“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” (Dalai Lama)
Nowadays we live in a very individualistic world, a society driven by ego, prestige and status. It’s all about “what’s in it for me” and how to get the best for “me, myself and I,” whether it’s in a materialistic, educational or even relational way. It seems that a major part of our well-being and happiness is based on a sense of conditionality. “If I do this for you, then I get this in return”—money, career or love—and if that doesn’t happen it’s the end of the story.
As a result, people start to feel more and more disconnected, from others and eventually also from themselves. Doctors, psychologists and all kinds of therapists are dealing with an increasing number of people suffering from feelings like disconnectedness, extreme loneliness, emptiness, unfulfillment and overall unhappiness, resulting in for instance depression and anxiety related disorders.
The mental health industry is flourishing because more and more people are losing the connection with their true selves and others and are trying to fill up existential holes within with all kinds of external matter, like substances, medication, money and activities. All these remedies based on conditional short-term gratification are not bridging the gap in the long term and actually create even more dissatisfaction. There is only one way to fill the existential hole and that’s with existential matter. External means will never create this sense of fulfillment. Instead it’s good to focus on what’s the essence of what makes us human beings. What we need as human beings is to go back to the root of our human kindness.
This process of giving and receiving from the heart creates a deep sense of fulfillment within that remains. More than any other existing life form on this planet we have this great ability to connect with each other, to love and care and communicate this in all kinds of ways. A meaningful life of purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself over others. At the base of our existence lies the core of caring: compassion.
Compassion literally means “to suffer together” and this has two senses. It’s a deep awareness of and sympathy for another’s suffering and at the same time it’s the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it. The core of caring is the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another person’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve it. It’s strongly related to empathy and altruism, though they are not the same. Empathy is the ability to feel other’s suffering, compassion is when these feelings also include the desire to help and altruism is the selfless behavior and actions often initiated by compassion.
Scientific research has shown that compassion is good for our health and good for the world. It provides a buffer against stress. When we feel compassion, our heart rate goes down, we release the “bonding hormone” oxytocin and activate the “pleasure centers” in the brain, which all makes us feel good. Also it broadens our perspective beyond ourselves. The act of giving, doing something for someone else, shifts one’s focus away from the self. Preoccupations with one’s own happiness in every sense disappear, which is very effective in undoing a state of depression or anxiety.
Cultivating compassion is an essential foundation not only for the growth and well-being of the individual, but for the construction of a peaceful, progressive and healthy society as well. Because there is compassion in this world, life is full of meaning. A compassionate lifestyle leads to greater psychological health and social connectedness. It helps to increase positive emotions like joy, contentment, and gratitude and reduces negative feelings like sadness, loneliness and disconnection. Through giving and receiving love and kindness, we feel socially supported and have a sense of belonging, or purpose in life, which increases satisfaction and reduces depressive symptoms.
It’s all about approaching the other with an open heart coming from a place of compassion, acceptance and non-judgment. Living a compassionate life can be done through giving back, volunteering or doing something for someone else without getting something in return. Moreover, compassion is contagious. Acts of generosity and kindness are most of the times an inspiration for others follow suit. After serious incidents like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack we see often increasing chain reactions of goodness throughout the world.
Happiness spreads. By uplifting others we are also helping ourselves. If the people around us are happy, we become happier in return. So compassion is also the core of caring for our true selves. Living life in a compassionate way doesn’t mean we have to start living as Mother Teresa. True caring can be done in different ways and starts with small acts of kindness in your own daily life. A very effective way to become aware of compassion and integrate this on a daily basis is the practice of loving kindness meditation. The word chosen by the Buddha for this teaching is metta from mitta, “the true friend in need.” Metta in the Buddha’s teaching finds its place in contemplation designed to develop a sound, pacific relationship to other living beings.
Make some time every day for a contemplative meditation on loving kindness that will open up the doors to compassion. Make sure you’re sitting in a comfortable position with your spine erect when you do this. Take a moment to arrive at the place where you are slowly starting to bring your awareness inside. Observe the breath moving through the body. Center your focus on your heart region. Observe your physical heart (the location of the heart in the chest, the beating of your heart) as well as your emotional heart (feelings of love, compassion, kindness). Feel the connection with your heart center and observe what this does in the body.
- Bring your awareness to someone in your life who is very dear to you or whom you love very much. Pick the first person who comes up in your mind, as long as thinking of the person only produces positive feelings of fondness and love. Radiate loving kindness coming from your heart center to that person and make a sincere, mental wish that they be happy. Stay with this for a couple of moments and just observe what happens on a physical and emotional level without judgment.
- Then bring your awareness to someone in your life whom you are indifferent to, who produces no strong positive or negative feelings. See if you can send this person the same feelings of loving kindness coming from your heart center and make a heartfelt mental wish that they be happy. Stay with this for a couple of moments and again observe what happens on a physical and emotional level without judgment.
- Then bring your awareness to someone in your life whom you dislike or have a bad relationship with. At first try this with someone you dislike mildly, and then work your way up to more hated figures. See if you can send then the same feelings of loving kindness and make a mental wish that they be happy. Stay with this for a couple of moments and observe.
- Lastly, bring your awareness back to yourself, reconnect with your heart center and see if you can send yourself the same feelings of loving kindness and make a sincere heartfelt mental wish that you be happy. Stay with this for a couple of moments.
Keep on practicing—every day, everywhere. It requires a lot of courage and strength to be with suffering, whether it’s from others or yourself. As human beings we have the tendency to run away from everything that brings any discomfort and suffering and it can be a big challenge to just stay with this and let things be as they are. Standing strong in the midst of the storm of suffering and without getting overwhelmed by waves of pain or sorrow, that’s the only thing you have to do. Don’t give up.