“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” Dalai Lama
Nowadays we live in a very individualistic world, a society driven by ego, prestige and status. It’s all about ‘what’s in it for me’ and how to get the best for ‘me, myself and I’, whether it’s in a materialistic, educational or even relational way. It seems that a major part of our wellbeing and happiness is based on a sense of conditionality. “If I do this for you, then I get this in return’, whether it’s money, career or love and if that doesn’t happen it’s the end of the story. As a result, people start to feel more and more disconnected, from others and eventually also from themselves. Doctors, psychologists and all kinds of therapists are dealing with an increasing number of people that are suffering from feelings like disconnectedness, extreme loneliness, emptiness, unfulfilment and overall unhappiness, resulting in for instance depression and anxiety related disorders. The mental health industry is flourishing because more and more people are losing the connection with their true selves and others and are trying to fill up existential holes within with all kinds of external matter, like substances, medication, money or activities. All these remedies based on conditional short-term gratification are not bridging the gap in the long term and actually create even more dissatisfaction. There is only one way to fill the existential hole and that’s with existential matter. External means will never create this sense of fulfilment. Instead it’s good to focus on what’s the essence of what makes us human beings. What we need as human beings is to go back to the root of our human kindness. This process of giving and receiving from the heart creates a deep sense of fulfilment within that remains. More than any other existing life form on this planet we have this great ability to connect with each other, to love and care and communicate this in all kinds of ways. A meaningful life of purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. At the base of our existence lies the core of caring. Compassion.
Compassion literally means “to suffer together” and this has two senses. It’s a deep awareness of and sympathy for another’s suffering and in the same time it’s the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it. The core of caring. It is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another person’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. It’s strongly related to empathy and altruism, though they are not the same. Empathy is the ability to feel other’s suffering, compassion is when these feelings also include the desire to help and altruism is the selfless behavior and actions often initiated by compassion. Scientific research has shown that compassion is good for our health and good for the world. It helps is to provide a buffer against stress. When we feel compassion, our heart rate goes down, we release the ‘bonding hormone’ oxytocin and activate the ‘pleasure centers’ in the brain, which all makes us feel good. Also it broadens our perspective beyond ourselves. The act of giving, doing something for someone else shifts the focus of self to the other. Preoccupations with own happiness in every sense disappear, which is for example very efficient in a state of depression or anxiety.
Cultivating compassion is an essential foundation not only for the growth and wellbeing of the individual as for the construction of a peaceful, progressive and healthy society. Because there is compassion in this world, life is full of meaning. A compassionate lifestyle leads to greater psychological well being and social connectedness. It helps to increase positive emotions like joy, contentment, and gratitude and reduces negative feelings like sadness, loneliness and disconnection. Through giving and receiving love and kindness, we feel socially supported, a sense of belonging and purpose in life, which increases life satisfaction and reduces depressive symptoms. It’s all about approaching the other with an open heart coming from a place of compassion, acceptance and non-judgment. Living a compassionate life can be done through giving back, volunteering or doing something for someone else without getting something in return. Moreover, compassion is contagious. Acts of generosity and kindness are most of the times an inspiration for other to do the same as well. After serious incidents like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack we see often increasing chain reactions of goodness throughout the world.
Happiness spreads. By uplifting others we are also helping ourselves. If the people around us are happy, we become happier in return. So compassion is also the core of caring for our true selves. Living life in a compassionate way doesn’t mean we have to start living as Mother Teresa. True caring can be done in different ways and starts with small acts of kindness in your own daily life. A very effective way to become aware of compassion and integrate this on a daily basis is to the practice of loving kindness meditation. The word chosen by the Buddha for this teaching is metta from mitta, “the true friend in need”. Metta in the Buddha’s teaching finds its place in contemplation designed to develop a sound pacific relationship to other living beings.
Make some time every day for a contemplative meditation on loving kindness that will open up the doors to compassion. Make sure you’re sitting in a comfortable position with your spine erect when you do this. Take a moment to arrive at the place where you are and slowly start to bring your awareness inside. Observe the breath moving through the body. Center your focus on your heart region. Observe your physical heart (the location of the heart in the chest, the beating of your heart) as well as your emotional heart (feelings of love, compassion, kindness). Feel the connection with your heart center and observe what this does in the body.
- Bring your awareness to someone in your life that is very dear to you or you love very much. Pick the first person who comes up in your mind, as long a thinking of the person only produces positive feelings of fondness and love. Radiate loving kindness coming from your heart center to that person and make a sincere heartfelt mental wish that they be happy. Stay with this for a couple of moments and just observe what happens on a physical and emotional level without judgment.
- Then bring your awareness to someone in your life you are indifferent to, that produces no strong positive or negative feelings. See if you can send this person the same feelings of loving kindness coming from your heart center to this person and make a sincere heartfelt mental wish that they be happy. Stay with this for a couple of moments and just observe what happens on a physical and emotional level without judgment.
- Then bring your awareness to someone in your life you dislike or have a bad relationship with. At first try with someone you mildly dislike, with practice working up to more hated figures. See if you can send this person the same feelings of loving kindness coming from your heart center to this person and make a sincere heartfelt mental wish that they be happy. Stay with this for a couple of moments and just observe what happens on a physical and emotional level without judgment.
- Lastly, bring your awareness back to yourself, reconnect with your heart center and see if you can send yourself the same feelings of loving kindness coming from your heart center and make a sincere heartfelt mental wish that you be happy. Stay with this for a couple of moments and just observe what happens on a physical and emotional level without judgment.
Last but not least, keep on practicing. Every day. Everywhere. It requires a lot of courage and strength to be with suffering, whether it’s from the other or yourself. As human beings we have the tendency to run away from everything that brings any discomfort and suffering and it can be a big challenge to just stay with this and let things be as they are. Standing strong in the midst of the storm of suffering and not get overwhelmed by waves of pain or sorrow. That’s the only thing you have to do. Don’t give up.