Growing up in Kathmandu, Buddha’s two eyes were ubiquitous—on shrines, shops, and shirts. I later learned they represent wisdom and compassion. I began to understand the meaning of these concepts much later, through my training in social work and through my wider exposure.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines compassion as ‘a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for other people’s suffering or back luck and a desire to help’. According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, compassion literally means ‘to suffer together’, and emotion researchers define it as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve it.
Many movements in the world are based on compassion. Vegetarianism is one that we encounter in day-to-day life. This movement has compassion at its core and argues that vegetarianism is a way to support the inward growth of compassion in people and its outward extension to all animals. A keen observation reveals that all religions of the world have compassion at their heart.
Extending compassion to others uplifts you. “Adding a dose of compassion to someone else’s day not only uplifts their spirits, but makes you feel happier, too,” says Sara Schairer, the Founder and Executive Director of ‘Compassion It’. She adds that even the smallest, most simple gesture can brighten someone’s day and make you feel more connected to others. But J. Krishnamurti, in his book ‘The Whole Movement of Life Is Learning’, argues that compassion is not the doing of charitable acts or social reform; it is rather a freedom from from sentiment, romanticism and emotional enthusiasm. He contends that no new culture or society can come into being without compassion, and it is the essence of wholeness of life.
These highlights on compassion and their importance also raise some important questions: how does compassion work? Are we born with it? Can we grow it? Brene Brown, the famous compassion and vulnerability researcher and author of international bestsellers, says, “Compassion is not a virtue—it is a commitment. It’s not something we have or don’t have—it’s something we choose to practice.” In this pretext, I share my own experience of learning to practice compassion.
In 2015 I had a chance to sit in a Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) developed at The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University School of Medicine. The training was being provided under the guidance of Prof Lewis Wall, the founder of the Worldwide Fistula Fund. He has voluntarily and compassionately carried out many successful surgeries on fistula patients in African countries. CCT brings together traditional contemplative understanding and practice of compassion (e.g. Buddhist meditation) and contemporary psychology and scientific research on compassion to help practitioners improve resilience and connection with others, ultimately improving overall wellbeing.
Based on my learning in this training, reading books in the wider area, and teaching and practicing social work, I suggest a few basic, quick and effective tips on cultivating compassion.
Find 20 minutes of interruption-free time each day and focus on two things—breathing and thinking compassionately about people. The mere acts of focusing on breathing (observing the inward and outward flow of air through the nostrils) and thinking compassionately (remembering a happy moment we lived and thanking the people involved, and saying words of compassion to people we love) can help cultivate compassion.
As we continue practicing, we can add more people into our sphere of love and compassion. Cultivating compassion is easy if we begin with people we love and gradually include those we have a neutral opinion about. After some practice we may even forgive the people we think have wronged us and feel compassion for them.
At this point in the write-up, I am conscious of my own standpoint and reflective of my own practicing/not practicing compassion in life. I am acutely aware that I might have knowingly or unknowingly failed to be compassionate. But I believe that cultivating compassion is necessary in our move towards social justice, and thus remind myself to practice compassion. And I urge the readers of this piece to pause, take deep breaths, and extend compassion to the people around.
In the end, I invite you to reflect on this quote by the Dalai Lama: “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
The author is a PhD Scholar in Social Work at Boston College, USA