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Compassion: always good?

Years ago I taught a girl whose little brother died of meningitis. It was my first job as a school teacher and I was inexperienced in many ways. I have always regretted that the next time she came to my classroom, not knowing what to say, I said nothing. I did not have the courage or compassion to meet what must have been an intensely painful experience. With hindsight, I could at least have drawn on one of those simple expressions of condolence that convention offers: "I am so sorry you have lost your brother".

What actually is compassion?

The Latin root of the word, compassion, is pati, meaning “to suffer.” The prefix, com, means “with.” The root of the word takes us into the heart of where this quality begins: the capacity to 'be with' suffering; sometimes referred to as distress tolerance.

Compassion and mindfulness are closely interrelated. Mindfulness is about being aware of our experience in a straightforward, non-judgmental way. Compassion is a quality we draw on when our experience becomes difficult, painful even. It is an active, responsive desire to alleviate distress and bring warmth, healing and release - not just to others but also to ourselves. Compassion is what happens when kindness meets stress, pain and suffering.

Can anyone really practice it?

Compassion can seem like a 'big' word that we might imagine is reserved for special, even saintly people. In fact, it is a learned skill that can be actively cultivated. Much religious and philosophical wisdom urges this noble pursuit. There is also a huge body of contemporary research in psychology and neuroscience that tells us that compassion can be developed by anyone with the willingness to try. To find out more, check out the work of researcher and writer Kristin Neff.

Hang on a minute. Doesn't compassion come with problems? If I am 'too' compassionate, might that just allow people to walk all over me?

I have been fascinated to note, in myself and in participants on Mindful Compassion courses, that people often become more positively assertive as they develop compassion, especially self-compassion. We start to better understand what we truly need and what we don't need, which helps us to set clear boundaries when necessary.

But what about compassion fatigue? If I practice compassion, will I just feel overwhelmed?

The quality of compassion requires understanding that suffering is an inevitable part of life. This can be a difficult recognition to come to terms with, but also strangely freeing: the fact that we suffer doesn't mean we have somehow failed to 'get it right'. It is the human condition. In fact, it seems that 'compassion fatigue' is a misnomer, because true compassion is a nourishing, wholly positive response: partly because it always includes a caring response to oneself as well as to others. This kind response to oneself is self-compassion.

But is this not the same as self-esteem?

Developing self-esteem usually invites us to evaluate our achievements. This, of course, can be a positive thing in itself but differs from self-compassion, which does not focus on success. On the contrary, self-compassion is a response to one's flawed, struggling self. Bringing acceptance and kindly awareness to our own imperfections is, indeed, one of the main ways that we mature in human wisdom.

It seems that many of us need encouragement and 'permission' to cultivate self-compassion, which we may have been taught is selfish. As we learn to give ourselves the qualities of acceptance, patience and kindness, we reduce the habitual harsh, critical responses that can arise when we are having a hard time. It becomes increasingly obvious why kindness to oneself is at the root of compassion; it turns out we all share this same basic experience of suffering. If we wish to cultivate this beautiful quality, the most immediate person to practice on is ourselves!

The next time you are finding something difficult, how about trying this 'self-compassion mantra'? With thanks to Kristin Neff

First, just acknowledge that 'this is a moment of suffering'.

Second, reflect that suffering is part of life: 'it isn't just me!'

Third, offer yourself a kind wish. Here are a few classic suggestions to get you started: 'May I be well and happy'; 'May I feel safe'; 'May I be at ease in the midst of life'; 'May I be free from stress and strain.' You may find a more specific kind wish that perfectly fits the moment.

Repeat as needed! And notice what effect it has, when you offer yourself compassion in this way. You may be surprised by the power of this little practice.

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