Connecting With Compassion

Connecting with compassion

A compassionate life is one that requires both softness and strength. By cultivating compassion towards yourself and others, you can embrace life’s trials and tribulations with a strong back and soft front.

“The energy of compassion is very strong.”~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

The human existence is filled with a mix of light and dark, joy and pain, yang and yin. Challenges in life are inevitable, but the degree to which you suffer as a result of these trials and tribulations is up to you. One tool to draw on to move through life with more ease, understanding and acceptance is compassion, which involves acknowledging with kindness that all lives are just as important, sacred and of value as your own.

Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion-Focused Therapy, defines compassion as “a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it.” But this desire to relieve one’s suffering doesn’t mean fixing or removing anything. Rather, it’s holding someone’s pain with tenderness, as if it’s our own.

Jad Patrick, a Melbourne-based naturopath, counsellor and mindful self-compassion teacher, describes the motivational nature underpinning compassion. “A lot of people think that compassion is an emotional state, but really compassion is a motivational state,” he explains. “Compassion comes from the Latin ‘to be with’ — to be with pain, and we’ve got to feel a motivation to do something about the suffering. That could take the form of action — stepping in and helping, or it could take the form of offering kindness — being with the suffering, as opposed to ignoring it or telling someone to get over it.”

Understanding self-compassion

But you can only meet others with compassion as deeply as you’ve met yourself, which is where self-compassion comes into play. “Compassion as a drive is innate to humans,” Patrick explains, but redirecting compassion towards ourselves can be challenging due to the fact that we instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain. “We move towards what feels good and don’t want to turn towards our own suffering. The three components necessary for self-compassion to occur [mindfulness, kindness and common humanity] don’t happen so automatically like they do when we notice the suffering of another, so self-compassion is almost a skill we need to develop.”

“We don’t offer ourselves compassion to make the pain go away, we offer ourselves compassion because pain is there."

Turning compassion towards yourself can have a positive ripple effect on other aspects of your life. A 2017 study in Health Psychology Open found a link between self-compassion and healthier eating, exercise and sleep patterns, as well as lower stress levels. Self-compassion is also associated with the release of oxytocin, a hormone linked with empathy, intimacy and trust. Leading expert and researcher in self-compassion, Dr Kristin Neff, discovered that people who are self-compassionate are less likely to experience depression, anxiety or stress and are more likely to feel happy, resilient and optimistic about the future.

Mindful self-compassion

Kristin Neff developed the concept of “mindful self-compassion” with clinical psychologist Christopher Germer. Together they founded the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion and outline the three components necessary for cultivating mindful self-compassion.

Mindfulness. Mindfulness, which involves drawing your attention to the present moment without judgement, is a powerful tool to help you connect with your feelings (some of which may be painful). It’s impossible to cultivate compassion if you cannot first acknowledge that there is pain present.

Kindness. In order to be self-compassionate there must be an innate desire to do something about the pain with kindness. “When we struggle we give ourselves compassion not to feel better but because we feel bad,” explains Neff in The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook.

Common humanity. Remembering our common humanity reminds us that we are not the only ones suffering. Pain is an experience we share with the rest of humankind.

An embodied experience

Understanding the physiology of compassion allows you to see it as an embodied experience. There are three systems in the body that drive us to do things in life: the fight or flight system, the resource-seeking system and the mammalian care-giving system.
If the fight/fight system is overstimulated, “we feel threatened all the time, hyper-vigilant, traumatised, anxious,” explains Patrick. The foundation of the resource-seeking system is about securing what we need for survival: food, sex and shelter. “In a healthy form that leaves us to feel driven, passionate, motivated, in flow. In excess it leads to craving, competitiveness, addiction.”

The mammalian care-giving system, or the oxytocin network, has evolved in higher mammals in order to calm the other two systems down. It promotes a sense of connectedness and safety in groups and is activated by soothing, reassuring words and warm, supportive touch. “We’re hardwired for connection,” Patrick says, “so often if we feel stressed out or upset, getting a hug from someone and some warm, soothing words makes us feel better.”

Compassion through soothing touch can also be turned towards yourself by placing your hands over your heart. The softness and warmth of that feeling can be likened to the chest-to-chest connection experienced when hugging someone. “The heart region is associated with emotion, so gentle warm pressure over that area can activate the oxytocin network. We feel safe, secure and connected,” says Patrick. Tapping into the power of sound is another way to cultivate compassion. Caring words in a soft, reassuring voice (both your internal voice and external voice) can help further soothe the nervous system.

Moments of mindfulness

An effective place to begin your compassion practice is by cultivating presence. “Mindfulness is an essential component. For us to have this motivation to do something about pain and suffering, we’ve got to be aware of it in others as well as aware of it in ourselves,” explains Patrick. “Because we can pull away from what’s difficult, it requires opening up and being present with pain and suffering — a recognition that it is a part of life and turning towards it.”

Being mindful opens up your awareness and allows you to be present with whatever arises, which at some point will inevitably be suffering. “We do that with a quality of warmth and kindness, so that’s where compassion comes into it. Self-compassion is about caring for the experiencer — so recognising that we have an experience, and taking care of the being that is experiencing that,” Patrick says.

“To sit with suffering takes a huge amount of courage and strength, but the motivation underlying it is compassion.”

Mindfulness is not just about noticing what’s there, but being open and accepting of the experience as a whole. “Our awareness is powerful,” Patrick continues, suggesting that if we make room for our whole experience, we can also notice what’s beyond our suffering — what is sitting underneath the pain. “We’re not trying to push away the experience, but we’re opening up to the fact that there are more elements to our experience than just our suffering.”

An effective way to explore the mindfulness element of compassion is through meditation. “Each of us has a genuine capacity for love, forgiveness, wisdom and compassion. Meditation awakens these qualities,” says Sharon Salzberg, who is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and has been teaching and practising meditation since the early 1970s. She has been a pioneer in bringing the Buddhist meditative practices of vipassana (mindfulness insight meditation) and metta (compassionate, loving-kindness meditation) to the West.

Meditation allows you to bear witness to everything that is occurring. You can notice the ebb and flow of your thoughts, feelings and sensations and be reminded that nothing is permanent — everything in life is ever-changing. When it comes to weaving the notion of impermanence into a compassion practice, “that’s where mindfulness comes into it,” Patrick explains. “Because when we’re sitting with our suffering we’re also recognising that things come and go,” or, as the famous adage suggests, “this too shall pass”. “Impermanence is a part of that broader understanding that this is just temporary.”

Turning towards suffering

By leaning into your experience and allowing it to be exactly as it is, you are cultivating acceptance, which is a gateway to compassion. “Every time we honour our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us,” says researcher and author Brené Brown in her book, Rising Strong.

It is impossible to sit with challenging emotions without a sense of compassion, because, as Patrick reminds us, “we don’t offer ourselves compassion to make the pain go away, we offer ourselves compassion because pain is there.”

Turning towards suffering with compassion requires equal parts softness and strength, or, as Roshi Joan Halifax once said, a strong back and soft front. Halifax suggests that embracing a “strong back, soft front is about the relationship between equanimity and compassion. ‘Strong back’ is equanimity and your capacity to really uphold yourself. ‘Soft front’ is opening to things as they are.” Patrick adds, “To sit with suffering takes a huge amount of courage and strength, but the motivation underlying it is compassion.”

Yin and yang forms of compassion

Cultivating compassion requires a balance between the opposing forces of yin and yang. These qualities are complementary and interdependent but share the common thread of being caring. “When we explore the attributes that are at play in self-compassion, we find both the feminine and the masculine — just as all people embody both feminine and masculine qualities. In traditional Chinese philosophy, this duality is represented by yin and yang,” say Neff and Germer in The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook.

Yin self-compassion is tender, comforting, soothing and validating and focuses on being with ourselves exactly as we are. “There is a yin quality — feminine, soft or yielding — to compassion that’s nurturing and supportive,” explains Patrick. Cradling a crying child is an example of yin-like compassion. If we are feeling hurt or inadequate, a yin form of self-compassion would be validating our pain and accepting ourselves exactly as we are.

Yang self-compassion is fierce, protecting, providing and motivating, with an action energy underpinning it. Patrick explains that it can be compassionate, from a yang perspective, to step in and protect someone from a situation. “Rescuing someone from domestic abuse is compassion in action. Providing for your family or your community is compassion.”

“Sometimes self-compassionate care takes the form of solace and a soft leaning in to difficult emotions (comforting), sometimes it involves a stern ‘No!’ and turning away from danger (protecting),” continue Neff and Germer. “Sometimes it involves letting our bodies know everything is OK with warmth and tenderness (soothing), and sometimes it means figuring out what we need and giving it to ourselves (providing). Sometimes self-compassion requires being accepting and open to what is (validating), and sometimes it means we need to jump up and do something about it (motivating).”

“Some people feel an aversion to compassion — that it’s all soft and permissive, and there’s an element of that to it, but there’s also an element of getting motivated to do something, take action, protect yourself, provide for yourself. And all of those qualities require an element of energy,” explains Patrick.

Celebrating imperfection

Accepting the fact that no one is perfect is also an act of compassion. “It is in the process of embracing our imperfections that we find our truest gifts: courage, compassion and connection,” suggests Brown.

The ancient Japanese notion of wabi-sabi is one such way to celebrate this by embracing both imperfection and transience in life. “Wabi” refers to the beauty found in asymmetry, unbalance and simplicity, while “sabi” celebrates the beauty and grace of age as well as the impermanence of life. “Wabi-sabi is a worldview centered on an appreciation of the texture and complexity of life as it is, rather than as we might wish it to be,” suggests Helen Russell, author of The Atlas of Happiness: the Global Secrets of How to be Happy.

Another ancient philosophy embracing imperfection is the Buddhist concept of “bombu nature”. “We are inherently never really going to get everything right all the time. We’re human and we slip and we make mistakes — that’s our bombu nature,” explains Padraig O’Morain in his book Kindfulness, which explores the notions of mindfulness and self-compassion as “kindfulness”. “If you cultivate compassion for other people’s bombu nature you’re cultivating compassion for your own.”

Compassion is one of the most powerful agents of human change available to us. “I think a lot of the problems at the global level are from this inability for people to sit with others’ discomfort — probably because they don’t know how to manage that. It’s easier to shut down to suffering around the world because we don’t have to then feel anything. But if we turn down our experience of suffering, we also turn down our experience of joy — our capacity to feel other things,” Patrick explains. “Compassion is a superpower,” as it works double time to not only soothe negative emotions but also strengthen positive ones. As the Swedish proverb suggests, “shared joy is double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”

Ally McManus

Ally McManus

Ally McManus, the editor of WellBeing Yoga Experience and the founding editor of Being magazine, is a freelance writer and editor in magazine and book publishing. She also teaches yoga and meditation on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula.

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