This week our mindfulness columnist Andy Hix looks at the power of compassion.
In my mindfulness practice, there are two foundational qualities of mind that I am cultivating. One is greater awareness: awareness of my thoughts, feelings, emotions, physical sensations in my body, my senses, my surroundings, other people’s emotions, and so on. The second is compassion.
The Dalai Lama was once asked at a conference for neuroscientists about how meditation changes the brain, “What is the goal of meditation?” He responded: “Universal compassion.”
Until I got into all this meditation malarkey I didn’t have a clear idea of what it meant to be compassionate. Being caring? Sympathetic? Helping people?
In his book about emotional intelligence, Search Inside Yourself, Chade Meng-Tan says that compassion is made up of three components:
- I understand you (cognitive)
- I feel you (emotional)
- I want to help you (motivational)
When people used to tell me about their emotional difficulties: things they were worried about, being upset with their boyfriend, feeling down about their job, my tendency used to always be to jump straight to number three: “Well, what I think you should do is…”
Mindfulness has helped me to realise that trying to help people without empathising with them is often not that helpful. If they’re suffering from emotional distress, they usually want to be listened to and maybe to be given a hug. They don’t want a practical solution straight away, they first want to be heard.
Only by listening to someone can you really understand what’s happened to them (number one). Only my paying non-judgemental attention to them can you relate to the emotion of what they’re experiencing (number two). There are still lots of times when I don’t manage to do all three, but when I do, I feel deeply connected to the other person, they feel better and I feel good about the experience.
There are lots of things that get in they way of me practicing this all the time though! Sometimes it’s impatience, a sense that really connecting with what they’re feeling will take too long, and I’m in a hurry. I know that sounds terrible, but it’s true.
Sometimes there’s a fear that if I connect to the depths of their difficulty, I’ll be pulled down into their dark hole, and it will be an unpleasant experience for me. I think this even though my experience has been that when I do connect to someone’s pain, anxiety or sadness, it’s not scary or unpleasant, it’s actually a beautiful moment of human connection.
Another reason I haven’t been compassionate with people in the past is fear of not knowing what to “do”. I now realise that actually there’s very little I need to “do” other than be open to connecting with how they’re feeling and being with them in their experience.
It’s worth practicing compassion, not only because it helps the people around you, but according to Matthieu Ricard, the world’s happiest man, it’s the happiest state of mind. Sounds like a win-win to me.
Andy Hix is director of zen at work, a London-based mindfulness consultancy. Get in touch with Andy for a free taster session at www.zenatwork.co.uk.
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Photo Credit: Matt Madd from flickr