How to Practice Compassion When It Seems Impossible

06/05/2020 Meditation Compassion Meditation

How is it possible to practice compassion toward people who frustrate you, who have nothing in common with you, or who do so much harm in the world? Here are four techniques you can try.

holding hands holding space

What does compassion look like right now? This is an important question to ask as we continue to face adversity.

First, a global pandemic turned the world completely upside down, and we received unclear messages from our leaders. In the midst of the uncertainty and fear, we learned of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other racist-driven atrocities. With tensions high and spirits low, we bore witness to George Floyd’s murder by police officers in Minneapolis. 

Floyd’s murder became a catalyst to action for the Black community and its allies who had reached a tipping point with blatant racism in our nation. Now we see peaceful protests but also rubber bullets, tear gas, looting, violence, and tanks on our city’s streets.

All of this upheaval may seem like too much to bear. 

Within our divided United States of America, people are taking sides and standing firmly on them. Social media platforms spew hatred and accusations, and no one appears to be listening. Through it all, it seems as if compassion takes a backseat.

You might want to bury your head, or drown your sorrows, to stay numb to what’s happening in the world. Yet, there’s a better way to handle what’s happening. Instead of retreating, you can practice compassion for yourself and others. I truly believe that compassion is the answer to our world’s call for help, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

How to Have Compassion for “Others”

Research indicates that when you practice compassion for others, you benefit as well. That makes sense, right? It feels good to practice compassion. You reap health benefits, your overall well-being improves, and your relationships are better. Compassion is the ultimate win-win.

How is it possible to practice compassion toward people whose actions don’t align with your values? Here are some techniques you can try.

1. Separate the Person from the Behavior

Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Training course challenges participants to consider that people are naturally compassionate, and any unskilled behavior comes from a place of suffering. There is no “bad” person.

Keep this in mind if you find yourself judging people for their actions. Instead of calling them names, take the time to be curious about them as human beings. What might they have experienced throughout their lives? Could they have reached a tipping point? How must they feel to be acting in this way? Are they feeling peace? If not, why not?

Your compassion doesn’t let people off the hook for hurting others, but it allows you to see that each person is a human who deserves compassion. By taking the time to be compassionately curious, you can see people and their actions in a different light. 

2. Imagine Whirled Peas

When you see people whose actions don’t align with your values, compassion may be the last thing on your mind. Even if you intend to have compassion for someone who challenges you, you may feel blocked. Without realizing it, your mind may be dehumanizing that person. In other words, you don’t see that person as human.

Studies suggest it is easier to empathize with someone if you have something in common with that person. That helps you see a person as human. If you don’t have anything in common with someone, your mind may actually see that person as an object instead of a human.

How can you possibly create commonalities with someone when it’s clear you have lived completely different lives and hold different values? 

One study out of Princeton discovered a clever way to humanize someone. Researchers found that when participants imagined a person enjoying a particular vegetable, they were able to recognize that person as human. 

I invite you to try this with someone who creates tension or frustration in your life. Imagine sharing asparagus or sweet corn with your least favorite political figure or someone whose values don’t align with yours, and see if anything shifts.

Basics of Meditation

3. Try a Loving-kindness Meditation

Consider meditation as brain training. Just like an Olympic athlete may use visualization techniques to improve his or her performance, you can use meditation to improve your empathy breadth. By visualizing compassion for friends, strangers, and people who challenge you, you may be more likely to see all people as human and worthy of compassion.

Does this work? It appears so! Research indicates that loving-kindness practices can lessen implicit or unconscious bias against certain stigmatized groups, such as unfamiliar racial groups or those experiencing homelessness.

Try this loving-kindness meditation by Steven Hickman, Ph.D., and see how it affects your ability to empathize with others.

4. Don’t Forget Yourself

As I mentioned earlier, compassion is not easy. You may have a difficult time exercising your compassion muscle for certain people, and that is totally normal. Try not to beat yourself up about it, and give yourself a pat on the back for having compassionate intentions. 

The uncertainty, pain, sorrow, fear, and concern you feel right now deserves your loving attention. We often forget to attend to our own suffering, so be sure you include yourself in your circle of compassion. If you’d like to try on self-compassion, check out this brief self-compassion practice by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. 

Once you have compassion for yourself, you’ll find it much easier to offer compassion to others. You can recognize that, just like you, everyone suffers and wants to lead a peaceful, fulfilling life. Like you, every person simply wants to feel safe and loved, and sometimes they make mistakes.

Every single person on this planet deserves compassion.

Learn how to use meditation to help heal mind, body, and spirit with Basics of Meditation, a self-paced online course guided by Deepak Chopra. Learn More.

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About the Author

Sara Schairer

Founder and Executive Director of Compassion It
Sara Schairer is the founder and executive director of COMPASSION IT , a start-up nonprofit organization and global social movement whose mission is to inspire daily compassionate actions and attitudes. She created the one-of-a-kind reversible COMPASSION IT wristband prompting compassionate actions on six continents, 48 countries, and all 50 states. Wristband sales fund compassion education programs for youth, teens, and adults. As a public speaker, Sara encourages her audiences to “compassion it” in their daily lives. A Stanford-certified instructor of Compassion Cultivation...Read more