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Opinion: What is 'compassion' and can it actually be taught?

Compassion can improve physical and mental health, well-being, happiness, success and interpersonal relationships… so how can you cultivate it?

Joanne O'Malley

IF I WAS to ask – what is your interpretation of compassion and can it be taught, what would you answer?

The narrow definition of ‘compassion’ is the feeling of concern that arises when we encounter pain and suffering, our own as well as others’. It involves the motivation to relieve this suffering and is natural in everyone, though often not acted upon. In a wider sense, compassion is the most transforming energy in the universe with all the ingredients that everyone longs for; the embodiment of kindness, of caring, of loving. It is a skill that can be enhanced with practise, it’s not impractical or touchy-feely but a courageous state of mind and heart, ‘the path of the warrior’, with far-reaching consequences in terms of how we experience ourselves, the world and reality.

Cynics may dismiss compassion as impractical and illogical, but scientists are now mapping its biological basis and deep evolutionary purpose as crucial to survival. Research shows that compassion can improve physical and mental health, well-being, happiness, success and interpersonal relationships.

How is this relevant to you?

Let’s look at how we live now, always rushing, multi-tasking, distracted. Our consciousness is continually absorbed by compulsive thinking and doing, so we are anxious, angry, continually dissatisfied and grasping for the next thing, which is never enough. Individualism is valued above all both in the ‘digital’ and the ‘real’ world so we have become insulated, socially disconnected, unable to empathise with others so narcissism, prejudice and bullying are at epidemic proportions.

Research now shows that high self-esteem has a downside. A person needs to be ‘above average’ just to feel OK. Of course, if you think about it that is not realistic. How can we all be above average? It shows that our self image and views about ourselves have to be inflated, so we feel the need to puff ourselves up or put others down just to feel OK. And not only do we not see ourselves clearly but as self-esteem is contingent on success, we feel good when things are going well but in times of difficulty we may be confused and harshly self-critical. All of which is at odds with the promise of self-esteem – to feel good about yourself?

What is Compassion Training?

Compassion Training is not self-development. It begins with the recognition that we are good enough as we are. Training is about cultivating an inner attitude towards both self and others, not a doing but an opening, ‘letting go’ of the constructed self image and the layers of self deception, pretence, avoidances, denials and uncovering / reconnecting with what is deepest in ourselves.

Kristin Neff who has led much of the research in this area says that ‘self-compassion’ trumps ‘self-esteem’. Treating ourselves with kindness and gentleness is a courageous mental attitude that stands up to harm, including the hurt that we inflict on ourselves through self-criticism, isolation and obsessive rumination when things go wrong. Self-compassion provides emotional resilience, allowing us to admit shortcomings, forgive ourselves, and respond with care and respect.

Why do people ‘train’?

We don’t go out in a boat to learn how to sail on a day when there is a storm. We learn on a nice, fine day when there is a gentle breeze and we practise and practise until we develop skills so we are comfortable and capable of sailing whatever the conditions. Similarly, Mindfulness and Compassion Training requires time and space to be cultivated. Our current culture is ‘always on’ and so much turbulence disables our ability to build emotional strength.

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When we come into the present moment and cultivate alert awareness, it simplifies things, we discover stillness, peace, spaciousness inside. There is a subtle shift from self involvement as we become liberated from the story of ‘me’ to a deeper more real accepting sense of self, imperfections and all. So, we let go of the false sense of self (constructed identity) and embody who we already are. This is a huge relief and, paradoxically, we discover that what is deepest in us, our true nature.

Why compassion?

If you want others to be happy, practise compassion. If you want to be happy, practise compassion.– Dalai Lama

‘Kicking ass’ comes at a cost. The vain pursuit of selfish happiness is bound to fail because we are not autonomous, separate human beings. Compassion creates a ‘win-win’ situation and is the best way to succeed in life because it is attuned to the interconnected nature of all beings.

Even Einstein recognised that our experience of ourselves as separate is ‘a kind of optical delusion of consciousness’:

This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.– Albert Einstein

Joanne O’Malley is founder of Mindfulness and Compassion, set up in response to people’s need for an antidote to stress and a way of living fuller, more alive, wholehearted and balanced lives. More info: www.mindfulnessandcompassion.ie info@mindfulnessandcompassion.ie. Tel 087 961 5901

Column: How practising mindfulness can help your work life

About the author:

Joanne O'Malley

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