I just finished reading The Book of Joy, which captures learnings from a dialogue on wellbeing and happiness between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It is a simple, profound and delightful read. The book made me reflect on my practice, particularly when I struggle with it.
Being compassionate is easy for me in many relationships, including ones:
- With nature and its beings
- With my baby daughter and pet cat
- With my in-group with who I have open, accepting and trusting relationships
- With most strangers, who I assume are trying their best but occasionally struggling
In these relationships, I can see how we are interdependent or how we embrace a common humanity. Whatever shared history we have is usually positive. Therefore, compassion flows effortlessly.
In-the-moment compassion in difficult relationships
Compassion for family members, acquaintances or colleagues with who I have difficult relationships is more problematic. It is difficult to operate with warm-heartedness and offer them the benefit of doubt. Given our past unpleasant experiences, the mind wants to attribute the person’s behaviour to an absence of positive intent or even assume malintent.
I will give you an instance of a simple everyday situation with a family member with who I share a difficult relationship. After having noticed I left the lights on in the room, this person tells me, “Why do you always leave the light on?”
Before I began intentionally practising compassion, I would fixate on them questioning my intention instead of admitting to the miss. I would retort by saying, “You left the fan switched on yesterday. I didn’t question you in this tone.” Worse, I would hold the grudge and, when given the opportunity, repeat what they said to me in a sarcastic tone. It does nothing but escalates the situation in a negative spiral, with both parties bringing up past hurt.
With compassion, my first instinct is to tell myself, “It is okay. It is human to forget. I forget. She forgets. Everyone does at some point. No big deal.” Therefore, my response at the moment becomes, “Sorry, I will switch it off right away.” Such a response comes from a place of compassion for both myself and the other person, due to the lack of judgment in my choice of words towards my self and the other.
Realizing I cannot change the other person, but only my response has helped me make my compassion unconditional. I have seen how changing ourselves can create ripples that touch others in micro-ways over time. Even in my seemingly trivial example, I have seen how the same family member now turns off the light when I forget to do so without calling it out to me.
I have also shifted my attention to focus on everything good about people in these groups, which has made responding harmoniously easier. As I hear them share something that might be triggering, I am quickly able to bring to notice past actions they have done that are nurturing and supportive. Hold the unfolding incident alongside these memories enables me to respond from a calm space.
Compassion when values are misaligned and contradictory
Most challenging is holding compassion for people with whom my values are misaligned and often contradictory. I often feel this way, for instance, with public figures who propagate hatred, fear and division in people. Through tracking, I have realized I feel a visceral reaction that shows up in the form of heat in my body when I hear about their words or actions.
Here is where the compassion training was most beneficial. I was able to see that people in this group also fundamentally desire to be happy and well. However, their understanding of the path is different from mine. I have had my journey of reaching here, and they are on theirs.
Moreover, I have realized that my reaction to them is one of hate and fear too. What else would you call wanting to push them and their supporters away and wanting nothing to do with them. How is this reaction any more compassionate than this person’s action or words? So now, instead of seething in my rage for days, I offer them my compassion by wishing them more wisdom and empathy.
I have realized that I am the only one suffering by holding on to my anger and resentment. It reminds me of the Nelson Mandela quote,
“Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”
By operating from a compassionate place, I am saving myself. Personally, compassion has been highly beneficial to me in many ways:
- My perception of situations has been more balanced.
- My emotional state has been calmer and more constructive.
- My relationships have become more harmonious.
- My response to challenging personal and societal situations has been empowered but realistic.
- My acceptance of myself has increased.
(You can read more about research on the benefits of compassion here)
I have used many steps to cultivate compassion. To list a few:
- Training your attention muscle.
- Seeing our shared humanity and that the other is like me. Understanding and feeling the others’ suffering.
- Understanding our interdependence.
- Feeling gratitude and warm-heartedness.
- Taking actions and sometimes, just holding thoughts and intentions, to alleviate their suffering.
I understand why the Dalai Lama says,
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”