As much as we want to simply "rise and shine" each day, mornings can often bring an intense rush of negative emotions. Have you ever slept through your alarm, struggled to get your sloth-like children out the door, spilled your coffee during your commute, or sat in stand-still traffic? These moments may leave you emotionally exhausted before 8:30 a.m., and they may adversely affect your work and relationships.
You’re not alone. Luckily, there’s compassion—a valuable tool that can help you navigate feelings of anxiety, frustration, and even shame. Can you relate to this type of morning?
I wake up, take a glance at the morning’s headlines, and immediately feel my body tense up with anger and sadness. Yet another unarmed black man killed by a police officer? I can’t take it.
I try to move into the morning routine, rushing around the house before realizing that, once again, I’ve forgotten to buy milk for my daughter. Dry cereal again, Hannah! I laugh when she calls me by the nickname she’s given me, “The Forgetter,” but I feel ashamed and inadequate. Surely her stepmother has it all together.
Then I drive Hannah to school. As I sit in traffic, I stew in frustration. Her dad has moved 30 miles away, and the burden of the long commute to school falls on me. Bitter feelings of a painful divorce emerge. My back hurts, I’ll be late for a meeting, and Hannah feels carsick.
The day is just getting started and I’m already tired from those intense moments of sadness, anger, and frustration. And I haven’t even read the latest heartbreaking story about Syrian refugees or heard which animal is near extinction thanks to climate change. I haven’t crossed paths with the homeless people downtown, and I’ve yet to see my neighbor whose mother recently passed away.
Suffering surrounds all of us, and it can be hard to take. You might avert your eyes or try to run from it, but somehow suffering catches up with you. Thank goodness for compassion. Compassion allows you to be with suffering without getting overwhelmed, without running away, and without pretending that it doesn’t exist.
You might have heard or read the Dalai Lama quote, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
There’s a good amount of science that backs up that statement. Research suggests that acts of compassion activate the “pleasure centers” of the brain. Compassion is also linked to decreased anxiety and increased overall well-being. Studies also indicate that compassion makes us happier and healthier.
How to Increase Compassion in Your Life
Compassion cultivation techniques can help you navigate these intense moments. For instance, I still experience pain, frustration, anger, fear, and sadness, but I’ve learned to observe those feelings without getting caught up in them or blocking them out.
Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) created compassion cultivation training. The eight-week course leads participants through a step-by-step approach for increasing compassion. As a certified teacher of CCT, I’ve had the opportunity to lead students through the process.
These are four main steps covered in the course that are key to cultivating compassion. Here’s an overview of what they are and how to integrate them into your life.
Step 1: Mindfulness
You can’t offer compassion if you don’t see the suffering around you. Mindfulness allows you to see what’s happening within and around you.
Mindfulness is the “awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment—non-judgmentally,” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, father of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.
Put your phone down, shut your laptop, take a few deep breaths, and observe your own body and mind. Do you feel tightness anywhere, is your mind replaying something you did “wrong,” or are you worrying about something you can’t control? Notice, accept, and breathe.
Then take a look around and notice what’s happening around you. What do you see? What do you hear and smell?
Step 2: Compassion for a Loved One
In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, a loving-kindness or metta meditation begins with compassion for one’s self. Many Westerners don’t understand what self-compassion means. Think about it: We are taught to take care of others, give back, and go, go, go. No one teaches us to tend to our own suffering.
It makes sense, then, to start by having compassion for someone who can easily conjure up compassionate feelings within you. This can be a pet, a friend, a family member, or anyone who gives you “warm fuzzies.”
Step 3: Compassion for Yourself
This is a tricky one for many. Have you ever paid attention to how you speak to yourself? (Check out this Dove commercial for a great example of this.)
Perhaps you’re overly critical with yourself or use harsh words. You might think you’re letting yourself off the hook too easily if you don’t reprimand yourself for every single mistake you make.
Research indicates the opposite. High levels of self-compassion have been linked to less procrastination, and people with self-compassion are more likely to take ownership for their own mistakes. Self-compassion is also linked to greater happiness, more optimism, and less depression.
Try treating yourself as you would treat a good friend, and recognize that you are not alone.
Step 4: Common Humanity
You might find that it’s relatively easy to be compassionate toward family, friends, and others like you. For example, I feel empathy for the single mom who is struggling to balance motherhood, career, and her friendships. If I hear about a passionate entrepreneur who is having doubts about his abilities, I’m ready to listen and help. I can identify with these people, and compassion flows naturally.
It’s not as easy for me to have compassion for people I don’t know or for individuals who I don’t particularly like. This is where the practice of recognizing common humanity takes effect.
The challenge is to recognize the basic commonality between all humans. Consider that everyone you meet (or don’t meet) wants to be happy. Everyone has a mind, and everyone has a body and heartbeat. Everyone has dreams. Everyone has fears. Everyone wants to be loved.
This takes some practice, but it may change the way you interact with the world. Once you start recognizing that everyone deserves your compassion, you will feel more connected to the world.
Practicing the above four steps will help you face the suffering you encounter each day. Suffering is everywhere, and it isn’t going anywhere.
Fortunately, neither is compassion.