sour the idea enough to turn you off entirely.
It takes time and patience to develop your compassion. You need to be prepared to pace yourself, as there is a long road ahead of you.
What does this mean in practice? In the last post, we used the example of paying a condolence call to demonstrate the difference between following social expectations and really caring for someone else. When you’re trying to learn compassion, it is appropriate and advisable to let yourself feel and share in the grief of a friend who has suffered a loss, maybe to say some words from the heart. You’ll have to judge for yourself what the situation calls for.
Pacing yourself, however, means that you also get to choose when to step back and return to your own life. It means that you decide how much time you can allot to another person’s grief without feeling overwhelmed.
If you’re drained from the emotions of the condolence call, it is also reasonable not to immediately march into yet another person’s pain. It’s okay to tell a loved one you’ll be there for them tomorrow.
It’s perfectly acceptable to cut clear lines and boundaries. It’s a necessary act of self-care. As long as you’re still working on yourself, you’re on the right path.
2 – Keep clear divisions
There is a danger in developing compassion in which you inadvertently lose your sense of self. You have in someone else’s psycho-spirituality and find yourself highly confused as to what’s yours and what belongs to the other person. This is a very common mistake and needs to be policed well.
You must make a clear differentiation between someone else’s sorrow and your compassion toward them. Do not attempt to rope it in. It is not yours.
Putting yourself in another person’s shoes doesn’t mean becoming them. It means finding a way to sincerely, and temporarily, join them. You’re there to provide support, sharing, and caring. You are not there to annihilate yourself in their service.
So, please do not think that you are coldhearted or an imposter if, after a condolence call, you meet a friend for a movie. When you were with the mourners, were you truly with them? Yes? Then that’s all you needed to do. You opened your heart wide enough to feel as much as possible of another person’s loss. You are also allowed to understand that your life goes on and that their pain does not always have to be at the forefront of your mind.
3 – Choose you first targets wisely
It’s also okay not to immediately jump into the hardest cases.
There are people to whom it is more difficult to show compassion. For example, it would be an enormous effort to take, as an object of sympathy, someone you can’t stand, or someone who has harmed you, or someone who is constantly involved in high drama.
To care about these people, you need to overcome your dislike, your resentment and hurt, or your cynicism.
Don’t take these sorts of people on as your first homework assignment. It will only frustrate you if you can’t conjure up an open heart towards them.
Take it easy. You want to succeed here. Don’t add to the burden by asking yourself to do something saintly right off the bat. It’s not realistic or advisable. In fact, it’s ill-advised.
Someday, you may find it worth your time to think about this person without immediately responding negatively, as is your custom. You will try for a moment to imagine how hard life is on them and how hard it is to be them.
But that’s a goal for the future. For now, think of a friend, someone you already care about, but someone you’ve never truly felt compassionate toward. Leave the challenging cases for when you’re a more advanced student. Start here, and build your way up.
4 – Compassion doesn’t mean agreement
Finally, do not make the mistake of thinking that if you feel compassion for someone who has done wrong, that means you are in any manner agreeing with their actions. Don’t go there. It is perfectly acceptable to feel for someone who has behaved badly without siding with them or condoning their choices.
If they hurt you, feeling compassion doesn’t mean that you’re a sucker. All it means is that you see their humanity. You understand that they, too, feel pain and are trying to get through life.
Many people who do wrong, even those who grossly cross the line, are motivated by painful emotions or misconceptions. You can believe this is sad, and wonder what you yourself might be capable of at your worst, without believing it is acceptable.
Most dear reader, I hope that I have made myself clear. Compassion is a worthy endeavor. When exercised in a healthy manner, it hoists up a global kindness that can ease the pain of humanity’s struggles.
Thank you for taking this journey with me. You’ll be glad you did.