Compassion is commonly defined as the ability to feel sympathy for someone who is stricken with misfortune, accompanied by a desire to help them alleviate their suffering.
Here are some ways that we think we’re helping and being compassionate… that can backfire – and some solutions for practicing pure compassion that truly helps.
1. Don’t take on their suffering. Acknowledging their pain does NOT mean you have to suffer along with them. When you’re suffering, you’re less able to help because you’re coping with your own pain. Feeling their pain, and embodying it (taking it on as your own) does not help them because it can incapacitate you.
So the first step is practicing acceptance: acceptance of the world, and the people in it, and the situations they’re in… just as they are, without judgment. This actually helps you to understand someone’s struggle, without becoming emotionally attached to the struggle and in the process becoming sad and dis-empowered.
This doesn’t mean that a situation doesn’t bother you and you shouldn’t try to help – but it might surprise you that the greatest barrier to compassion is our personal beliefs about how the world “should” be. We’re all attached to our beliefs about the ideal situation, and we immediately judge and compare, and in the process, because the reality doesn’t match our ideal, we become frustrated and resentful – but when we accept that situation “as it is” we can approach it with less emotion, and be truly helpful.
2. Be present, and be quiet. Another way that we sometimes try to help in the name of compassion, is to offer advice. Sometimes that’s exactly what is needed… but not always. Take the example of someone who is grieving the loss of a life partner. The bereaved is often told to keep busy, be with friends, try to move on… and that grieving takes (x) amount of time after which any show of grief is just wallowing. This is tragically misguided because how can anyone comprehend the depth of the loss the bereaved is feeling? How can anyone else decide how long, or in what way, someone should mourn a loss? Our own impatience (which arises because we don’t know how to alleviate their suffering) actually shows through, and makes the situation even worse!
The better way is to be present with your attention… and say nothing in the way of advice, unless it is asked for. Just bite your tongue… and be there, companionably sharing in the everyday stuff, expecting nothing, just being.
Being gently supportive during difficult times is as simple as being there when you’re wanted, not being there when you’re not wanted, offering advice when it’s asked for and refraining from giving it when it’s not… and not getting upset about the times you’re asked for space instead of companionship. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – but it’s necessary.
3. Don’t try to change their emotion by telling them to “Cheer up!”, “Look on the bright side!”, “It’s good to be optimistic” – all of these sound good on the surface, but they do not work. A person has every right to feel his or her emotions, and it’s not for you to decide what they should or should not feel. This sends a powerful message of judgment and rejection – that their emotional reaction is inappropriate in your eyes. The desire to help a person alleviate their suffering by working on changing their mood is well-intended, but telling them to snap out of it… simply doesn’t work. Don’t be so eager to point out what habitual roles they’re playing, and what they can do to change… that’s an inner journey that isn’t yours to take.
A better approach is to again, simply be present and do your best to accept them for who they are. Basically, telling someone they should change, means you aren’t accepting them as they are… in fact you are rejecting them as they are. OUCH! I realize this can sting, but it’s important to know that they need to come to their own awakening and their own release of their pain. Sit quietly, listen to them, and accept them unconditionally. This helps tremendously because it opens them up to introspection and they come to their own conclusions about the inner change that needs to occur.
Compassion is a sign of great inner strength. You can practice compassion during meditation. Think about a person you know who is suffering. Imagine that you are a mirror, and that simply by sitting still beside them, you give them the opportunity to see what’s inside their own mind and heart… without judgement, and without pity. Then, imagine that you are a sturdy chair, allowing them to rest their tired body when they need to, again without judgment or pity. Allow them to choose what they need in the moment – the mirror, or the chair. Be what they need you to be… not what you think you need to be. Let them choose.