“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” ~Dalai Lama
I thought I understood compassion. Having spent ten years of my life training to be a psychiatrist, I knew how to define it, describe it, and think about it. I thought I got it.
A few years ago, my brother was diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Being the mental health professional of the family, I took a long break to be with him as he navigated the initial stages of treatment.
This experience taught me that compassion is more than being nice to someone for a few minutes or hours.
True compassion is hard work, but it's worthwhile. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”
In trying to help him, I too was changed for the better.
Among the many things I tried as part of the process, some worked. Here are the top six that have stood the test of time.
Often while listening to someone, we are formulating replies in our mind, waiting for a lull in the conversation so we can interject. Try instead to just listen. Suspend all judgment and give the person your undivided attention.
There is powerful healing in sharing your darkest secrets and having another person truly hear it and still love you.
2. Respond to the emotion, not the actual words.
Angry words may conceal fear; guilt may hide behind blame. Whenever I tried to refute my brother’s literal words, he became more insistent. When I tried to understand and respond to the underlying emotion, he began to trust and open up.
3. Get your own support system.
I'm a firm believer that we can only give unconditional love when we can receive it too. Make sure to get out, do things with people you love, and continue to experience life. Replenish your soul.
4. Remember the whole person.
When someone is spiraling into a negative path, you could lose sight of all their positive qualities. Make it a point to remind yourself, at that moment, of a particular strength she/he has. May be it’s his loyalty, or humor, or patience. See the whole person.
5. Put yourself in that situation mentally.
Suffering is universal. Almost all of us have felt joy and pain. The particular details may be unique, but the themes are universal. So, remind yourself of a time when you went through something related.
Meditate on this and remind yourself of every single emotion and worry you had, and how much you longed for empathy and compassion from a fellow traveler. Do this often, so that it becomes second nature.
I once read a true story reported in a Reader’s Digest column. A father and his three children got on a bus in central London. The father was lost in his own thoughts, and the kids, being unsupervised, were loud and disruptive to the other passengers.
Finally, a lady in a nearby seat leaned over to the father and said, “You really need to parent your children better. They are so unruly.” The father, shaken from his reverie, says, “I'm so sorry. Their mother, my wife, just died and we are returning from her funeral. I think we are all a little overwhelmed. I apologize.”
We are often unaware of the pain another person carries inside. So when someone does something that rubs you the wrong way, take a moment and think of this story.
6. You will fail sometimes, so forgive yourself.
Have compassion for yourself too. No one is perfect. Give yourself a break if you come up short sometimes. Remember you are just as human as anyone else. As long as your intentions and efforts are in the right direction most times, it will work out in the end.
Because of this experience, my compassion now flows more from the heart and not just from the mind. I feel the difference, and I hope my patients can too.
What’s the role compassion has played in your life? Please share so we may learn from each other.
Photo by James Cridland