The Heart of Suffering Together: How to Practice Compassion

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
– Dalai Lama

The month of February is the month of heart-shaped chocolates, red roses and love songs. For one day of the year, we emphasize how special our loved ones are by way of grand gestures (or little gestures) of heart-felt emotion. But this month I challenge you to go beyond the love letters, the chocolates and the steak dinners. I challenge you to think about what compassion means and how to display compassionate leadership as a way to foster inclusion and belongingness.

As humans, one of the greatest tools we are equipped with is the ability to show compassion. Compassion is an instinct, deeply rooted in our DNA; it has a biological basis in our brain and body. So what is compassion? And how does it help in our ability to become more inclusion-minded?

According to the Greater Good Magazine at UC Berkeley, 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.

It therefore seems only natural that compassion helps us in our journey to become more intentionally inclusive. After all, what better way to understand the plight of the one left out? The one that feels like he/she does not belong. The individual who does not feel represented, valued or accepted.

There are benefits to compassion for both those on the giving and receiving end and even those who are witness to it. Besides making the world feel like a friendlier place, here are some tangible benefits that come from the practice of compassion:

  1. It allows us to be more open to hearing and sharing stories. The impact of storytelling is tremendous to our ability to grow as compassionate individuals. When we hear stories, we can witness the pain, joy and concerns of the storyteller, which gives us greater ability to see life from the perspective of the narrator. We can better understand the why behind feelings and actions sensitizing us to want to help and provide support and encouragement. There is power in the narrative and all it takes is an open heart and a listening ear to respond with compassion.
  2. It benefits our brain. According to Dr. Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology, there is research data that shows that being kind to others registers in the brain as more like eating chocolate than like fulfilling an obligation to do what’s right (e.g., eating brussel sprouts). Brains find it more valuable to do what’s in the interest of the group or others than to do what’s most profitable to self. Being kind and compassionate is not only healthy for relationships, but for brain health as well.
  3. It helps us feel a greater sense of connection. When we practice compassion it makes us realize that we are only one singular activity away from finding ourselves in a situation where we will be in need of someone else (someone else’s understanding, someone else’s grace, someone else’s forgiveness). Practicing compassion allows us to create cultures of belonging, which can only occur through genuine efforts to connect at a deeper level. People can relate to stories in part or in whole. Parents share bedtime stories to their children not simply for the education factor, but because it promotes relationship building, trust and deeper connections.
  4. Compassion begets….more compassion. The more you practice compassion, the more accurate the emphatic centers of your brain become. This domino effect has tremendous ability to enhance relationships and breed a stronger sense of community and support. If you want healthier relationships, try incorporating a more compassionate approach to your leadership style.
  5. Practicing compassion helps people feel more supported. Can you imagine a world (or a workplace!) where everyone felt supported? A compassionate world is a place where people take care of their most vulnerable members, people help other nations in need, and ultimately a compassionate world produces children who perform more acts of kindness. When one feels well supported, they feel included and are able to show up at their best.

Being compassionate is something innate. Something we were born with, and while some may disagree stating being compassionate is only practiced for ulterior motives, I tend to believe humans by nature were born compassionate–but how compassionate are we? Can we improve our level of compassion? Here are some tips in improving our ability to show forth compassion:

  1. Practice mindfulness. Compassion is easier to access if you are more aware of the present moment while it is happening. This is particularly true in the presence of others’ suffering. Mindfulness requires strong situational awareness and emotional intelligence. This level of awareness provides greater propensity to notice when compassion is needed, which should spur us to action.
  2. Practice self-compassion. When you beat yourself up for imperfections you will find it hard to feel compassion towards other people. So before anything else, practice self-compassion first. Forgive yourself of your mistakes fast and frequently. We cannot give from an empty cup.
  3. Get past the “Me” mentality. We live in an “all about me” society. Practice shifting your perspective away from “me” and focus on “others”. By gazing outwards you will notice the things that connect us all as humans.
  4. Hold your judgements. What would you be able to learn if you could hold your judgement long enough to listen? To see? To hear what others are trying to tell you? What if you try to remind yourself every time you want to judge, that everyone is fighting a hard battle and we all are just doing the best we can? Judgements are often fueled by assumptions. Assumptions are often filled with inaccuracies that cause us to input meaning that may contaminate our thoughts about others leading to a less than compassionate response.
  5. Teach the little ones. How else can we ensure compassion gets passed on? By teaching the children, of course. This includes celebrating moments when you witness children showing compassion to others and modeling it for them.

Today, I challenge you to be compassionate, demonstrate the heart of suffering together. Open your heart and mind and cultivate compassion in your daily life. By doing so, you help create a more inclusive world for everyone.