“Compassion…a spiritual technology”

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It is a difficult day for many, watching the Obamas leave the White House and the Trumps preparing to move in (well at least Donald).  And I am sure it is a triumphant day for others, watching someone take office that they believe will come in and shake up the political elite.  Tomorrow many marches are planned in protest of Donald Trump, and while I hope they are peaceful and impactful.  However, I feel some of those marches may be met by Trump supporters, and that will likely result in uncivil confrontation.  An “us vs. them” mentality.  Two groups who believe they are right fighting for what they believe in.

My hope as we move forward is that this chasm between “me” and “you” will shrink.  That compromise will replace conflict.  That collaboration will triumph over individualism.   That we realize EVERYONE must work TOGETHER in order to create unity in this United States.  And I one ingredient I think is critical for this process is compassion.

According to the website greatergood.berkeley.edu: “Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.

How does one cultivate compassion?  From the same website, here are some ideas:

  • Look for commonalities: Seeing yourself as similar to others increases feelings of compassion. A recent study shows that something as simple as tapping your fingers to the same rhythm with a stranger increases compassionate behavior.
  • Calm your inner worrier: When we let our mind run wild with fear in response to someone else’s pain (e.g., What if that happens to me?), we inhibit the biological systems that enable compassion. The practice of mindfulness can help us feel safer in these situations, facilitating compassion.
  • Encourage cooperation, not competition, even through subtle cues: A seminal study showed that describing a game as a “Community Game” led players to cooperate and share a reward evenly; describing the same game as a “Wall Street Game” made the players more cutthroat and less honest. This is a valuable lesson for teachers, who can promote cooperative learning in the classroom.
  • See people as individuals (not abstractions): When presented with an appeal from an anti-hunger charity, people were more likely to give money after reading about a starving girl than after reading statistics on starvation—even when those statistics were combined with the girl’s story.
  • Don’t play the blame game: When we blame others for their misfortune, we feel less tenderness and concern toward them.
  • Respect your inner hero: When we think we’re capable of making a difference, we’re less likely to curb our compassion.
  • Notice and savor how good it feels to be compassionate. Studies have shown that practicing compassion and engaging in compassionate action bolsters brain activity in areas that signal reward.
  • To cultivate compassion in kids, start by modeling kindness: Research suggests compassion is contagious, so if you want to help compassion spread in the next generation, lead by example.
  • Curb inequality: Research suggests that as people feel a greater sense of status over others, they feel less compassion.
  • Don’t be a sponge: When we completely take on other people’s suffering as our own, we risk feeling personally distressed, threatened, and overwhelmed; in some cases, this can even lead to burnout. Instead, try to be receptive to other people’s feelings without adopting those feelings as your own.

And to inspire you even more, I have included a Ted talk by journalist Krista Tippett.  She discusses the different definitions of compassion, and includes some wonderful stories to illustrate her points.  I found it to be especially poignant and a worthy way to spend 16 minutes.

Let’s all cultivate compassion, in collaboration with civility, as we move forward with our lives post-inauguration.  Your acts of compassion can be the spark that ignites compassion in your friends, family, community-and let’s think big-the world.


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