“If you want the others to be happy, you must practice compassion. If you want to be happy, you must practice compassion”, said the Dalai Lama. Practicing compassion is often the most direct path to emotional well-being. It helps us build more genuine relationships and connect on a deeper level with the others.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina also found that people who practiced compassion and classified themselves as “very happy” had lower levels of inflammation than those who simply acknowledged that they “had a good life.” Another study conducted at Brandeis University found that more compassionate people can cope better with stress and their body elicits a more attenuated inflammatory response. Therefore, compassion not only promotes well-being and happiness, but can also protect us from different diseases caused or aggravated by inflammation.
Unfortunately, in our daily lives we tend to feel more pity than compassion. How developing compassion demands that we abandon our egocentric perspective and put ourselves in the place of the other, without criticizing or judging, is a more difficult feeling to put into practice.
In Buddhist philosophy, however, compassion plays a leading role. It is known as karuṇā and involves combining empathy for the others with a deep desire to alleviate their pain or suffering. Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan teacher, has compiled different activities to work on compassion that can help us experience this beneficial feeling more often.
5 exercises to develop compassion
1. Open the spring of compassion
This exercise to develop compassion will help you connect with the source of love that exists within you. You will also understand that you have a boundless love that inspires gratitude and an even-minded, nonjudgmental compassion.
To apply this technique, all you have to do is go back to a moment in the past when someone gave you a show of love and affection that deeply moved you. Think of a person who has given you unconditional love or who has been so affectionate to you to leave a deep impression on you.
Remember the specific occasion in which he or she showed you his or her love. Let that feeling grow back inside you and fill you with gratitude. When you do it, it is normal for that feeling to be directed towards the person who evoked it. Allow that love and gratitude to open your inner floodgates and grow limitlessly.
Then direct that feeling to other people. You can start with the closest people who are in your circles of trust. Then you can extend that feeling to friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Lastly, extend it even to people you don’t like or create you problems. Do not think about it. Just let that feeling spread.
2. Find what makes you equal to the others
You cannot feel compassion if you raise barriers with the others by placing yourself on a higher level. Since developing compassion involves connecting with the others on an equal footing, you will need to drop your ego first. To achieve this, you must recognize what you have in common with the others.
The Dalai Lama gives us a hint: “All human beings are equal. We all want happiness and we want to avoid suffering. In addition, we all have the right to be happy. In other words, it is important to become aware of our equality”. Considering the others as equals will enrich your relationships and give them a new meaning.
This exercise to develop compassion consists in understanding that even that person who we find unpleasant or whose beliefs are diametrically opposed to ours, actually has the same longings and desire to be happy. Think of all that you have in common with the rest of humanity.
Pick a person you don’t like and acknowledge your commonalities. Repeat:
“Like me, that person is looking for happiness in his or her life”
“Like me, that person is trying to avoid suffering in his or her life”
“Like me, that person has felt sadness, loneliness and despair”
“Like me, that person is just trying to meet his or her needs”
“Like me, that person makes mistakes because he or she is learning”
3. Put yourself in the place of the others
Compassion arises from understanding and empathy. Therefore, practicing compassion implies being able to put ourselves in the place of the others. It is not simply a matter of understanding their situation from a rational point of view but of putting ourselves in their shoes.
When we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we shift the focus from ourselves to the other, which allows us to free ourselves from our self-centered vision and be compassionate. This activity to work on compassion consists of imagining the suffering of a person you have recently met.
Then imagine that it is you who is experiencing that pain.Think how much you would like that suffering to end. Ask yourself: How would I feel in his or her place? What would i think? How would I see the world?
Reflect on how happy you would be if that other person could stop suffering or solve the problem that worries him or her. Ask yourself how you could help him or her: How would I want the others to treat me? What do I would like the most? Reflect on the emotions you have experienced during the exercise.
4. Channel compassion through a friend
When we have a conflict with a person, it is difficult for us to experience compassion, even if that person is having a hard time. If we hold old grudges or feed hatred, it is difficult to find true compassion within ourselves. Also, sometimes we have a hard time showing self-empathy and feeling compassion for ourselves, so we end up blaming and recriminating ourselves.
In those cases, this exercise to develop compassion can help us. Imagine compassion as an energetic flow. Once you activate it, you can channel that flow to the person you want or to yourself. In fact, energizing the flow of compassion is an important skill, both in Buddhism and in compassion-centered therapy.
Imagine that the problem affects a dear friend, who is suffering from that painful situation. Your first reaction is likely to be to help and try to free him or her from that torment. Your heart will open and you will naturally experience compassion. Take that compassion and direct it to the person who needs your help or to yourself.
Think about how you would treat a friend who is going through a difficult time. Why treat yourself or someone else differently? Experience that desire to embrace the other through kindness and repeat:
“I wish you are well”
“I want you to free yourself from that suffering”
“I wish you are happy”
5. Practice compassion in your day to day
While pity is a fundamentally passive emotion, compassion is an active feeling. One activity to practice compassion is to go outside and become a witness to the world.
Practice mindfulness. Don’t judge or criticize what you see, just be present and acknowledge people who might need your help. Sogyal Rinpoche explained that “Life provides us every day with countless opportunities to open our hearts, it is only a matter of taking advantage of them.”
You may see an old woman barely carrying two very heavy shopping bags, a dog that has a hard time walking, or a sad and lonely person sitting on a bench.
These images can make compassion flare up naturally. But don’t be scared. Sometimes coming in contact with the pain or suffering of the others can generate a reaction of rejection because it makes you feel vulnerable. Restrain the urge to quickly return to your world, that place where everything is under control.
Instead, think about how you could help. Maybe you can help the old woman carry those heavy bags, pet the dog, or talk to the lonely person for a few minutes. Those little gestures are compassion in action. And when done from the heart, they can change a person’s life.
Rimpoché, S. (2015) El libro tibetano de la vida y de la muerte. Barcelona: Urano Ediciones.
Breines, J. G. et. Al. (2014) Self-compassion as a predictor of interleukin-6 response to acute psychosocial stress. Brain Behav Immun; 37: 109–114.
Fredrickson, B. L. et. Al. (2013) A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. PNAS; 110 (33) 13684-13689.