By Hooria Jazaieri
Would you describe yourself as a compassionate person?
Even if you don’t necessarily see yourself that way, I bet you’re compassionate at least some of the time (e.g., when you’re well-rested and not in a hurry), or with certain people in your life (e.g., with your closest friends). Compassion can be thought of as a mental state or an orientation towards suffering (your own or others’) that includes four components:
Contrary to what many may believe, compassion is considered to be like a muscle that, as any other, can be strengthened with relevant exercises—or can deteriorate and atrophy. In other words, your capacity for compassion can expand, if you choose.
You likely never learned in school that you can intentionally strengthen inner skills such as compassion. The good news is that there are specific habits that you can practice in order to begin honing your abilities to expand compassion for yourself and for others.
Preliminary research from a variety of randomized controlled trials suggests that compassion can in fact be enhanced through systematic training programs. For example, the eight-week compassion cultivation training (CCT) course that was developed by Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., and colleagues at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education suggests that adults can indeed improve compassion for themselves, and reduce fear of compassion for themselves and for others.
Even if you don’t or can’t take a research-validated training program, there are numerous ways to build your compassion muscle—many of which are described on Greater Good in Action (GGIA), the GGSC’s library of science-based practices. Some of these practices involve meditation, such as loving-kindness. Others are writing exercises, such as one that asks you to describe a time when you felt a strong bond with another person.
Many of the practices in both GGIA and the structured training programs range from 10-30 minutes in length. As with most exercises, the more you do them, the more you will likely reap the benefits. However, something is better than nothing. For example, if your physical exercise goal is to take 10,000 steps a day and you only take 3,000, that’s still better for your health than taking none.
Meditation is similar. While the intention may be 20-30 minutes of daily compassion meditation, some practice is better than no practice—and you are maintaining your intention and routine, which will only increase the likelihood of your continuing this intention and routine the next day. Notice if this “all-or-nothing” mentality with your compassion practice is hindering you and see if you can test the “something is better than nothing” theory.
While there’s lots of research supporting those kinds of compassion-cultivating practices, there’s also a place for informal, moment-to-moment practices throughout the day.
For example, you could notice when compassion comes easily or spontaneously for you throughout the day (e.g., watching the evening news). You could notice when you resist acknowledging or being with suffering (your own or others) throughout the day (e.g., when passing someone on the street who is asking for money or an extended family member who is challenging). Throughout the day, you could notice when you judge or minimize suffering (e.g., saying that it doesn’t count or is insignificant compared to someone else or something else going on in the world). We often notice suffering (our own and that of others) but quickly dismiss it and thus do not allow ourselves to be emotionally touched or moved by the suffering (the second component of compassion). This kind of awareness of the presence, or absence, of compassion can provide some valuable information to you.
Renowned meditation teacher Jack Kornfield once wrote that setting one’s intention is like setting the compass for one’s heart.
For a week, try setting an intention before you start your compassion meditation practice and notice whether this intention helps clarify your purpose.
Our intention helps guide our efforts to be compassionate and helps remind us why we are choosing to set time aside for compassion-cultivating practices. When I teach compassion, I pose questions for my students, such as these:
While these are indeed “big” questions, asking them allows us to ponder our intentions of why we are trying to strengthen our inner skill of compassion.
For a week, try setting an intention before you start your compassion meditation practice and notice whether this intention helps clarify your purpose. At times, this intention can come up again throughout the day as a means of renewing your commitment to practice compassion, even when you are living life “off the cushion.”
Research is probabilistic. Just because something works for most people (or people in research studies) does not mean that it will work for you. As I always tell my students, in order to get the most convincing data, “Be your own laboratory.”
Run a short experiment (e.g., a couple weeks or a couple months) and collect your own data. Do you feel more compassionate (towards yourself, loved ones, strangers, difficult people) when utilizing formal (e.g., sitting meditation) and informal (e.g., silently reciting loving-kindness phrases to yourself while waiting in line at Trader Joe’s) compassion practices?
Students in my compassion training classes receive a workbook, which contains a daily practice log and space for comments. Since the practice is different every day, it’s important that we spend time, even if just a few minutes, reflecting on what the practice was like for us: what came up, where did our attention wander to during the practice, how did our intention guide our practice, and so on. Without reflection, these practices can become another thing on a lengthy daily “to-do” list. It is only with reflection that we can get a sense of whether these practices are actually benefitting us (immediately or in the longer-term).
Additionally, I invite students even when they do not practice to still log a “0” for practice time for the day and to also write down what they did instead of doing the practice (e.g., caught up on emails, slept in, went to the gym, watched TV, etc.). This allows us to continue the routine of logging and reflecting and also allows us to examine patterns to the days where we are not practicing—perhaps what we are choosing to do instead of meditating is a higher priority, or perhaps what we are doing instead is not actually adding value to our lives.
Running this experiment does not require a workbook, purchasing a fancy meditation cushion, or buying trendy new yoga clothes. These practices, which are thousands of years old, can be done right in the comfort of your own home, at the office, in your car, or really anywhere, just as you are. Afterward, reflection can take many forms—and you should adopt one that works for you.
In my experience as a meditation student and as a meditation teacher, the practices are initially helpful when done with the guidance of an instructor. The instructor can answer questions, help troubleshoot and problem-solve, and, most importantly, help you stick with and come back to your practice.
One of my favorite things about teaching compassion courses is the supportive environment that gets created within the group—it’s a unique opportunity to participate in community-based practice. I find it also helps renew one’s optimism as it reminds us that we are not alone in these practices. Many others are choosing to acknowledge suffering (their own and others’) and wish to see the relief of suffering. This notion can get lost at times when doing these practices in solitude.
If you don’t have the time or money for a class, don’t despair. You might find support at a religious community or center in your area, if you have one. If you don’t, enlist a friend or relative to support your effort to make compassion more of a habit—someone who can encourage and remind you to stay on track and help you (non-judgmentally) troubleshoot the times when you just don’t feel very compassionate in the midst of suffering.
There are lots of good reasons why sometimes we intend to do compassion meditation practices, and yet, for whatever reason, we drop the ball. Often, what people do when this happens is engage in “negative self-talk” by implicitly or explicitly saying things to themselves, such as “I never stick with anything”; “I’m a failure”; or “I can’t do this.” Interestingly, there’s no empirical evidence to suggest that beating ourselves up will actually help us change our behavior; in fact, some data suggests that this type of criticism can move us away from our goals rather than towards them.
Additionally, one of the interesting opportunities that arises when we do not do our compassion meditation practices is to see if, in that moment, we can practice compassion for ourselves. While a bit meta (compassion for missing the compassion practice), this is essentially one of the “tests” of our practice. When we’re tempted to be harsh, critical, and judgmental with ourselves, can we instead choose to have compassion: acknowledging our suffering, noting how this makes us human and that we are not alone, and trying to be gentle or kind with ourselves (or at least refrain from beating ourselves up—“if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”)?
Often the story that gets told about meditation is that it will be “relaxing,” “stress-relieving,” and “blissful.” While all of these experiences are possible, for many people the experience with meditation or compassion practices is the exact opposite of peaceful, relaxing, and positive. For some, depending on the practice, just focusing on one’s breath can bring about extreme anxiety or worry thoughts, bringing to mind a loved one can bring about grief and loss, imagining oneself as a young child can bring about sadness or pain, considering the suffering of all beings may bring about guilt or overwhelm.
It is important to notice whether we are bringing any expectations to the compassion practice. Often people will say that the compassion practices are not “working.” When we investigate what they mean by this, they are often referring to the experience of not feeling relaxed after the meditation. While relaxation and stress relief can be the goal of some meditations, in general this is not the case with compassion meditation. Compassion is ultimately about suffering, which can at times feel difficult to sit with.
Finally, people often bring the expectation that because a compassion practice generated a certain feeling or experience before (e.g., yesterday or last week), it “should” or will generate a similar feeling or experience today. As I often tell my students, reality is constantly changing (time is passing and the earth is rotating as you read this), and thus it is a bit of a fallacy to expect that we, and the practice, will be the same day in and day out. Because the practice is different every day, we have something “new” to reflect on after each practice.
It may simply be the case that the activities aren’t right for you. If loving-kindness doesn’t seem to be increasing your compassion, try something else, like writing about a time when you felt like someone showed compassion toward you, or a time when you felt spontaneous compassion for another. It is important to be open to another possibility: Perhaps compassion practices aren’t what you need right now. The good news is that there are many varieties of different contemplative practices available that can help you to become more present and non-judgmental.
Establishing new habits takes time. Be patient and keep trying. One day, you might find yourself more open to suffering—and more capable of addressing it—than you’ve ever been before.
Hooria Jazaieri, LMFT, is a researcher, teacher, and psychotherapist. Her research at UC Berkeley centers on personal reputation and team chemistry. She is the recipient of graduate research fellowships from the the National Science Foundation and the Greater Good Science Science Center.
This article was originally published on Greater Good Science.