From a Buddhist understanding, compassion is a quality of sympathetic feeling - an attitude present in all the relationships we have - with ourselves, with others and with the world. Compassion is related to empathy - the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s place, accepting and understanding how they feel. Compassion is also related to kindness - responding in warm-hearted ways that accept, affirm and help. Through empathy, compassion and kindness we respond to suffering; to the pain and distress, in ourselves and others.
Our everyday mind is an endless stream of thoughts and feelings to which we give meaning. From the outside world come sense impressions, we notice and interpret them according to our situation. A bright light could come from the sun, or a torch, or perhaps an open door. This could mean illumination on a dark path for someone walking, but discovery for someone hiding. Birdsong and moonlight mean different things to a hunter or a songwriter.
We add in layers of complication by reacting to those thoughts and feelings. Starting as simple judgements - I like this; I don’t like that; this is good; that is bad. Then qualified judgements - loud noises, fresh smells, rude people, closed roads, kind friends, bad days. Other thought streams come from our personal stories - past, present and future values and experiences, both real and imagined.
How can we stop that constantly changing stream of superficial noise, become more aware of our own conditioning, and dive beneath it to something deeper - our own true nature?
If we persevere, meditation can help us to slow down or even quieten that stream of thoughts and impressions. Enough to become aware of what is on the surface of our minds and constantly moving. And also what is underneath and more constant, our essential goodness. Awareness of our own goodness grows and also that of other people. We realise we want to be happier, and to help others be happy too.
Empathising with the feelings and situation of another person can be helpful, but also tiring. Neural studies have suggested that frequent empathising causes the brains of some meditators to become more sensitive to suffering, both their own and others. The same studies show that if meditators actively wish other people well (for example, seeing them overcome difficulties, sending happy thoughts), new areas of the brain involved in emotional intelligence are activated. This is thought to be good for the meditators, and counterbalances fatigue brought on by long-standing empathising.
As we become more experienced at meditating we pay more attention to, and maintain more contact with, our inner benevolence. We understand more about ourselves and what happens when we lose touch with our core. Compassion builds and we become more aware of our own and others’ suffering. We notice more clearly when we’ve drifted away from our best intentions, and also when we’ve done something good.
Empathising with someone can transform our attitudes, by putting ourselves in their place and imagining what it’s like to be them, to feel how they feel. Compassion goes a little further, by accepting that they are a person who is suffering, and bringing kindness to that moment, a willingness to help in some way.
Kindness moves us to respond to someone’s suffering by perceiving something positive about that person and their situation. Kindness helps us to uplift someone by making it easier for them to see and be in contact with their own goodness.
How can we practice?
- Create a personal Metta Loving Kindness meditation to practice building a pathway to increase kindness.
- Wonder more about how we ourselves and other people perceive and understand the world, develop empathy.
- Cultivate compassion for ourselves, being a good friend rather than a critical commentator.
- Reflect on your actions - who you have been kind to, even if it’s just giving them the benefit of the doubt. Everyone gets triggered, don’t analyse your reactions or mistakes, just practice something different – change the subject, walk away, shut up, appreciate the room, find something to say thank you for.
- Cultivate more stillness in your life, become more aware of what is underneath everything - a lake of loving kindness that is part of our inner nature.
Metta - Loving Kindness Meditation
A meditative practice for developing compassion is known as Metta, a Pali word meaning friendship, or loving kindness. We create it by silently offering kind blessings from the heart, to ourself and others, in our imagination. This gently strengthens our mind with compassion rather than criticism, and allows us to reflect on happiness. A simple version is offered below:
- Begin by sitting comfortably, upright, on the floor or on a chair.
- In a relaxed way, spend a few minutes paying attention to and relaxing your body, and then your breath. Let your breathing settle regularly, then anchor your attention somewhere externally for instance on a spot on the wall, or on a candle. Or if you have your eyes closed, focus internally on some part of your body where you notice your breathing. Traditionally this is under the nostrils, where the cold air enters.
- 5 minutes - count your breaths - ‘one’ on the inbreath, ‘one’ on the outbreath, ‘two’ on the inbreath, ‘two’ on the outbreath. Do this upwards from 1-10, then downwards from 10-1. If you miss a number, start again.
- 5 minutes - Compassion for yourself - reflect on your own good qualities and happy times. See yourself happy and joyful. Repeat to yourself the following: “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering.”
- 5 minutes - Compassion for someone you are fond of - for example think of meeting a loved one at an airport. See them happy and joyful. Repeat to yourself: “May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from suffering.”
- 5 minutes - Compassion for someone neutral - for example someone you see regularly but don’t have strong feelings for, like a neighbour. See them happy and joyful. Repeat to yourself: “May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from suffering.”
- 5 minutes - Compassion for someone you find difficult - it is recommended you start with the least difficult person you know and work your way up over time. See them happy and joyful. Repeat to yourself: “May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from suffering.”
- 5 minutes - imagine all four people in a group together. See them all happy and joyful, and repeat to yourself : “May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from suffering.”
- If any of these become difficult, bring compassion to yourself by repeating “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering.”
- Relax your posture and return your awareness gently to the room. Take a few minutes to absorb your experience.
Sian Pope works with people to help develop peace as a core strength – which has many different benefits including reducing stress, increasing choice, bringing clarity, creativity, and an open heart and mind. Sian is a qualified teacher of Meditation and Transformational Yoga, a Master Practitioner of NLP, and a skilled energy healer. Learn more at: www.heartofpeace.co.uk