How Compassion Gives You Courage
Most of us don’t necessarily associate compassion with courage. We tend to believe that fearless people are born with an unshakable ability to take risks, have superhuman levels of confidence and we don’t take their soft skills seriously.
In this article, I am going to discuss how our compassion can make us stronger and is the driving force behind every single meaningful human endeavour.
THE MEANING OF COMPASSION
So let’s start by defining compassion using the wise words of Nobel Peace Prize winner His Holiness The Dalai Lama: “Genuine compassion is based on a clear acceptance or recognition that others, like oneself, want happiness and have the right to overcome suffering. On that basis one develops concern about the welfare of others, irrespective of one’s attitude to oneself. That is compassion.”
The definition we learn from the Oxford dictionary defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others”. As a Mahayana Buddhist student, I believe this definition is incomplete. Let’s see if you agree with me.
First, bring to mind the most compassionate people that you know. It can be famous personalities or unsung heroes who have cared for you. Pause here for ten seconds please.
Their compassion is not simply measured by their levels of concern for the suffering of others, but by their acts of service to alleviate suffering. This is what makes them caring and extraordinary individuals. That is precisely why compassion is not for the faint-hearted, a compassionate person has to be strong enough to A) feel the pain, instead of numbing or ignoring it, and B) be brave enough to act because of the realisation that alleviating the suffering of others is up to each one of us, therefore we must take responsibility.
When I think of compassion, Mother Teresa, also a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and my mother Ana Tereza, come to my mind. They are the embodiment of human affection and in their own way, to the best of their abilities have others as their highest priority.
Compassion is the aspiration of relieving the suffering of others turned into action.
Bluntly speaking, worrying about others and doing nothing about it when you have the means turns out to be more painful than actively engaging with your body, speech and mind to offer support.
COMPASSION VS EMPATHY
Psychologists and neuroscientists Tania Singer, and Olga Klimecki, are the pioneers in the field of clarifying the confusion between empathy and compassion. In a series of research using neuro-imaging (fMRI) they were able to identify that empathy and compassion rely on different biological systems and brain networks. In addition, they also combined first-person (subjective experience) and third-person (objective empirical neuroscientific studies) methodologies when analysing how Matthieu Ricard, PhD – long-term Buddhist meditation practitioner, AKA “the happiest man on Earth” reacted when he brought to mind the suffering of orphans. In his own words below he explains the impact feeling AS others (empathy) and feeling WITH (compassion) had on his mental state:
“When Tania Singer asked me to go into a state of pure empathy without engaging in compassion or altruistic love, I decided to empathically resonate with the suffering of children in a Romanian orphanage. I had seen a BBC documentary on these totally neglected orphans the night before and was very touched by their fates. Despite being fed and washed everyday, these children were completely emaciated and emotionally abandoned. The lack of affection had caused severe symptoms of apathy and vulnerability. Many children were rocking back and forth for hours and their health was actually in such a bad state that deaths were regular in this orphanage. Even when being washed, many of these children winced with pain and the slightest collision could lead to a broken leg or arm.
So when I was immersing myself in empathic resonance, I visualized the suffering of these orphan children as vividly as possible. The empathic sharing of their pain very quickly became intolerable to me and I felt emotionally exhausted like I was burned out. After nearly an hour of empathic resonance, I was given the choice to engage in compassion or to finish scanning. Without the slightest hesitation, I agreed to continue scanning with compassion meditation, because I felt so drained after the empathic resonance.
Subsequently engaging in compassion meditation completely altered my mental landscape. Although the images of the suffering children were still as vivid as before, they no longer induced distress. Instead, I felt natural and boundless love for these children and the courage to approach and console them. In addition, the distance between the children and myself had completely disappeared. This was when we released the immense potential of compassion as an antidote to empathetic distress and burnout”.
BENEFITS OF COMPASSION
- Compassion makes you happier: A brain-imaging study by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health showed that the “pleasure centers” in the brain are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves. Interestly, in an experiment by Elizabeth Dunn, at the University of British Columbia, participants received a sum of money and half of the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves; the other half was told to spend the money on others. At the end of the study, published in the academic journal Science, participants who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent money on themselves. Takeaway: giving is a source of pleasure, watch Elizabeth Dunn TED talk here in case you are still not on a helper’s high.
- Compassion may increase longevity: an interesting study by Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, showed that people who engaged in volunteering lived longer than their non-volunteering peers. Important detail: only if their reasons for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving. Takeaway: when you help you do it for others not for yourself!
- Compassion is part of our evolution: Darwin’s work is best described with the phrase “survival of the kindest”, not the fittest as popularised by Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinists to justify class and race superiority. In The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex, Darwin says that “communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Takeway: compassion is key for the survival and flourishing of humankind.
COMPASSION AND COURAGE
So if compassion is so good for us, why don’t we practice more often? From all I have read on Compassion, the book A Fearless Heart by Dr Thupten Jinpa, PhD, founder The Compassion Institute, in my opinion offers the most practical and straightforward explanation on why compassion is key for greater wellbeing and for changing the course of humanity.
In chapter 3, ‘From Fear To Courage’, Dr Jinpa explains: “Compassion – for ourselves and for others – takes courage. It takes courage to take care of ourselves, to make decisions in our best interest and not let our fear of what other people think throw us off course… Compassion requires us to pay attention and engage with people’s troubles and suffering when it might be easier to ignore them or to otherwise make do with the status quo. It takes courage to trust enough to open ourselves up to others, whether in asking for or offering help. However, compassion also makes courage. Acting out of compassion for ourselves, we can be more confident that we are doing the right thing…It takes courage to open our hearts to others and expose our vulnerability, but as the Dalai Lama often points out, when we do we feel transparent and free. We can stop hiding, stop fearing someone will see who we really are, because we are choosing to be seen”
Why we feel insecure and uncomfortable in sharing our most altruist wishes and concerns is still a mystery to me. How we were made to believe that we must suppress our generosity of spirit if we wish to succeed in life is what I consider to be the root of disharmony in our society.
COMPASSION IN ACTION
Compassion is part of our human nature and it’s imprinted on our minds – deep down we all know that if it wasn’t for the compassion of others we wouldn’t be where we are. Starting with our parents who gave us our lives, then our care-givers who looked after us when we were most vulnerable and incapable as babies, then all our different teachers who taught us all we know, the workers behind everything we possess – from food, to clothes, to cars…
We have this illusion of independence, but reality shows how intrinsically interconnected we all are. Therefore, in this complex web of interwoven systems of human and nature we must play our part in a compassionate way. The below few exercises will help you to know-how:
1. Start a self-compassionate journal where on a daily basis at the end of the day you give yourself a break to take an emotional inventory of your feelings and emotions without judgment or criticism. Then from the perspective of self-acceptance, that sounds like a supportive and caring friend who accepts you just as you are, who understands that imperfections are part of our human experience, offer yourself the soothing words you need to hear. A more elaborated version of this exercise can be found on Dr. Kristin Neff’s website.
2. Begin your day with the intention of having compassion as your standing point. Visualise how your actions and reactions might change if they are flavoured with a compassionate attitude. See if there are any shifts in your priorities when you expand the mindset from “me, myself and I” to what can we achieve together with solidarity.
3. Watch movies and documentaries, listen to podcasts, read biographies to nourish your compassionate heart. Here some recommendations:
- Watch: Capernaum
- Listen: Meditation on Compassion by Tara Brach
- Read: The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown
4. When you need a reminder on how to offer compassion to the ‘difficult people’ in your life enjoy this “Just Like Me” Meditation.
5. Make a commitment to do something every day that will have a meaningful impact on someone else’s life. Take this opportunity to be creative, but at the same time no need to put too much pressure on yourself. Calling your granny, buying food for a homeless person you see on the street, saying yes to a not-for-profit project are wonderful ways to help that don’t necessarily require much time or effort, but the ripple effects of your acts and the seeds you are planting will leave a beautiful legacy in human civilization.
If you don’t believe in the power of your actions, I leave you with this final quote for the day: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Compassion enlivens us, so practice it as often as you can!
Natalia Bojanic is the Co-Founder of Form and Founder of Switch-OM. Natalia is a former PR director who left the corporate world to follow her passion for self-improvement and wellness. Alongside running and expanding the disruptive startup, Form, she is also a qualified meditation teacher who has studied with Buddhist monks and nuns, and been certified by the Google-developed Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute.