Compassion for All
Author: Heather Stang
If grief is the cold, dark winter, then compassion is the spring. Out of the pain of loss comes the recognition that we are all in this together, and we need each other to make it from one season to the next.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of compassion within the TAPS family. Strangers who have never met connect with one another wholeheartedly. United in the shared human experience of profound loss, we offer each other kind words, big hugs and an unconditional acceptance for any and all emotions that show up.
Compassion for others can help us build compassion for ourselves, which is an equally important mindset. When we practice compassion for all beings, including ourselves, we are not only more resilient during tough times—we are healthier, too.
Benefits of compassion
Biologically, compassion begins as a stress response. We witness someone suffering, and our fight, flight, freeze alarm gets triggered. We can either lean into the experience or turn away.
When we feel afraid or powerless, we tend to turn away. Maybe we are reminded of our own vulnerability in another’s pain. Or we can’t do anything to fix it. We witness large-scale suffering on television. We see a couple having a heated argument in the grocery store. Or we wake up at 5 a.m. to first responders bravely battling a house fire across the street.
Even when your intervention would be inappropriate, you can lean into the experience with your heart. You can pray. You can imagine sending well wishes. You can watch how your own body responds to suffering and acknowledge your shared humanness with the other person. No matter how different, we all experience joys and sorrows.
When we do choose to tend to someone else’s suffering, be it in thought, word or deed, our negative stress reaction is transformed into the more positive “tend and befriend” response. You are probably quite familiar with what that response feels like. Just remember the last time you helped a friend in need.
As you engage in compassion, you not only benefit the person you are helping, you benefit yourself as well. In her book “The Science of Compassion: A Modern Approach for Cultivating Empathy, Love and Connection,” researcher Kelly McGonigal surveys the many ways compassion impacts our physical and mental health, from increased immune functioning to a decrease in depression, anxiety and fear.
Of course, we don’t choose to be kind to others because it decreases our chances of catching a cold. We do it because it is our heart's longing.
Core components of self-compassion
According to Kristen Neff, researcher and author of the book, “Self-Compassion: the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,” self-compassion has three core components: self-kindness, a sense of common humanity and mindfulness.
A little self-kindness can go a long way in grief. As much as you may like to rely on friends for support, your grief is also unique to you.
Self-kindness means you treat yourself as you would a beloved friend. Take time to comfort your own suffering rather than deny it through self-criticism and shame.
This is not self-indulgence. Self-kindness does not encourage bad behavior in the name of temporary relief—it’s more permanent. As Neff explains, “[Compassion’s] driving force is love not fear. Unlike self-criticism, which asks if you’re good enough, self-compassion asks what’s good for you?”
One of the key differences between self-pity and self-compassion is the acknowledgement that suffering is a common human experience. Self-compassion is uniting rather than divisive. This is why it is so easy to give and receive comfort to our extended TAPS family. We know we are on this journey together.
In the Mindfulness and Grief groups I facilitate, I incorporate the practice of Tonglen, which means sending and receiving. You can try this yourself at home, even if you aren’t in a group. Imagine all the people in the world who are feeling what you are feeling.
Place your hand over your heart. As you inhale, say to yourself “May I be free from this suffering.” As you exhale, say to all beings who are grieving, “May we all be free from this suffering.”
Credited with bringing mindfulness to the American mainstream, Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to maintain a calm and balanced mind no matter what the situation. We have a better chance of reducing suffering when we act based on fact rather than habit. Mindfulness gives us a moment to pause before lashing out in self-condemnation. It gives us the space to remember that we too are worthy of compassion.
Take a moment to pay attention to the part of you that is awake and aware in this moment. Feel your breath rise and fall in your body. No need to analyze or interpret your experience, just check in with yourself.
Benefits of self-compassion
Self-criticism can act as a form of protection. For instance, many of us can admit to thinking, “If I criticize myself before you do, it might feel less painful. If I am self-deprecating in front of someone I see as superior, they may not perceive me as a threat.” These are very real reasons why we are hard on ourselves.
But there are even more reasons to be kind to yourself. People who are self-compassionate are less anxious and depressed, experience fewer negative emotions and have less resistance to suffering. They also experience higher levels of emotional intelligence and have stronger emotional coping skills. Self-compassion has even been shown to reduce avoidance behavior in people with posttraumatic stress.
While it is important to practice self-compassion because you want to be kind to yourself, it is worth noting that people who are self-compassionate are much easier to be around then those who are hard on themselves. It is also worth observing that those of us who are self-compassionate do not see ourselves as superior to others. Instead, we see ourselves equal to others. Each one of us is worthy of love, kindness and compassion.
Loving Kindness Meditation:
Sending And Receiving Well Wishes
The formal practice of loving kindness meditation—also known as Metta meditation—involves sending a short verse in six directions as you visualize a particular being: yourself, a beloved being, a friend or family member, a neutral person, a difficult person and ending with all sentient beings. You can craft your own verse, or use the one below:
May you be happy, as I wish to be happy.
May you know peace, as I wish to know peace.
May you be free from suffering, as I wish to be free from suffering.
The informal practice of loving kindness meditation can be as simple as looking someone in the eye during conversation and silently wishing them “may you be happy.” You never need to let them know!
Stream or download this free guided meditation at mindfulnessandgrief.com/compassion-meditation.
Compassion Meditation Tips
- This practice is not about forcing yourself to feel a particular way, or condoning harmful behavior by another. Instead, it starts a conversation by allowing you to explore how you do feel.
- For the “difficult” person, start with someone who is a little challenging to be around. If you find you’re having a hard time sending this person well wishes, either send the well wishes to yourself, or choose a less challenging person.
From the pen of...
Heather Stang is the author of "Mindfulness & Grief: With Guided Meditations To Calm Your Mind & Restore Your Spirit." Her focus on teaching others to use mindfulness-based techniques to cope with grief and cultivate post-traumatic growth is inspired by her own journey of love, loss and post-traumatic growth. She is the founder of the Frederick Meditation Center in Maryland, where she leads mindfulness meditation groups and private Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy sessions. Her articles, blogs and free guided meditations can be found at MindfulnessAndGrief.com and on Twitter under the handle @HeatherStangMA.