Weekly inspiration: Compassion and the true meaning of empathy

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This week’s talk is by Joan Halifax who is activist, anthropologist, author, caregiver, ecologist, LSD researcher, teacher, and Zen Buddhism priest.

Joan talks about compassion in presence of suffering in a very emotional and touching way, illustrating it with many stories which are a testimony to people’s ability to be compassionate. She doesn’t judge those who turn their backs on people in pain or those who can’t deal with such situations. She simply encourages us to be brave and strong enough to be compassionate.

What exactly is compassion? Joan answers:

  • It’s an ability to see clearly into the nature of anything (in this case suffering),
  • It’s an ability to remain strong in painful situation,
  • It’s also an ability to recognize that one is not separate from the suffering he/she is witnessing,
  • It’s an ability to transform suffering,
  • It’s the capacity to have an open heart.

As you can see compassion has many facets and a key component to it is the ability to stay detached from the outcome of the situation. Joan explains that the actual attachment distorts our ability to be present to the fullness of the experience. Once we’re not present we are not able to act compassionately.

Joan also names the enemies of compassion: pity, moral outrage and fear. These inner states simply block our hearts, and compassion is the opposite of that.

Neuroscience states that the benefits of compassion are:

  • Increased ability to deal with suffering; resilience – compassion prevents people from being emotionally drained by painful experiences and instead uplifts them.
  • Enhancement of neural integration – it hooks up all the parts of the brain.
  • Enhancement of our immune system.

Dalai Lama once said: ‘’Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive’’ and also ‘’If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion’’.

What does it mean to be compassionate in everyday life?

  • Not to judge ourselves and others – You’ve made a mistake. So what? Learn from it, don’t let it hold you back.
  • To keep your mind and heart open no matter what happens – all situations are just blessings in disguise, opportunities for us to learn and grow.
  • To clearly see what is really going on – it’s easy to see only one side of the story –ours of course. It’s much more effective though to resolve a situation when you see the bigger picture.
  • To be gentler or more firm with ourselves or others – sometimes we need a hug and sometimes we need a cold shower. There’s a huge tendency to sugar coat life, which just falsifies the experience.
  • To remember we are all one – the way you treat others you treat you and vice versa.
  • To help, speak up; stand up for those in need.
  • To be present in difficult situations, not to run away.

I could keep on going. Instead I’d like you to come up with your own ways of being compassionate. Also come out of your cave and enter the world with an open and compassionate heart. You’ll be grateful to yourself for doing this and so will be many people.

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