How to Practice Practical Compassion
I wrote a blog this past April on compassion and empathy. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about mindfulness. Today I explain the link between these two qualitative characteristics of behavior and mindfulness.
What is Compassion?
Compassion has been defined in many ways. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines it as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” In the literature, there appears to be a broad consensus that compassion involves feeling for a person who is suffering and being motivated to act to help them. According to the Theosophical Society of America, the characteristic trait compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions, directing us always to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves.
Compassion is sometimes differentiated from empathy and altruism, although the concepts are related. Empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, and compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help them. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often motivated by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion. It could simply be that a person sees helping others as a way to add meaning to their life.
According to Sara Schairer, founder of Compassion It, a global social movement that inspires compassionate actions and attitudes, compassion makes us happier, healthier, and more attractive to others. To be a compassionate person means to be mindful of what’s going on around you, how it affects yourself and others, and what you can do to make things better.
Mindfulness is awareness and awareness stimulates feelings of kindness, empathy, and compassion. Meditation is one way to cultivate mindfulness and awareness. Schairer says that by adding compassionate visualizations and wishes to your meditation practiced, you are able to center your mind on compassion toward others.
Being a compassionate person starts with being compassionate towards yourself. Forgive yourself when you make mistakes, understand why it has happened, and commit to doing better the next time. Then, take those skills and apply it to other relationships.
Many people have difficulties expression compassion because they are too self-involved. It’s all about them all the time. This is the opposite of kindness and compassion towards others.
If you want to add compassion to your daily life start by being mindful of your surroundings. Put your phone down and pay attention to what you see, hear, and feel. Listen carefully to others to understand them and their needs; do not judge them for their behaviors.
The Psychology of Happiness and Meaning
Research by Martin Seligman, a pioneer of the psychology of happiness and human flourishing, suggests that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health. A compassionate lifestyle leads to greater psychological health because giving to others is a pleasurable activity, if not more so than the act of receiving. It also broadens our perspective beyond ourselves and creates a sense of connection to others that generates a positive feeling and enhances well-being.
Mindfulness helps center us on what’s happening now. For example, have you ever stopped by the roadway to help someone in need? Perhaps they were trying to fix a flat tire or were in an accident. A compassionate person would pull over to see how he or she could help. An empathetic person can related to how it feels perhaps because they may have been involved in a similar incident. While it's natural to hesitate to help someone under these conditions, acting to do just that in the here and now -- being empathetic and practicing practical compassion -- may be reciprocated. It's a form of "paying it forward."
Things Compassionate People Do
Writing for the personal development website, Life Hack, Kyle Hart identifies 20 things only compassionate people would do. These are quite instructive so I decided to share the top ten compassionate acts I think more people do than the others.
- Put other people’s needs above your own.
- Listen first, speak second.
- Never leave someone you care for, and always have their back.
- Forgive easily.
- Find something in common with everyone.
- Value people and experiences over money.
- Be kind to yourselves as you are to others.
- Be mindful of everything in your life.
- Understand that people have differences of opinion, and they express those in different ways.
- Bring out the best in others.
What Can We Do?
We are morphing into a society where mindfulness is in short supply meaning we are all-too-often harping on the past or worrying about the future. We can’t do anything about these things so why obsess about them.
It’s not easy to train our minds to live in the here and now. Meditation is the typical way but many people don’t have the time or won’t make the time to develop these skills.
We can start with baby steps. Sit quietly for 5-10 minutes a couple of times each day and focus on what’s happening to you and your body during that time. Put the negative thoughts out of your mind.
For me, personally, I like to write down on paper how I can improve the lives of others around me. I analyze what are the cues that make me mindful of my obligations to others. I suppose I’m more of an analytical person than visual learner. Nevertheless, focusing my thought process on the here and now helps me to be a centered person.
Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 22, 2019. Dr. Mintz recently published a book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, that explains how doing the right thing and being a good person can enhance well-being. The book is available on Amazon. Visit his website, sign up for his newsletter, follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.