Roadmap to Compassion: Fuel for Tough Times

Holding hands with compassion

Facing the unknown can be unsettling to say the least, and many around the globe are embarking on an era of uncertainty. The United States seems more divided than united, Brexit has turned the United Kingdom on its ear, and the Syrian refugee crisis continues to affect millions. Unfortunately, these problems are just the tip of the iceberg (the melting iceberg, might I grimly add).

Thanks to the power of compassion, you can weather these unprecedented storms with more grace and less anxiety. Researched-backed techniques for cultivating self-compassion and compassion-for-others can allow you to stay present and courageous.

Some people see compassion as a soft, new-aged, angel-winged, rosy-colored concept. That could not be further from the truth. Compassion means you are able to stay present with suffering, and, trust me, that is not for the faint of heart. When you are compassionate, you do not become overwhelmed, you do not run away, and you do not pretend the suffering doesn’t exist. Instead, you face what is happening with clear awareness, wisdom, and non-judgment—then you offer relief.

Compassion takes courage, and cultivating compassion involves a few important elements—mindfulness, self-compassion, common humanity, and wisdom. By practicing these four components that give compassion its horsepower, you will be better poised to face the uncertainty ahead.

1. Mindfulness: The Ignition

Because of the brain’s default-mode network, you are very likely spending most of your time thinking ahead or looking back. That’s the way you’re wired. If your mind is anxiously looking ahead or is hooked on regrets of the past, you are not in the present moment.

When you’re not in the present moment, you cannot possibly see the suffering surrounding you. You also don’t notice your own suffering. Compassion cannot emerge if you don’t see suffering. That’s why mindfulness is like the ignition of compassion.

Start your compassion engine by cultivating non-judgmental awareness of what’s happening around you and within you. Staying present to what is, instead of imagining what could be, could decrease your feelings of stress and anxiety.

Try this simple breath-focused meditation to help you cultivate mindfulness. This practice can be a one-minute reset or a longer meditation. Do what feels best for you.

  1. Begin by getting into a comfortable position that allows you to be both alert and relaxed. Close your eyes or look down and un-focus your eyes.
  2. Take three deep breaths, filling your lungs to capacity and exhaling until your lungs feel empty.
  3. Now breathe at a normal pace, noticing the feeling of your breath as it moves in and out of your nostrils. Let your breath anchor you. Each time your mind wanders (which it will), bring your awareness back to the feeling of the breath.
  4. After your set length of time (it may help to set a timer on your phone), you can slowly and gently bring your awareness back to the present moment.

By re-focusing your wandering mind on your breath, you are training your mind to come back to the present moment when you are off the meditation cushion, which will allow compassion to emerge.

2. Self-Compassion: The Key

Self-compassion allows you to offer yourself the same care and concern you would extend to a friend. Thanks to the great work by researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D. and her colleagues, plenty of scientific evidence suggests that self-compassion positively affects overall well-being. 

Self-compassion is the key to compassion, because you need it in order to safely practice compassion for others. Self-compassion curbs the overwhelm you may feel if you’re consistently taking care of others’ needs. Without it, you are likely to experience burnout.

With uncertainty ahead, self-compassion can be the refuge you may desperately need. Instead of relying on other people or outside stimulants to ease your suffering, make time for self-care.

One way to practice self-compassion is through soothing touch. Touch can promote oxytocin, a feel-good hormone, and you don’t have to rely on the touch of another to reap these rewards. Try cradling your face in your hands, giving yourself a hug, or placing your hands over your heart. Experiment to find a gesture that comforts you.

3. Common Humanity: The Fuel

By practicing common humanity, you understand that we’re all on the same team: the human team. Just like you, others experience pain, anxiety, and regret. Just like you, others want to lead a peaceful and happy life.

Common humanity allows you to recognize that you are not alone in your struggles. Your anxieties about the unknown do not separate you from others. Instead, those feelings unite you with others around the world who are experiencing the same sort of pain.

By taking time to recognize that everyone is “just like you,” you can begin to build a connection with those who are normally outside of your circle of concern. A greater connection to others leads to a greater capacity for practicing compassion.

4. Wisdom: The Map

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, wisdom is “the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting.” You can rely on wisdom to guide you as you decide on what type of compassion is most skillful in the moment.

For example, it takes wisdom for you to recognize when you need self-compassion first and foremost. Wisdom will urge you to take time to refuel even though others need you. You’ll know that if you burn out, you won’t be taking care of anyone or anything.

Another way that wisdom can guide you is when you disagree with someone. You may feel so strongly about your beliefs and opinions that you are unable to truly listen to another’s perspectives. Wisdom can keep you from pushing your own agenda and, instead, will open your eyes, ears, and heart to others. From that place of open-heartedness and open-mindedness, you can begin to build bridges.

Wisdom will also allow you to know how to best spend your time and energy. During uncertain times, your mind may spin and be pulled in several different directions. Wisdom will help you decide what needs your attention and how to act skillfully and compassionately.

By applying mindfulness, self-compassion, common humanity, and wisdom, you’ll be better prepared to ride these rough roads ahead.


Learn how to meet challenging moments with peaceful assurance alongside Oprah and Deepak with our new 21-Day Meditation Experience, Hope in Uncertain Times. Learn More.


 

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About the Author
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