“Compassion,” says meditation teacher Susan Piver, “is the ability to hold love and pain in your heart at the same time.” Andrew Boyd agrees. “Compassion hurts,” he writes, “when you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything.” He continues, “You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.”
Why would we sign up for something that involves pain? Scientific research suggests it can have positive effects on our physical health, our mental well-being, and our relationships.
New discoveries about brain plasticity encourage us to think that compassion can be learned. The more we practice compassion, the better we will get at it and more habitual it will become. Here are some simple exercises to help you practice compassion:
good morning, I love you
Since we are around ourselves 24/7, it makes sense to begin there. Practicing self-compassion can be as simple as wishing yourself “good morning” every day. Place your hand on your heart and add “I love you [your name].” This simple practice can transform your life, according to Shauna Shapiro, author of Good Morning, I Love You: Practices to Rewire Your Brain for Calm, Clarity, and Joy.
Loving kindness meditation
Reaching beyond self, it’s easy to have compassion for those you love. Loving kindness meditation moves from self to those you love and then expands to wish well-being for people you don’t know, your enemies, and then all beings.
Another practice that bridges from self to others is tonglen, an ancient Buddhist technique for awakening compassion. I find this helpful when I am feeling strong emotions. In the ER waiting room, I once did tonglen for all people who were in ER waiting rooms feeling the fear and uncertainty of that situation. Pema Chodron provides instructions in this article.
Just like me
A simple way to practice compassion on a daily basis is to play “just like me.” Every time you find yourself judging someone else, add the words “just like me” to your thinking. For instance, I have a caregiver who talks constantly about how difficult her life is. “She is so self-involved,” I think. When I add “just like me,” I realize how often I imagine that the world revolves around me. My heart softens as I shake my head ruefully.
Compassionate journal writing
You can use your Journal to practice compassion. Sarah at Calming Grace has given us 30 self-compassion journal prompts. Mari McCarthy offers some prompts to use when you want to contemplate compassion in general.
In addition to adding to our mental and physical health, compassion helps us feel connected and stitches our world together.