1. Compassion is Natural
Human beings are born with empathy, the ability to feel with one another and to respond with compassion.
A baby sitting on her mother’s lap on an airplane was really upset. She was only six months old and her mother could not seem to get her calmed. A couple of rows away, a toddler, hearing the upset baby climbed out of her seat and walked over to the baby. Even though it was a most important possession, this little girl offered her binky to the crying baby, no strings attached.
Being compassionate expresses who we are. Beginning as young children, we can express compassion naturally. Throughout our lives compassion, the natural and open response of concern for others, especially when others are in distress, can come to life and be shared.
2. Compassion Can Be Extended
Our natural expression and sharing of compassion is usually limited to close relationships, persons with whom we feel close and safe. Persons who are unfamiliar to us, even strangers can be those to whom we extend compassion. This is important. Though all persons are born with the natural ability to be compassionate to family and close friends, extending compassion into the larger community is not automatic. To extend compassion we must choose and learn to include strangers, those with whom we have difficult relationships and even enemies. Sometimes we may begin to learn this at a young age from parents or family members or friends. Learning to value and respect others can expand through intention and effort. Just like we can choose to learn a skill in music or art or sport, we can choose and learn to be more compassionate persons.
3. Training and Practicing Are Important
It is common for us to express compassion to those close to us. We do not think twice about responding to the hurts and sufferings of our children and others near and dear to us. But for others who may be strangers or acquaintances, it is natural for us to pause and consider how to respond to other’s in distress. Our response may be to turn away and ignore the other. We may deny and hide from the suffering we notice.
To extend compassion is values in action – we must value the other who may be a stranger to us, and we must practice and train ourselves in the skill of compassionate response.
One of the best ways to train is a compassionate meditation practice. These come from many sources, but all of them draw us into an intentional silent practice that focuses our attention and extends our intention to share compassion with everyone. This is requires commitment. Research has shown us in many studies that as little as eight weeks of practice, twenty minutes a day, leads to changes both in our brains and in how we respond to others. Compassion grows. Those who have practiced compassion meditation have found both greater compassion and peace in their own lives, and in their response to others in daily living. Once a practice is started it continues to grow and deepen over time.
Meditation practices exist throughout our culture: in grade schools, children learn to calm and center themselves leading to growth in both learning and social relationships. Mindfulness classes and training exist throughout the healthcare community, and in educational and religious communities. All of these can lead to the growth and deepening of compassion.
Find a practice that fits your needs and interests, and try it!
4. All is Interconnected
One of the most fundamental understandings of both ancient wisdom and modern science is that everything and everybody in the world is interconnected. Nothing exists in isolation. Our bodies come from and return to the very elements that comprise the earth—“Dust to dust“, as the saying goes. We share huge amounts of DNA and other building blocks of life with creatures totally different from us, even with plants. Our very personhood, from language to values and manners, is acquired from those around us; we learn to think and talk like others. We become functioning individuals by being intensely social and part of our surroundings, by learning to “Love your neighbor as yourself”.
Compassion is facilitated by fully realizing our essential interconnectedness and wrestling with its ethical implications. That may be harder for those of us born in highly individualistic cultures than it is for people coming from backgrounds that are more socially oriented and who grow up understanding that we as individuals are intrinsic parts of a larger whole, starting with family and community, but eventually extending to everyone. We most commonly experience our connectedness as interdependence, the need to rely on each other, and on nature, in order to survive and thrive. Today, we are affected by the whole world and it by us, calling for our universal compassion.
“Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.”
5. A Selfless Vision
We can grow to become aware of the great value of every person: from family, to friends, and to strangers, and even enemies. To bring compassion into fullness, we begin to see ourselves in each other. I begin to see you in me.
We are distinct, and yet our deep value is something we share in common. Compassion teaches that all of us are equally valuable. We share, as a birth right, a common [heart and soul]. As we mature, we begin moving from a a life of serving our own wishes to a life focused primarily on serving others. We begin to move from extending ourselves to just some of us to more of us, and eventually to all of us who live together on this earth.
Society grows great when old persons plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.
6. Compassion Nurtures All of Us
The saying “It is more blessed to give than to receive” turns out to be more literally true than most of us are aware. While recipients of compassionate action from others are likely to benefit in ways alleviating their distress, medical research has in recent years conclusively demonstrated that actively sharing concern for the well-being of others produces strong psychological and physical health benefits for the giver as well. The emotions and practice of helping others tend to produce a lasting psychological sense of connectedness and joy greater even than the happiness of receiving needed help. That can be a major boost to mental health. The benefits are physical as well. Active compassion toward both one’s self and others is associated with lowered stress and inflammation, lower blood pressure, better heart health, faster recovery from injury or disease, and perhaps even longer life. Human beings are by nature designed to survive and thrive through selfless cooperation in close communities, and our minds and bodies impel us in that direction. Even infants and toddlers demonstrate an inborn concern for others, and they experience helping others both as pleasure and as developmental. In fact, practicing compassion carries so many benefits to both the individual and society that we should be teaching our children that living compassionately is as important to their overall health as is bathing and brushing their teeth.
7. Relationships are Shared
While it is easy to think that for me to win, you have to lose, in reality that is not the case. When marketers use terms like “exclusive” and “elite”, it makes it seem that the world is a place where we compete with others, who will have less, and we will have more—and until then, we will have to hide our deep-seated disappointment. Thankfully, that is all a delusion. Our relationships are interdependent. We thrive by giving to—and receiving from—one another.
We do not become “better” by one-upping others, but by helping them. And we do not find greater happiness in a competitive society, but in a collaborative and cooperative one. Our stress level plummets as soon as we admit we don’t have to “keep up with the Joneses”, keep up fabulous appearances, or have bragging rights at high school reunions. Instead, our energies can be spent in working together for a better neighborhood or school, finding ways households can be more efficient by purchasing together, improving safety with a Neighborhood Watch, showing up with work gloves on when a new neighbor is moving in, or starting a child care co-op. We are evolved to survive by cooperation more than competition, and throughout history, humanity consistently achieves great things not by competition but by working together in cooperation. The power of cooperation is so great that it can be started with one person’s initiative and easily spread to others. Our minds are built to cooperate; it’s what we’re good at, and it’s easy to begin.
8. Interdependence and Cooperation
We need to move from competition to cooperation, and a good example is education. American education has often utilized competition. Grading on a bell curve means a few will get high grades, a few low grades, and most in the middle. The games played in PE often are designed for some to win and some to lose. School-wide fundraisers reward those who have sold the most. The two assumptions seem to be: 1) competition will help everyone do their best, and 2) competing now will prepare students to compete in the real world.
The alternative, to set up a cooperative, mutually-supportive classroom environment, provides both better education and a better society. When students of varied ability work together in groups (not just for an occasional project, but as the daily practice), those excelling tend to continue to excel, and those who had been struggling improve. The overall effect? Better education. But with that comes education in values like cooperation, respect, and compassion. These values carry over into society, itself a great community of interdependent relationships. Instead of releasing a graduating class of individuals ready to climb their way to the top (or recognizing someone else is likely to climb over them), the school sends forth graduates who know how to work together to make society better, by being cooperative, respectful, and compassionate. And education is, after all, the way a good society helps the next generation to have a good society as well.
9. Human Rights Exist for Everyone
Compassion seeks respect and justice for everyone, and human rights are the most fundamental social structure of justice. We begin our voyage toward compassion as justice by respecting the human rights of everyone, friends, strangers and adversaries alike. Some human rights are framed as laws; for instance the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of free speech. Others are social customs of expected human decency, such as the right we grant others to live their lives as they choose, as long as they do not harm or coerce others.
Honoring everyone’s rights leads toward social equality in which all are treated with respect and compassion. Injustice, intolerance and oppression do not flourish in that environment. Because it promotes human development and creativity, compassion as justice based on respect for the rights of everybody encourages the kind of healthy and prosperous society we all want to live in.
10. A Sharing Economy
We make the rules which govern our economy—the economy should not govern us! We can set it up to achieve whatever purpose we desire. While it is possible to set up an economy that allows people to rise and fall individually without much responsibility for others, it is also possible to shape an economy for caring. The world’s most sophisticated and successful societies engineer their economies for the common good, meeting the needs of every member, rather than merely allowing for individual freedom and profit. By creating an economy based on caring, particularly for those who might otherwise fall through the cracks, surprisingly the entire society does better. And that’s really the heart of it. Compassion, if it’s a value that we really believe in, should effect not just our private charity, but our overall society, especially the economy.
11. Simple and Sustainable
When humans live simple lives, with their needs comfortably met but without requiring excessive resources to live, there are many beneficiaries. They are happier. Their children won’t be paying for their excess. And the planet will find they are living in balance with it, rather than harming it. Perhaps best of all, the community we live in becomes enriched, because rather than overworking ourselves in some race to the top, we have time for and interest in each other—building relationships, serving one another, and developing deep local culture.
It’s the simple things we often appreciate the most. A spectacular sunset. An afternoon spent helping an elderly neighbor with yard work. A perfectly ripe peach. Life’s most exquisite pleasures aren’t expensive, and they especially are not artificial. Spending money on things is more likely to end in unmet expectations, while the best things in life are free, and bring us joy and deep satisfaction.
12. Human Behaviors Drive Change
To grow compassion in ourselves and our community requires action… lots of actions. We move from wanting greater and deeper compassion to actually behaving differently…behaving in more compassionate and caring ways day by day by day, and here, there, and everywhere.
We live in a new era, the Anthropocene: the era of humans. The choices and behaviors of humans, for the past two hundred years, are causing changes in the earth. These changes began with the Industrial Revolution, and the global population explosion. And, these changes are accelerating. The earth is changing in ways that are harmful to most of life. In a word, “climate change” may be the most profound issue now facing humanity, with the very survival of humanity being at risk.
Numerous species are recently extinct. Losses continue. Humans and human habitats are in jeopardy of losing the ability to sustain life. Human behavior has and continues to drive these changes. And, with all of this, there is hope! If we begin behaving differently, we can impact and begin to reverse these devastating changes. But we have been warned, and we cannot wait.
Compassion is necessary, both compassion for future generations and for the planet. To slow and reverse these climate changes requires a monumental effort from all of us. What must we do? Might it be too late to avoid catastrophe?
There are many actions needed, both in the region of Elk Grove and everywhere around this planet. We must change the world. Think renewables. Think stopping pollution and poisons. Think everyone. Think seven generations into our shared future. Think, and then Act!
13. Well-being for All
Compassion is the great facilitator of social progress that nurtures everyone and protects life on Earth. Today, in the Anthropocene, planet and people depend on each other. We either pull together or perish together. We humans, in order to survive and thrive, must competently protect the earth’s complex life systems that support us with the air, water, soil and energy on which we all depend. At that scale, petty selfishness becomes fatal. Unstinting compassion can save us, but the benefits flowing from it must encompass all. We need to ask ourselves what that all-encompassing compassion means in terms of the way we live our everyday lives. Is striving for riches or extending compassion more likely to bring us rich lives? Should we measure social progress by economic growth (G.D.P.) or by increases in our physical, mental, and community well-being?
It is now clear that the underlying economy of Nature cannot support a vast and growing population arranged in consumer economies driven by insatiable aquisitiveness. We must question whether greed is the way to good, or whether power “over” is as socially productive as “power to”. We need to ask how today’s politics of competitive power, which lead to global ills and destruction, might be turned into politics of collaborative power that promotes the health of both people and planet? How might we move from the dead-end-street of exclusive concern for our own limited group into transformational avenues of compassion for all? What kind of responsibility would that require from us, both socially and individually? Are we up to it?
“The transition that is before us will cost an immense effort and require a wisdom beyond anything we have known before. . . . The planet Earth will never again function in the manner that it has functioned in the past. . . . For the foreseeable future, almost nothing will happen that we will not be involved in. We cannot make a blade of grass, but there is liable not to be a blade of grass unless we accept, protect, and foster it.”
Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe
14. Visionary and Courageous Leadership
Compassion promoting the well-being of all requires government and community leadership by people of vision who understand our common destiny and interdependence and who possess the skills and moral courage to nurture it. This entails putting the common good before the enrichment of the few. Economic and social policies must serve the basic needs and human dignity of everyone. That often requires being able to envision, articulate, promote, and protect the common good, standing up to abuses by the rich and powerful. Those who assume the risks of leadership for the benefit of society deserve our gratitude and support.