Cultivating Compassion


Compassion is defined as the feeling of deep sorrow we experience when someone is struck by misfortune, but to feel compassion in our everyday lives is a little harder, writes Candida Baker…

Whenever there is a disaster, natural or otherwise, in the world, it does a curious thing – it brings out the best in us. All of us stop for a moment, don’t we, and feel a mixture of gratitude that we and our loved ones are safe, and sorrow for those suffering from the earthquake, tsunami, bushfire, flood, hurricane – or most recently the tragedy in Paris.

It’s then that our natural compassion comes to the fore. And yet, curiously, compassion, the virtue of empathy for the suffering of others, is not necessarily as readily available to us at other times. In our ordinary, everyday lives it seems as if (on the face of it) we have less need of compassion than at those times of crisis, be they family, community, or world-wide.

Deepak Chopra writes in his book Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul of the Tibetan Buddhist monks who developed ‘compassionate brains’ as the result of practicing a meditation on compassion, thereby transforming a spiritual quality into physical manifestation, erasing the split between body and soul.


To become compassionate, or more compassionate takes practice (as does every emotion, both good and bad). It’s not good enough to just think about being compassionate, or even learn about it, it’s about somehow rewiring the brain so you walk in other people’s shoes. Growth is exponential, as we begin to feel and practise compassion in one area of our lives, it begins to flow into other areas.

How do you practice something you can’t see? It’s not like riding a bicycle exactly, but curiously the steps are very much the same. You choose to be genuinely interested in compassion, you pursue your interest spontaneously – choosing for instance to feel compassion instead of critical towards someone whom you believe has slighted or behaved badly towards you. You stick with the practice until you get good at.

One of the ways to cultivate compassion is to try feeling compassionate for yourself – which, when you stop and think about it is much easier said than done. In fact, it’s downright difficult to be compassionate about what may seem afterwards to be obvious mistakes we’ve made, and yet if we can’t feel true compassion towards ourselves how can we feel it towards others?

Children, of course, can swing between compassion and sympathy, between cruelty and scorn in a millisecond, but as we grow up our ability to be compassionate is often diminished by what we perceive to be condemnation towards us, and by the time we are adults, our natural compassion has got buried under a ton of beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.

But when disasters strike – manmade, as in Paris, or through the sheer force of nature – compassion becomes a natural response, and thank goodness for that.






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