The Meaning of Compassion:

Compassion is a buzzword that’s been thrown around in a few different circles over the years. It sounds positive, but what does it actually mean to be compassionate, and how can it help us practically develop a constructive mindset and live a good life day to day?

Everyone of us possesses a beautiful and powerful human trait called compassion. It’s our capacity to be sympathetic to the plights of others and take steps to understand and even lessen their suffering. This is a characteristic that has the power to transform our interactions with other people and our communities.

Compassion is fundamentally about showing kindness and understanding, even when a person seems to be acting destructively. It’s about realizing that we all go through difficulties and problems in life, that these problems can often be overwhelming and shape who we are, and that when we show support and empathy to those who need it, we can help lessen their suffering.

When we approach others with compassion, we do not view them as issues that need to be resolved, barriers to our own happiness, or destructive influences that need to be removed, but rather as fellow humans who deserve respect and kindness.

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Developing Compassion:

You and I are members of a highly social species of ape. We form strong emotional bonds with one another, and we rely on each other for survival, community, and problem solving.

However, there are inherent risks to being highly social. We can become tribal, territorial, jealous, stubborn, angry, insecure, etc. The relationships we have with others are a two-sided coin, and they are our responsibility to manage.

On the one hand, our relationships add vibrancy and enjoyment to life. A benefit that is difficult to replicate in any other way. On the other hand, our experiences with other people can cause a significant amount of suffering if we don’t have the tools to deal with them.

The purpose of this article is to provide you with those tools.

One of the most endearing things about compassion is that it’s a quality we can work on and refine throughout our lives rather than something we either have or don’t. Like any other muscle, it can be built up via repetition and conscious effort.

For it to grow, it must first be practiced. This means treating ourselves with the same compassion and tolerance that we would extend to a close friend who was struggling. We can be more capable of showing others the same kindness when we learn to be kind to ourselves.

Here are some tips to help develop the skill:

  1. Cultivate self-compassion: Starting with yourself is one of the best ways to cultivate compassion for others. You should be as understanding to yourself as you would be to a dear friend. Encourage yourself and forgive when you make a mistake, be accountable when you’re in error, and don’t beat yourself up about something you cannot change. After a while you’ll be able to approach yourself and other people with more compassion and understanding as a result of this.

  2. Develop empathy: Empathy is the capacity to put oneself in another person’s position and experience their feelings. To actively and uncritically listen to others is one approach to demonstrate empathy. Attempt to comprehend their viewpoint and what they are experiencing. This will enable you to connect with people more deeply and feel empathy for their difficulties.

  3. Exercise your kindness muscle by performing deeds of kindness. Even small deeds of kindness can have a great influence on others. Give someone in need a smile, a kind word, or your ear. Give money or your time to a charity that champions a subject you believe in. By doing these steps, you can improve the world and increase your sense of social connection.

  4. Use mindfulness: Mindfulness is the skill of being in the present moment without passing judgment. Developing mindfulness can help you respond to others with more empathy and compassion because it makes you more conscious of your thoughts and feelings. Consider incorporating awareness into your regular routine by engaging in practises like yoga, meditation, or deep breathing.

It’s worth keeping in mind that developing compassion is a journey. As you develop and learn, try to build patience and kindness for both yourself and others. Over time, with focus and practice, you will improve your capacity for both empathy and compassion, which will increase your capacity to help people, listen to people, build connections, and be a supporting influence rather than just another person passing judgment or dislike.

The View of Compassion:

I was recently invited to be a guest on the Life Gets Hairy podcast. During our discussion, we began to talk about compassion and how to deal with destructive, negative, cruel, or annoying people.

It’s easy to get frustrated by others, and I’m sure you have a library of examples to draw upon if I asked you to imagine when you thought someone was rude, ungrateful, irritating, mean, etc. It’s also easy to judge and dislike those people who behave in ways we disagree with.

I’m going to propose to you that there is another way—a way that dissolves the negative impact that other people can have on you. A way that changes your judgment of dislike, disgust, and irritation and replaces it with one of understanding and compassion.

That might sound a bit hippy, but bear with me. The following concepts will help you in two ways:

  1. It will lessens the negative impact that other people have on your well-being.

  2. It will prevent you from reacting negatively to people who are probably having a hard time, and are suffering more than most. I say this because I believe that the people who are the most destructive are often the people who are suffering the most deeply.

These ideas all start with changing the way we look at one another.

Instead of seeing an individual who has done something to annoy you, try to see that person as a collection of experiences leading up to that point.

Each and every one of us is a product of our unique environments.

You and I will have very different values, beliefs, drives, fears, desires, and motivations. We’re different because of our upbringing, our schools, our friends, the books we’ve read, the music we listen to, the movies we’ve seen etc.

People are molded by their surroundings, and our surroundings are largely the result of random chance. Sadly, this means that there are many people who grow up in negative or destructive environments. Those of us who are less fortunate are more likely to learn to cope in destructive ways, they learn destructive habits from the influence of destructive people.

While our actions are our responsibility, there are those of us who simply aren’t aware, or are so far gone that they don’t care. They’ve not had the good fortune of a healthy environment to grow up in.

I believe that almost all people are trying to do the best they can with what they have. However, what we have is not equal.

So, my proposal to you is to view people as a product of experience, not just as a snapshot in time.

Often, those of us who are struggling the most take that struggle out on the world around them. When was the last time you saw a fully content and happy person shout, scream, or become aggressive?

Next time you see a person who would normally stir a negative emotion in you, just think: if you had been born with the same physiology under the same conditions, you would have turned out the same way. You were just more fortunate.

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Stoicism and Our Relationships with others:

In his journal, Meditations, the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote the following:

“Say to yourself at break of day:

I shall meet with meddling, violent, treacherous, envious and ungrateful men. All these vices have fallen to them because they have no knowledge of good and bad.

But I, who have beheld the nature of the good, and seen that it is the right; and of the bad, and seen that it is the wrong; and of the wrongdoer himself, and seeing that his nature is akin to my own – not because he is of the same blood and seed, but because he shares with me in mind and a portion of the divine – I, then, can neither be harmed by any of these men, nor can I become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together, like feet, hands, or eyelids, or the two rows of teeth in our upper and lower jaws.

To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature; and to be angry with another and turn away from him is surely to work against him.”

This perfectly outlines the relationship that Stoic philosophy has with other people. We are of the same blood. We are of the same nature.

It just so happens that some of us have been more fortunate than others, and part of that fortune is the ability to judge good from evil.

Hierocles’ Circle:

Hierocles was a Stoic philosopher in ancient Greece. Unfortunately, we know very little about the man or his life.

Perhaps more unfortunate is the fact that most of his work has been lost to history. However, in 1901, a few fragments of papyrus were found in Hermopolis, and the Macedonian scribe Joannes Stobaeus transcribed and preserved some of his work around 500 AD.

The most famous of these existing fragments contained the concept known as Hierocles’ Circle.

Hierocles wrote that people have concentric circles of concern, beginning with themselves and expanding to their relatives, friends, citizens, countrymen, and finally to mankind as a whole.

As we grow, Hierocles tells us that our task is to draw these circles inward. As the circles are pulled in, we begin to treat strangers as friends, friends as family, and family as if they were ourselves. Eventually, we will make all of humanity part of our concern.

Hierocles believed that which benefits the whole, benefits the individual. For him, caring about humanity was caring about ourselves. This was one of the first accounts of a true cosmopolitan mindset.

Final Thoughts:

It’s easy to get frustrated, angered and flustered by other people and their actions. However, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that our actions are simply a reflection of who we are, and who we are is simply the sum of our experiences, which we have been handed by chance. It just so happens that some of us are fortunate and some are unfortunate.

That’s not said to lift responsibility from a person acting destructively, it’s said to encourage our perception of negative actions to promote understanding, rather than suffering.

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