zen habits : breathe

A Primer on Understanding & Compassion

By Leo Babauta

A reader wrote to me that he is frustrated with himself — he hasn’t been as compassionate to people as he’d like recently.

Lots of us experience this: we’re judgmental, quick to snap at people, getting frustrated with how other people act, judging people who have different beliefs than us.

The reader who wrote to me is actually aware of being judgmental — most of us don’t even realize when we’re doing it. We think we’re right to judge others, to be frustrated with them, to snap in anger.

This reader, in contrast, sees the less-than-friendly actions he takes and sees that they’re not aligned with the good person he wants to be, the compassionate person he is at heart. He sees the less friendly actions and wants to change them. That is worthy of celebration.

In this primer, I’d like to talk about how to be more understanding, and then how to be mindfully compassionate on an everyday basis. Of course, I am as guilty of being judgmental and less-than-compassionate as anyone else, so I don’t want to convey the impression that I’m above anyone. I’m not!

That said, I think this is important: when we are judgmental, it hurts our relationships with others, and makes us frustrated and unhappy. We can dissolve all of that, and be happier and more loving with other people and ourselves.

The Basics of Being Understanding

When we’re feeling frustrated with others, when we notice ourselves judging others … we can use this as a signpost that it’s time to try understanding them instead.

We judge people all the time:

We don’t recognize all of this as being judgmental, but it is. So when we’re doing it, let’s use it as a mindfulness bell.

Here’s what you can do when that mindfulness bell sounds:

  1. Seek to understand. Instead of having an instant opinion about someone, challenge yourself to be curious instead. See if you can try to understand the person rather than thinking they’re wrong. If we are judging someone, we’re not understanding them. We have a lack of knowledge that’s causing us to be judgmental.
  2. Ask how you can see the good-hearted explanation. Ask how you can explain the other person’s behavior in a good-hearted way. There’s an explanation that makes the other person seem inconsiderate, ignorant, wrong. And then there’s one that assumes the other person has good-hearted intentions. This isn’t always easy, but if someone is doing something irritating, we might assume they are just trying to be happy. When someone lashes out at you, they might be experiencing fear. We might assume this fear means they want to protect their tender hearts. There’s always a good-hearted way to explain an action, even one we might think of as evil. We don’t have to condone that action, but we can see the tender heart that lies beneath it.
  3. Remember what it’s like to go through that difficulty. We have all experienced fear, frustration, anxiety, uncertainty, wanting to go away from discomfort. If we see the good-hearted intention behind the action, we can see the difficulty they’re having that goes with that intention. And we can remember what it’s like to have a similar difficulty — remember the pain, fear, frustration, anger, grief that goes with that difficulty.

Once we start to understand the person and their actions, see the good heart behind the actions, empathize with their difficulty … we can start offering compassion.

A Simple Compassion Method

If you can empathize with the other person’s difficulties, then you can offer them compassion:

A good daily practice is compassion meditation. Try this for just a few minutes a day:

  1. Simply sit still and picture yourself in pain or stress (from your actions, or from other things). Feel it in your body.
  2. Wish yourself happiness. Wish for an end to your difficulties. Give yourself some love.
  3. Now repeat this with a loved one, picturing them in pain. Wish for an end to their difficulties, wish for their happiness, send them love.
  4. Repeat the process with a good friend, a colleague, a neighbor, and a stranger.
  5. Finally, picture everyone in the world, and wish for their happiness and an end to their difficulties.

This meditation can just take a few minutes a day. It helps cultivate compassion inside of us. When you see other people struggle, you’ll notice this more often, and wish for them to have an end to that struggle. It will take awhile, but if you do this daily (or as close as you can), I believe you’ll see a difference.

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