We need compassion because Life is a Challenge
We are all susceptible critical life happenings. Just like you, I am vulnerable to things like disease, injury, loss, and unforeseen change. Have courage.
Because these things can happen to any of us at any time, we are all in this together. And the more we work together, the more we can make this journey of suffering bearable.
The Buddhist tradition puts it this way: “Just like me, you want to be happy; just like me, you want to be free of suffering.”
That recognition of common fear and yearning is the basis for compassion.
Compassion isn’t always easy.
A simple description of compassion is - a sensitivity to suffering with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent that suffering.
It’s not like other positive emotions, like love, because the hardest forms of compassion are for people you don’t love and it is harder to be compassionate toward those who have a different view from you than toward people who are like you. This can inhibit compassion.
Life experiences can also diminish our ability to give and receive compassion. I’m a therapist, and I see people who are often caught in psychological loops that prevent them from accepting compassion from others or from themselves.
But we can break those loops by becoming aware of how our brains work and being aware of own awareness. We can then begin to deliberately cultivate compassion by learning to cultivate compassionate attention, compassionate thinking, compassionate feeling, and compassionate behavior. We learn to be open to suffering in others and ourselves, so we can act to alleviate that suffering.
The trouble with our brain
We are all biologically created. Our brains are created by our genes; they were not created by us, but for us by evolution, and so we discover that our brain can give us a lot of trouble.
Many people with mental health problems are caught in loops they cannot escape. They ponder about things that frighten them, or about being no good or inferior. They focus on all the negative aspects. This is not their fault.
As psychologist Rick Hanson notes, the brain is Velcro for negative and threat-based things but Teflon for positive ones. Actually, we are all like this.
Mindfulness helps fix the trouble
Fortunately, we have the skills to reconcile our thoughts and behavior. One technique is mindfulness—moment-to-moment awareness of thoughts and feelings, the capacity to be aware of awareness, and to simply observe and become familiar with the tricks our minds play on us.
Mindfulness helps us understand that attention is like a spotlight - whatever it shines on is what becomes brighter in the mind, which can even affect us physiologically.
Imagine your excitement around the possibility of winning a lottery. Let that be your focus for a minute of two and notice what happens in you body. Now switch your attention to one of your core worries or an event that angers you. Notice what happens in your body. Did you feel very differently, according to where your attention was focused?
Once we notice what the mind is up to and why, we can take control over our attention and use it mindfully. Taking that step—breaking out of the anger loop—requires intention. And that intention is a key to cultivating compassion.
Compassion is rooted deeper in brain systems having to do with intentionality and motivation, and if you orient yourself to compassion, then you are going to change the whole orientation of your mind. And the key here is to understand that we can select, on purpose, one of our basic motivational systems for caring, and we can cultivate it, help it grow and mature, through practice.
We also need to understand exactly why it’s useful to do this: because it changes our brain and will give us much more control over our thoughts and our lives.
Buddhist monk and author Matthieu Ricard says our minds are like gardens and they will grow naturally. But if uncultivated, they are influenced by the weather and whatever seeds are in the wind. Some things will grow big and others shrivel—and in the end we may not like the results.
We can come to understand why and how to cultivate compassion within us, which has the capacity for healing and reorganizing our minds such that we can begin to become the people we want to be—in other words, to have the garden-mind we want. This requires courage.
Two types of Courage
There is physical courage, and there is emotional courage, which is being able to move into areas of deep suffering and pain. Compassion helps us to move in those areas. We must be prepared to confront pain in ourselves—and to alleviate that pain.
So here is the situation. The brain we have inherited from millions of years of evolution is both a gift and a curse, if not understood and used wisely. It is easy for us to get lost in our basic emotions and motives or become personally distressed by the problems of others.
Evolution has also given us an extraordinary competency that can sense and experience consciousness of consciousness itself. From here we can begin to see into the nature of the mind—and begin to make choices about what emotions we want to cultivate in our lives.
Lee Pryke, Spiritual LIfe Coach can design a plan to enrich all areas of your life by working together to eliminate old paradigms (memories) and rediscover the authentic person you already are.