December 3, 2018
The Core Value of Compassion
~ Jack Kornfield
If you’re new to this 10 part series on Core Values, welcome! I’d like to invite you to experience each of the posts in this series by clicking here.
Part VIII: Compassion
Compassion, Love, Kindness, Humanity, Benevolence, Empathy, Sensitivity
In high school I got caught sneaking out of my mom’s house. It wasn’t my finest moment and my mother was reasonably furious. My father was tasked with picking me up from school the next day. He stood outside of his car, dressed handsomely in his beige suit, and as he saw me approaching he held his arms wide open and embraced me. He leaned his head down near mine and whispered, “I love you.” When I close my eyes I can still hear his voice, smell his cologne, and feel the warmth of his touch. My betrayal wasn’t without consequence. I spent the next month grounded but, his gesture of kindness was a reminder that I was loved. It was a wholehearted act of compassion in a moment when anger and fear would have been understandable reactions. Compassion occurs when we recognize someone’s suffering and act on the desire to alleviate it. I like to interchange the word compassion with love but compassion can also appear as empathy, kindness, and shared humanity. When we act from love there is presence, warmth, inclusiveness, and deep listening. But my compassion, probably like yours, is imperfect.
My compassion suffers when I get trapped in what my teacher Tara Brach famously refers to as “the separate self.” When my agenda trumps the needs of others, kindness goes out the window. When I’m in a hurry, caught in the primacy of my own timeline, I become short tempered, narrow focused, and insensitive. It can be as simple, and as painful, as rushing out the door without kissing my husband goodbye. It can be as complex, and as damaging, as saying something hurtful that can never be taken back. Think about the last time you spoke or acted from a place of urgency or hurry. How did you treat the other person? Were you so focused on your own needs that your awareness of the other person’s needs disappeared? In these moments we become so self-absorbed that the other person becomes just that – other. When we “other” other people we create disconnection and a false sense of separateness. Compassion is a reminder that in the end every human being has the same fundamental desires to be seen, heard, loved, and accepted. No exceptions.
Compassion compels me to remain in the present moment despite the suffering, pain, or fear that might be arising – mine or someone else’s. With compassion we recognize what’s here – grief or sorrow, joy or freedom, boredom or loneliness – and from a place of loving-awareness, we stay. We practice being with what is so that when the time comes, we can be with ourselves and others exactly as they are.
Partially, I’ve learned how important it is to for me to be compassionate because of how terribly shitty it feels when I’m not. I can’t recall a single time when I’ve been harsh, thoughtless, or unfriendly and felt better for having acted in such a way. Years of practice has taught me that we can maintain clear boundaries, take a stand when necessary, and voice our frustrations while still resting in compassion. Marshall Rosenberg’s practices of nonviolent communication provide incredible tools for remaining compassionate in the face of conflict. The Center for Nonviolent Communication says, “Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is based on the principles of nonviolence – the natural state of compassion when no violence is present in the heart. NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies—whether verbal or physical—are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture. NVC also assumes that we all share the same, basic human needs, and that each of our actions are a strategy to meet one or more of these needs.” If you’re unfamiliar with this work and would like to learn more, I highly recommend Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. This work puts ahimsa, the Sanskrit word for nonviolence, into immediate, easy to apply action.
A Light Dose of Science
Your brain is hardwired to reward you for performing acts of kindness. Each time you do something compassionate for another person you receive a little shot of the feel-good hormone dopamine. The intelligence governing the universe was wise enough to arrange your biology in such a way that you are fundamentally motivated to continue acting on your empathy and generosity throughout your life. Each time you do something kind, you experience the biological equivalent of eating sugar! How cool is that? You are wired for kindness, and wired to crave more of it.
Physiologically compassion reduces your blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, decreases anxiety and stress, and strengthens your immune response.
And, compassion is actually a skill you can strengthen over time. The next time you do something kind, pause and notice how your body feels. Is there a lightness in your heart? Do you feel uplifted or sense the subtle presence of a smile across your face? By taking time to notice the effects of compassion, you train yourself to act compassionately increasingly throughout your life.
When was the last time you did something for someone else? This isn’t to guilt trip you. Globally we are overwhelmed, over scheduled, and under rested. It’s easy to feel as if you have nothing left to give. It’s easy to feel that you could not possibly fit one more thing into your week. Trust me, I get it. But if this is you, then you need the medicine of compassion this holiday season. Do yourself, your community, and our world a favor: go give your time, energy, and compassion to someone else and experience the benefits. Trust me, you have time for this. And if you tend to feel lonely over the holiday season, it’s even more of a reason to get out there. Compassion is a reminder that we are not alone. You experience the benefits of compassion not only when you receive it but when you offer it.
I know this firsthand from my time teaching at a maximum security prison. In those hours, the men who have come to mean so much to me, give me more than I could ever possibly give to them. No matter how full my schedule is, I look forward to these hours with every fiber of my being.
Find a local organization and volunteer. Get involved. Get your whole family involved. I mean boots on the ground! And, I mean more than donating money or writing a check. While financial contributions are appreciated, getting intimately involved in your community has a fundamentally different impact – not only on the people you support, but on YOU.
And if your compassion excludes you, remember it is incomplete. If you’re feeling a lack of compassion for yourself this holiday season, please remember that you are not alone. Re-visit Part IV: The Core Value of Self Care where we dive deep into the importance of self-compassion and where you can find supportive research, practices, and exercises.
Be active in your compassion. Leave no part of your heart out.
You can follow the outlined practice below or visit Inner Dimension Media and enjoy Day #8 of my program Journey to Yoga for a video of this practice.
Read this invocation as you begin. An invocation sets the tone for your practice and establishes intentionality.
Begin in Savasana with your knees draped over a bolster or pillow. Close your eyes and allow your body to soften…Begin to call in a deep state of compassion: compassion for yourself, your body, and your mind. Set the intention to listen deeply as you invite this practice to penetrate the very center of your being. Allow your heart to be lifted by this generous act of restoration and rejuvenation as you enter a sweet Restorative practice.
Supported Savasana: Place your knees over a bolster and lay a folded blanket under your head for support. If you’d like, cover your eyes. Rest here for 10 mins
Easy Twist: Reclining on your back, hug both knees into your chest. Move the bolster from under your knees and place it to your right side. Drop both knees over to the right coming into an easy supine twist. Stack your knees on the bolster for support and lay a folded blanket under your head for padding. If you’d like, cover your eyes. Rest here for 5 minutes and then switch sides.
Supported Child’s Pose: Hug your knees into your chest and gently rock up to sit. Come to hands and knees. Bring your big toes together and open your knees wide. Place a bolster between your knees and rest your chest and abdomen onto the support. You can elevate the bolster by placing a block underneath for additional height. If your knees are sensitive, place a block under your sits bones and a rolled blanket behind your knees. You can also fold a blanket and place it under the knees for additional padding. Rest here for 10 minutes
Supported Bound Angle Pose: Recline onto a bolster ensuring your head rests on the bolster and not beyond it. Place a folded blanket under your head to make sure your forehead is slightly higher than your chin. Bring the soles of your feet together and open your knees wide. Place a block under each upper outer thigh for support. If you’d like, cover your eyes. Rest here for 10 minutes
Legs Up the Wall: Scoot your sits bones against a wall and elevate your legs toward the ceiling. Place a folded blanket under your head and cover your eyes. You may also place a folded blanket over your pelvis for additional grounding and warmth. Rest here for 10 minutes.
Begin by closing your eyes or softly resting your gaze toward the floor….As you arrive, take a moment to settle and feel into your body. You might notice where your body touches a surface, or, you might feel the sensations in your palms or the soles of your feet…
Bring your awareness to the center of your chest, the space around your heart…You may notice your breath rising and falling in this place…You may notice the subtle beating of your heart…If it feels comfortable, you may even rest a hand on your heart as you move through this practice…As you rest your awareness on your heart, internally and silently repeat these 3 phrases, knowing that you are deserving of your own love and affection as much as anyone in the world.
May I be kind and compassionate with myself and others
May my heart be at peace
May I be held in love and acceptance
As you come to the end of a cycle of repetition, pause for a moment, take a few breaths, and then continue repeating the phrases as if you could invite each one to land in the center of your heart. Repeat for several minutes.
Pause and notice if there is any resistance…Know that this would be a normal part of the practice. If resistance is present, hold it with kindness and gentle awareness, and begin the repetition again only when you’re ready, repeating for several more minutes…
May I be kind and compassionate with myself and others
May my heart be at peace
May I be held in love and acceptance
As you come to the end of your next cycle of phrases, allow them to fade…Pause and sense the effects of the practice…As you enter the day remember the saying, “love is always loving us.”
- Write out 3 phrases of compassion. Make the phrases short and simple to memorize. Create 3 phrases that feel truly comforting to you. Share your phrases in the comments. Your phrases might help support someone else in their journey! Examples might include: May I be kind and patient with myself. May I be happy and well. May my heart be at peace.
- Practice sending these phrases to yourself and people around you as you move through your day. If you’re standing in a line, caught in traffic, or sitting in a meeting, silently send these phrases to the people around you, cultivating compassion for all who surround you.
- At the end of the day, journal about your experience of using the phrases throughout the day. Did you notice a difference in how you felt as you moved through the day? Were you aware of people treating you differently or behaving in a more a more calm, peaceful way? Did you feel less reactive or more patient? Share your experience in the comments below.
- Repeat your affirmation from the core value of Intention three times and continue to implement your goals from the core value of Growth.