Compassion II

How can I be more kind?

In the first step of compassion, as we connect with others, it is useful to ask ourselves, “How can I be more kind?”

“If we ask ourselves when meeting anyone—friend or stranger—“How can I be more kind?” inevitably we will recognize that every being needs to be listened to, loved and understood. While we might become aware of this first with those in our immediate circle, it is possible to pay attention and care for all living beings. The more fully we offer our attention, the more deeply we realize that what matters most in life is being kind. As we open to the vulnerability of others, the veil of separation falls away, and our natural response is to reach out a helping hand. (Tara Brach pp. 239-240).

“What do they really need?”

When in conflict and having a difficult conversation with someone else, it is helpful to be mindful (pay attention) to the other person’s needs.  Asking the question, “What do they really need?” leads to “What can I do to help?”.  Pause and try to see through the other person’s eyes.  This is empathy.  What is their position?  Why are they acting this way?

“Imagine you’re stuck in traffic on the way to work, and a homeless man tries to get you to pay him a buck for washing your car windows. He’s so pushy! you think to yourself. He’ll make me miss the light and be late. He probably just wants the money for booze or drugs anyway. Maybe if I ignore him, he’ll just leave me alone. But he doesn’t ignore you, and you sit there hating him while he washes your window, feeling guilty if you don’t toss him some money, resentful if you do.

Then one day, you’re struck as if by lightning. There you are in the same commuter traffic, at the same light, at the same time, and there’s the homeless man, with his bucket and squeegee as usual. Yet for some unknown reason, today you see him differently. You see him as a person rather than just a mere annoyance. You notice his suffering. How does he survive? Most people just shoo him away. He’s out here in the traffic and fumes all day and certainly isn’t earning much. At least he’s trying to offer something in return for the cash. It must be really tough to have people be so irritated with you all the time. I wonder what his story is? How he ended up on the streets? The moment you see the man as an actual human being who is suffering, your heart connects with him. Instead of ignoring him, you find-to your amazement-that you’re taking a think about how difficult his life is.  You are moved by his pain and feel the urge to help him in some way. Importantly, if what you feel is true compassion rather than mere pity, you say to yourself, There but for the grace of God go I. If I’d been born in different circumstances, or maybe had just been unlucky, I might also be struggling to survive like that. We’re all vulnerable.

Of course, that might be the moment when you harden your heart completely–your own fear of ending up on the street causing you to dehumanize this horrid heap of rags and beard. Many people do. But it doesn’t make them happy; it doesn’t help them deal with the stresses of their work, their spouse, or their child when they get home. It doesn’t help them face their own fears. If anything, this hardening of the heart, which involves feeling better than the homeless man, just makes the whole thing that little bit worse.

But let’s say you don’t close up. Let’s say you really do experience compassion for the homeless man’s misfortune. How does it feel? Actually, it feels pretty good. It’s wonderful when your heart opens–you immediately feel more connected, alive, present.

Now, let’s say the man wasn’t trying to wash windows in return for some cash. Maybe he was just begging for money to buy alcohol or drugs–should you still feel compassion for him? Yes. You don’t have to invite him home. You don’t even have to give him a buck. You may decide to give him a kind smile or a sandwich rather than money if you feel that’s the more responsible thing to do. But yes he is still worthy of compassion–all of us are. Compassion is not only relevant to those who are blameless victims, but also to those whose suffering stems from failures, personal weakness, or bad decisions. You know, the kind you and I make every day.

Compassion, then, involves:

  • the recognition and dear seeing of suffering.
  • It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help–to ameliorate suffering–emerges.
  • Finally, compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is”

Neff, Self Compassion, pp 9-10

Compassion for self

  • Self-compassion is feeling that what has happened to us is unfortunate, not unfair as in self-pity.
  • Self compassion is what helps us forgive ourselves when we’ve fallen short; it’s what prevents internal criticism from taking over and playing across our face….In this way, self-compassion is critical to emanating warmth.”
  • Self compassion is how much warmth we can have for ourselves, especially when we are going through a difficult experience.”
  • It also helps preserve our connectedness to others. (Olivia Fox Cabane, The Charisma Myth (p. 84-85))

“Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance.”  (Brach, Radical Acceptance P. 207)

“I realized that genuine compassion can never come from fear or from the longing to fix or change. Compassion results naturally from the realization of our shared pain. It manifests as we grow out of our own sense of separateness, isolation, and alienation.” Bayda, Ezra. Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life

Kristin Neff, one of compassion’s foremost researchers, defines self-compassion as a three step process.  I have added a fourth step (#2):

  1. Mindfulness: We are mindful that we are experiencing difficulties.
  2. Investigation: We investigate through mindfulness the thoughts and bodily sensations that have arisen.
  3. Loving Kindness: We respond with kindness and understanding for ourselves rather than being harshly self-critical.
  4. Connectedness: We realize that what we are going through is commonly experienced by all human beings and that everyone goes through difficult times.

How do we respond with kindness?  We do it through the metta (loving kindness) practice.

Practicing Loving-Kindness (

There are many phrases that you can use or you can create a set of your own, all with the intention of wishing happiness and peacefulness to yourself.

Here are two examples:

May I be happy and peaceful.

May I be safe and protected.

May I be filled with contentment.

May I be free from suffering.


May I be well, happy and peaceful.

May no harm come to me.

May no problems come to me.

May I always meet with success.

May I have patience, courage, understanding and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems and failures in life.

Loving Kindness in Literature

From Red Lightning by Laura Pritchett

“Forgive her,” Baxter said to me once, when I was a teenager.  “She’s so tired that she doesn’t have any energy for kindness, and kindness is actually a lot of work.” He was sweeping up our house, having just come from cleaning his, and he said, “Kindness actually takes an enormous amount of energy, Tess, but it’s always worth it. It’s like an elemental energy. Like wind, like fire, like water. And you know why we seek it? The same way we seek water and air? Because we get our butts kicked by life, and someone helps us out. And we realize we need people, and therefore they need us. Kindness is one of the basic elements. And we very quickly realize that it makes no sense to be selfish. No sense at all. It’s useless to be selfish. So we work hard to mitigate the ass-kickingness of life for other people. That’s why I’m here sweeping. You sweep things up too.

I listen to the birdsong, to the flies buzzing, and I think, Baxter, that coupla lines I will never forget. I didn’t live them, but I heard them.”


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.
  • Try practicing the four steps of self-compassion. What do you experience?

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