Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Kindness and Compassion in today’s world…

What does it mean to be compassionate today? If you pay attention to the news or spend any time on social media can be difficult to find examples of kindness and compassion.  Negativity is so prevalent in social media, Brene Brown describes her experience in the book, Braving the Wilderness as:
 The way we engage in social media is like a fire. You can use the to keep yourself warm and nourished or you can burn down the barn. It all depends on your intentions, expectations, and reality check skills.
She points out that although there is opportunity to build community and connection, things can easily get out of control.  I see social media very similarly. I love going on social media to read articles and see updates and happenings from friends. The downside can be the negativity and trolling that happens so often online. The internet can be a place filled with angry rants, criticism and judgment. Like anything else, I chose not to let that be my focus. I don’t pay attention to the trolls and their negative comments. I recognize that none of it is really about me personally, but is much more of a reflection of them.  It is easier said than done and I recognize many people can be hurt by the negativity spewed at them from behind a keyboard or screen.

Connectivity to others and understanding that most of us are more alike than we are different is a key ingredient for compassion, yet polarization and separateness happen so easily when we communicate though electronic devices. What we would say to someone in person is far different from what we say in front of our keyboard or phone.

Living in a more connected and compassionate way creates what contemplative scientists call “compassion action.” It is about recognizing and empathizing with others as a driving force for happiness.  The concept of compassion action is not the automatic go-to response for so many of us. We are hard-wired to survive, which can mean we have learned to put up our defenses, thus the opposite of compassion. Professor and researcher Frans De Waal explores his the idea that compassion and morality pre-dates modern religion and societal “rules” as shown with his work with primates that people are pre-wired to be more compassionate and connected.  Society and our survival instinct have moved us away from that compassionate hard-wired thinking and reinforced separateness and negativity bias.

When we are on the defensive, we begin to dehumanize people by seeing them through a lens of “other” and ultimately lose that innate connection and compassion that is needed for happiness. Neuroscientists have shown that training in empathy and compassion can be reverse the learned negativity bias and increase our overall happiness and wellbeing.

An important part of cultivating compassion is not just about people around us, but also there is a need to increase our own practice of self-compassion. In the book Self-Compassion by Kristen Neff, she identifies three basic steps for practicing self-compassion, which I have paraphrased here:
  • Be mindful of your suffering.  Suffering is a part of life. In my words, recognize that “sometimes life sucks.”
  • We are part of a common humanity. Suffering is not personal. Know we are not alone. “De-shame” the negative parts of our life and know that we are connected to others through our common humanity and experiences.
  • Do what helps. Talk to yourself with a kind and compassionate voice. Identify what you would say to a friend or loved one and say those words to yourself. 

A quote from Dr. Neff sums up so beautifully why we often aren’t practicing self-compassion:
“I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.” 
That belief that we need to “keep ourselves in line” feels a lot like the need to be perfect or the need to always be “right.” That pull of right or wrong / black and white thinking is part of what polarizes people against each other. We believe that there is only one way to view a situation and we separate people that think differently into two sides of either “with me or against me.” 

This posturing and polarization strips the kindness and compassion from our day-to-day experiences.

An excellent tool for cultivating and increasing kindness and compassion is with loving-kindness meditation.

Another solution is to approach others with a sense of curiosity and less judgment. Recognize that as humans, we are more alike than we are different.

When faced with someone who thinks differently from you, seek to understand that person’s “why” instead of focusing on trying to convince him or her that your view is the right view. Enter into situations and discussions with other people with a goal of learning, not convincing. If we focus only on what we want others to know, we lose out on so many opportunities to grow.

It is possible for people to have very different views on one particular topic and agree on another. Understanding intent and accepting differences of opinion with the openness and curiosity to understand can bring more kindness, compassion and happiness into our every day.