How to Cultivate Compassion

Cultivating Compassion

Why should we be compassionate? Maybe it is because recent research suggests that it aids in survival of the species! If we weren't concerned about, or help each other, we might not have survived long at all. However, this isn't the only reason to cultivate more compassion towards yourself and others. One reason is, because, like it or not, life is hard. We are all susceptible to disease, injury or tragedy. No one escapes, NO ONE, we’re all in this together. So, the more we can help each other, the easier we can make this journey called life.

What is Compassion Exactly?

The Webster Dictionary defines compassion as:

“ emotion that is a sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering of another; to show special kindness to those who suffer. Compassion essentially arises through empathy, and is often characterized through actions, wherein a person acting with compassion will seek to aid those they feel compassionate for.”

It differs from other forms of helpful behaviour because the focus is primarily on the alleviation of suffering. It relates strongly to the first limb of yoga, the Yamas. The first Yama is ahimsa, ahmisa translates to non-harming or compassion for all living things. It says we should practice, kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things. When we feel compassion for others, we feel kindness toward them, empathy, and a desire to help reduce their suffering. However, compassion doesn’t stop with being kind to others. We must also be compassionate to ourselves. Ask yourself this simple question ‘Do you treat yourself as well as you treat your friends and family?’ If the answer is 'no' then chances are you are not compassionate with yourself.

What is Self Compassion?

Wikipedia states ‘Self-compassion is extending compassion to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.’

Self compassion is not about self pity or having a massive ego. Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher into self compassion says ‘being self-compassionate is seeing things exactly as they are — no more and no less’. You are not indulging yourself, self-compassion involves your health and well-being. Self-indulgence is about getting anything and everything you want without thoughts of well-being. It is also not about self-criticism. Too often in today’s society we see self criticism as a motivator. There’s nothing motivating about criticising yourself. Neff says this makes you fear failure and lose faith in yourself. Even if you do achieve great things, you’re often miserable, anyway. Self-criticism tears you down; it presumes that “I am bad.” Self-compassion, however, focuses on changing the behaviour that’s making you unhealthy or unhappy.

What are the Benefits Practicing Compassion?

There are physical benefits to practicing compassion. Scientific studies show that people who practice it produce 100% more DHEA, which is a hormone that counteracts the aging process (a nice bonus!). Compassionate people also produce 23% less of the stress hormone cortisol. An excess of cortisol is linked to poorer functioning immune and digestive systems. The urge to soothe the distress of the beings close to us is built into the limbic system, it triggers the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin (the bliss hormone) has many benefits, such as healing pain, reducing social fears, helping couples establish a greater sense of intimacy, and relief from stress and depression. Other benefits are emotional and spiritual. The yogic and Buddhist traditions consider the ability to feel compassion a crucial quality; it is one of the factors that make life both joyful and painful. The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Strategies for Cultivating Compassion

The key to developing compassion in your life is to make it a daily practice. In this way, it becomes a part of your life, or as the Dalai Lama also said, “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” Here are some suggestions to cultivate more compassion in your life.

Develop empathy: This is practice is particularly good when you need to find compassion for someone you are ambivalent towards or dislike or resent. 

Here's how:

  1. Bring into your mind someone in your life who is facing difficulty or in pain (you don’t have to know them well or even like them!). Then consider these 5 things:
    1. Like me, this person desires happiness.
    2. Like me, this person wants to be free from suffering.
    3. Like me, this person has experienced grief, loneliness, and sorrow.
    4. Like me, this person is trying to get what they need in life.
    5. Like me, this person is evolving.
  2. Then, imagine that you are suffering the same way. Think about how you’d feel. Think about how much you would want to be free from suffering.
  3. Next, imagine how much less alone you would feel if someone actively felt your pain and wanted it to end. Put yourself in their shoes, and feel for a moment that their pain is also yours. Hold the wish that their suffering ends.
  4. The last step is to do something kind for them if at all possible. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it’s important to make a gesture.

Look beneath the skin: One of the biggest gifts we can give a person is to see their essence, to look beyond their outward appearance into the beauty that everyone holds inside. We are all human. Try this, next time you are on a bus, tram or train, look around. Notice which faces draw your empathy and which faces don’t. Then picture all the strangers as small children, looking at the world with hope and joy, notice how your feeling towards them changes.

Consider how you’d treat a friend: Imagine that everyone is your close friend. Next time someone you are not fond of is having an issue, imagine what you’d do if someone you cared about came to you with the same issue. What would you say to that person? How would you treat them?

Watch your language: Words are like weapons, they wound sometimes (thanks for the wise words Cher). Choose your words carefully when interacting with others. If you wouldn’t say the same statements to someone you care about, hold your tongue. This goes for self-talk as well, be kind in what you think about yourself. You may be so used to criticising yourself that you don’t even realise that you’re doing it!

How to Practice Self Compassion

Compassion doesn’t stop with showing it to others, please extend compassion to yourself. Dr. Kristen Neff suggests writing yourself a letter of support, like you would to a friend or family member. List your best and worst traits, and remind yourself that nobody is perfect. Maybe you could even suggest way to improve yourself.  You can also repeat compassionate phrases to yourself whenever you find yourself engaging in negative self talk.

Here are Dr. Neff’s 3 steps to cultivate self-compassion.

  1. Self-kindness: Being kind, gentle and understanding with yourself when you are suffering. The best way to think about being kind to yourself is to think about a friend. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who is suffering. You can comfort yourself with a physical gesture, such as putting your hands over your heart. Kind physical gestures have an immediate effect on our bodies, activating the soothing parasympathetic system, says Neff.
  2. Recognise our common humanity:  When we’re struggling, we tend to feel especially isolated. But remember your struggles are part of the shared human experience. At times, it seems you are the only one in the world who has a particular flaw, and yet, we’re all imperfect. We all suffer. And so we are all connected by our shared humanity.
  3. Be mindful: Observe life as it is, without judgement, don’t suppress your thoughts and feelings. Being mindful is all about taking notice of what is happening in the moment and not judging. Try not to suppress any feelings, as Shinzen Young has noted: Suffering = Pain x Resistance. The more you resist your pain, the more suffering you will experience.

Cultivating compassion towards others and yourself may seem difficult at first, but it will become easier with time. We suggest practice, practice and more practice, you and others around you will reap the rewards :0)


Western Wellness Team

(Your friendly neighbourhood yogis)