Improving our lives and the lives of others with Compassion

What happens when we encounter suffering? It depends on our mindset. Think of a pole stretched between to two orbs, one glowing with loving kindness, and the other reeking of hate and ill will. From the pole flows our reaction to the suffering we encounter. The closer our mindset to loving kindness, the more we exude compassion. The closer our mindset to hate and ill will, the more we exude cruelty. From the middle flows apathy. Although most actions do not necessarily include cruelty, many lack compassion.

When we lack compassion, we are cheating not only others but also ourselves. According to many experts, including the Dalai Lama, practicing compassion will help others and ourselves live happier lives. So why not focus on how to be more compassionate?

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
—Dalai Lama

What is compassion?

Compassion is the desire to help someone after seeing or noticing their suffering. It is not just a feeling, such as thinking too bad for her, but also includes some act toward alleviating that suffering, or at least the desire to help. The act of compassion may not necessarily make you happy immediately; on the contrary, at the time when you make the act of compassion, you may feel uncomfortable or not even want to do it. But you do it anyway — because you want to help suffering. And, eventually, benefits result.

What are the benefits of compassion?

Some benefits of compassion are obvious because they are shown through the gratitude of others. However, your compassion may not be appreciated immediately, or ever, for that matter. You may have made your compassionate act silently or anonymously. Regardless, it still reaps many benefits.

First, as the Dalai Lama says, compassion gives us happiness. Neuroscientists studying images of the brain have observed that giving can create just as much, or more, pleasure than receiving. A psychology professor studying people who spend money on themselves along people who spend the money on others observed that the people who spent money on others were the happier of the two.

Second, closely related to happiness, compassion increases our gratitude. By giving, for example, a homeless woman a bag of feminine napkins, pre-moistened toilets, and other items to help with personal hygiene, you may feel more gratitude for simply having a bathroom to shower in each day — something you might otherwise take for granted most mornings — and, of course a home.

Compassion teaches us patience. There have been many times, as a lawyer, when I could have been abrupt with people, cutting them off, telling them I don’t have time to listen to their problems and that I can’t help them. However, many times, because it is clear that the person is in some way suffering, I have instead taken time — and often extra time — to lend a compassionate ear and help guide them in the best direction to help them. These countless conversations have undoubtedly increased my patience.

Compassion gives us wisdom. In exercising compassion for others, we escape preoccupations with our own problems by shifting the focus from ourselves to others. This change in perspective gives us an opportunity to in turn see ourselves objectively with more clarity.

Compassion strengthens our social connections. When we help others, we strengthen our bonds with those individuals and society in which we live. These increased social connection also have an effect on our happiness by increasing our self-esteem and ability to trust, which, in turn, bring us more happiness.

Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.
—Nelson Mandela

How do we practice more compassion?

So now that we know compassion can make our lives happier, how do we practice more of it?

One way is simply to be more aware of those around us. Not to be so caught up in our own suffering and our own issues that we ignore what is happening to others. Essentially, practicing mindfulness. For example, if you are so busy checking Facebook while standing in a grocery line, you may not notice the woman behind you uncomfortably carrying too many heavy items. A small act of compassion would be to clear space on the conveyor belt or offer her help. By being mindful of those around us, we can better recognize instances of suffering — no matter how small — and provide more opportunities for compassion.

Second, change your perspective. Many of us have a tendency to assume the worst in others. If we see a man panhandling at a red light, for example, one reaction may be to assume that he is not really “homeless,” as his sign says, or that he is just collecting money to spend on drugs. These assumptions may have been formed from observing or hearing stories about other people, but they are not based on any experience with this particular man. Take a moment to look at this man with a blank slate — without these preconceived notions — and a perspective of kindness.

Similarly, you might see someone suffering as a result of his or her own bad decisions and think, serves you right. For example, if a person drinks so much he gets sick or gambles his money away. Or even commits a crime. While these situations can be more difficult, they are still opportunities to express compassion. There is almost always more to a situation than what we see on the surface. For example, for the gambler, one act of compassion would be simply taking a moment to talk to him or her and learning why he or she is gambling in the first place and what if anything you can do to help him or her get out of that situation. To change your perspective and remove the preconceived notions and negative biases, to think of each person as a human who is suffering, consider how you would feel about that person if he or she was a close family member or as someone else you care deeply for. Then see what you can do to enact positive change, as opposed to just reaction of negative thoughts.

A third way is to cultivate a daily routine of contemplating compassion. For example, you can start your morning with a simple mantra reminding yourself of your intention to be compassionate toward all other beings. Then, at the end of your evening, take a moment to reflect upon your day, asking yourself two simple questions: (1) What did I do to practice compassion today? and (2) What could I have done better today to practice compassion? Through these daily reminders and reflections, you can make compassion a habit.

How about you? What benefits has exercising compassion brought to you, and what ideas do you have to act with more compassion?