When we see the world through the eyes of compassion, everyday life becomes so much softer and more beautiful.
The first of the ten principles for living happy that Patanjali offers us in the Yoga Sutras is ‘Ahimsa’, meaning not harming. It is about having compassion for all living things.
This principle lays the foundation for all the others, and as we will see with each of the principles, it applies to our relationship with others but also, and perhaps in the first instance, to the relationship with ourselves.
Step one: Compassion for myself
Ouf, just this principle alone is one that demands constant practice and reminders. If I could record the non-stop commentary going on in my head there would probably be some regular repetition of phrases like, “I’m so dumb, I can’t do it….. they won’t like me…..I’m not good enough …..” Imagine saying that kind of stuff to your best friend!! It would be one sure way to devastate their confidence and self-esteem, and hold them back from realizing their full potential.
“Any thought, word or action that prevents us (or someone else) from growing and living freely is one that is harmful.” Donna Farhi
Beyond what we think or say to ourselves, our actions can also be self-destructive. If I do not value myself I may let others do me harm and I am likely to do myself harm. This may come in the form of toxic or degrading relationships and work environments, consumption of unhealthy foods, alcohol or drugs, or constant thoughts that ‘I don’t deserve to be happy’.
“I’m not good enough so I need to do more and work harder.” This is a syndrome of our society that I see over and over again in my therapy work in cases like anxiety, depression and burn-out, and I know it all too well from my own life. It’s the idea that in order to be someone worthy (i.e. to be loved) I need to prove myself to you. I need to do more and more to gain recognition and praise. We push ourselves to cracking point as we seek love in vain from external sources. Self-worth can only come from within and requires a whole lot of self-compassion!
Step two: Compassion for others
Step two is not truly possible without progress on step one, because you will either simply use yourself up as you give, give, give like a martyr, or you will find it impossible to see beneath acts of aggression and violence.
Compassion is not the same as sympathy. Compassion does not mean accepting all acts and words. Compassion requires strong discernment – a judgement call in relation to our values. But proper discernment in turn requires compassion, in the first instance toward yourself. Only if I accept the ‘shadow side’ or aggression in myself, no matter what the level, start to seek out its root causes and learn to manage it, can I begin to have compassion for such tendencies in others.
So here are five tips for living with more compassion.
1. Speak to yourself like you would to your own child
As you reflect on the kind of things you tell yourself, and what you do, imagine you are speaking to your own child. Ok so sometimes we feel disappointed in ourselves or lacking self-confidence but what better way to react in these situations than with a good dose of self-compassion, understanding and encouragement? Every experience is a learning experience and an opportunity to grow.
2. Accept that you are human
Judith Hanson Lasater likes to say to herself in such situations, “oh how human of me…..” It is totally human to mess up, to be afraid and to feel anger, grief and despair. It’s ok not to know what to do with your life or how to deal with depression. It’s ok to reach out for help. How human of you! Perhaps by welcoming these feelings with much compassion, you can see deeper into their roots and start to move beyond them.
3. Relax and be kind to yourself everyday
Ok, so I made a mistake and I have done my best to fix the situation. Yes, I feel my fear and pain. Now I’m going to soak in a nice hot bath and pamper myself!! You cannot feel compassion, toward yourself or others, if you are stressed and anxious. Give yourself time every day to pause and just be. Try lying on the floor with a couple of pillows under your hips and your legs bent over the couch, cover yourself with a blanket and stay here for 15 minutes!
4. Accept that others are human
This is the ultimate black belt in compassion. It may not always be easy to accept others words and actions that caused harm. It can be hard to forgive. It may be impossible to fully understand someone’s act, as you do not have the same life experience as him or her. But perhaps, you can see the human-ness in that person, and underneath a masked exterior, the same desire we all have, to be loved. Feeling compassion for others cracks open the heart and allows us to let go of things that are weighing us down.
5.Offer out an act of compassion every day
How good does it feel when you give a stranger a compliment, or bring your partner breakfast in bed? Simple little acts of kindness go a long way in brightening someone’s day, as well as your own. Drop in on your elderly neighbour with a bunch of wild flowers. Stop to introduce yourself to a new colleague and ask how he is settling in. Offer to babysit for a friend who could do with some time off. Let someone know that you are sorry you hurt them. Offer out your compassion and it will come back to you ten times over!
As you practice these techniques of mindfulness and compassion in your daily life you will be amazed to feel how the world starts to just soften and brighten around you. Give it a try!!