zen habits : breathe

A Guide to Practical Compassion

By Leo Babauta

If I’ve found two guiding principles in my life, they are contentment and compassion.

With these two ideas, life becomes better.

Contentment makes every moment better. And compassion makes your connection with others better.

What Compassion Is, & Some Difficulties

Let’s talk about compassion for a few minutes, because as important as it is, very few people talk about how to actually do it.

First a definition: the simple definition of compassion is feeling and understanding the pain of others, and then wanting to reduce that suffering.

In practice, it’s a lot harder. How do you understand the pain of others? If I see anything about you, it’s based on very limited information, just what you’ve shown me — and often, based on very limited interactions. So I have to project a story that I make up about you, and the truth is, it’s probably wrong. But sometimes that’s all we have to work with, and then gain more information once we’ve started to apply it.

If you have a large group of people — me trying to find compassion for all of you, for example — that can be very difficult. How do I find empathy with thousands of people? It’s almost impossible. So you see that applied compassion can become a complex thing. Much more easily applied on an individual basis.

The Only Way to Actually Do Compassion

Let’s say you want to ease someone’s suffering, how do you do that? That’s not something you can just make happen. People aren’t just objects you can act on. Sometimes you want people to let you solve their problems, but they’d rather have control over their own lives (imagine that!).

A better way is to show them the tools that you’ve used to ease your own suffering, and let them know you’ll help them if they want help using those tools.

To practice compassionate actions, you start with yourself. A lot of people see suffering in the world and feel bad about it, but they don’t know how to take action. The best way to take action is to take action with yourself. The only person you can control with any degree of success is yourself.

There is actually immense suffering within ourselves, and we can start to ease that, and when we do, we then now have a model for applying that to others. To one other person, to a thousand, or to the world.

Your self-compassion becomes a model for everybody else. If I can be compassionate with myself, then I know how I did it. I can tell others the amazing results, and how they can do it too. Then you have a model that can be replicated, and they can apply that to themselves, and then you have compassion being made on a large scale, just by starting with yourself.

Will the same method that worked for me work for everyone else? No, but it’ll work for some people, who can replicate it and then they can show their way to others, try each other’s methods, and create new methods to try with others. Kind of an open-source compassion network.

I think that’s the only way to do it. For instance, here on Zen Habits, I constantly try to help people change habits, get out of debt, or realize that there’s awesomeness within themselves. But I start with me and show how I did it, then show how you can replicate it within your own lives.

Acting to Ease Others’ Suffering

I can also act in ways that I believe are compassionate to the people right in front of me, and you might think, “Isn’t that compassion for others?” But really, it’s compassion for myself in another form. It’s another self-compassion method.

Imagine the pain you feel when you see someone else suffering — the suffering you feel is real suffering, just as the other person is suffering. Yet, most people don’t actually ease that suffering in themselves. So, how do you ease that suffering in yourself when you see someone else suffering?

You reach out, empathize, make a connection, and look for a way to reduce the other person’s suffering, and your own. If the other person opens up, that’s great. If not, that’s OK, because you’ve reached out and let them know that you too suffer when you see them suffer. That’s a powerful thing.

And so your ease your own suffering, and it’s a selfish sort of compassion. But that’s the only kind there is.

The Practical Steps

So compiling all of the above into some practical steps, here’s how to do compassion:

  1. Be aware of your own suffering. Be willing to face, and accept, the suffering you do on a daily basis. This includes stress, doubt, fear, anger, frustration, disappointment. Watch it happen, and be OK with the sensation. Don’t run from it.
  2. Ease your own suffering. Learn the cause of your suffering. The cause is the ideal you’re holding onto in your mind — how other people should act, how your life should be, how you should be better, how things will turn out, how people will think of you, etc. Let go of this ideal, and you’ll suffer less.
  3. See the suffering of others. Pay attention to the other people in your life, strangers you pass. Notice the signs of their pain, empathize with this pain, understand them because you’ve experienced it too.
  4. Reach out to them, and connect. Ease your own suffering (that comes from seeing their suffering) by reaching out and making a connection. Smile, be open to who they are, let go of your expectations of that person, and just connect.
  5. Share your suffering, and your method. Share ways that you’ve suffered that the other person might relate to, and this in itself will be helpful, because then you share suffering. Then share how you solved it, and that method can then be useful to the other person, if they decide to try it (it’s their choice). Don’t be preachy, just share what worked.
  6. Learn from the methods of others. Just as you share with others your method of easing your suffering, there’s much to be learned from others. If others have solved a problem that’s causing you some suffering, learn how they did it. By sharing with and learning from each other, we can all get better at our methods of compassion.

This is a simple method that I share with you, but it works wonderfully for me. I hope it helps.



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