Compassion is an essential component of human existence. If we are to accept our humanness then we need to develop compassion. What do we mean exactly by compassion and where does it originate. Compassion can be understood as the emotional response when we perceive suffering, and it can involve an authentic desire to help. It literally means to suffer together. The latest research findings from a number of scientists has shown that our brains are “wired up to respond to others’ suffering”. Nancy Eisenberg, is a leading academic in the field of Compassion who has published widely and has found that compassion is part of our basic human nature. This means that our temperament or what we what we are born with, the way we self-regulate our emotions and what we experience from our parents in their parenting practices all contribute to the way we develop our empathy, compassion and helping behaviour. In other words we are born with empathy for others, the recognition that if we see upset in others we will respond with kindness and the concept compassion takes that further by wanting to help alleviate the suffering and pain in the other.
The Dalai Lama captures this beautifully when he says “So long as we are human we need compassion. Compassion brings inner peace and whatever else is going on, that peace of mind allows us to see the whole picture more clearly. So, in our education we need lessons about developing warmheartedness and finding inner peace. “
We all understand compassion for others, but an essential ingredient for increased mental health is compassion for self. In the same way we recognise someone else’s suffering and we want to respond by making it better, the next level is to have compassion for ourselves, to recognise our own pain and to understand our own humanness. A question that is very useful to ask ourselves is if someone else told us this story, the story about being angry or hurt or disappointed would we have compassion for them? Then why not for ourselves? A good question indeed.
Some of the ways to develop compassion for oneself are to literally feel warm to oneself rather than hurting oneself with self-criticism. Remembering the common humanity which means we acknowledge our suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience. And lastly, developing self-compassion requires that we take a balanced approach to our negative thoughts without trying to suppress or deny them. The key here is balanced, so if we do have a negative thought about ourselves, we develop the habit to balance it with a forgiving thought, a more compassionate one. Remembering that it is in our mind that we can be developing the more compassionate thoughts.