Our lives have certainly been transformed this past year, in ways no one would have imagined. While many are finding “COVID blessings” (e.g., discovering new hobbies), pandemic fatigue has set in and is affecting all of us. Most of us agree we are suffering from this collective sense of isolation, anxiety, and frustration.
Out of our deep desire to get our lives back, we may be quick to anger and judge the “other”: the neighbour who is still having people over; those who refuse to wear masks; the politicians not delivering the vaccines quickly enough.
Unfortunately, harsh words and criticism rarely change behaviour. And worse, negative emotions affect your own well-being. At the risk of sounding like a 1960s flower child, I have found that compassion and loving-kindness have profoundly improved my mental health and resilience in difficult times.
What is compassion? It is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved, even—and I would argue, especially—when that person is someone you do not like or whose actions may cause harm to others.
Compassion is not empathy or pity (though you need to feel empathy in order to be compassionate) and it is not about helping those less fortunate than us. At its core, it is the recognition of our shared common humanity and interconnectedness: we all know suffering, no one is perfect, we are not alone, and others’ well-being impacts our own well-being. Demonstrating compassion can be through a gesture (e.g., making someone a meal) but it can also be simply tuning into our desire to see someone’s suffering relieved.
Being compassionate does not mean you cannot get angry. Anger is a very human emotion and it needs to be released or it will fester. But how you deal with that anger is very much within your control.
Isn’t that mindfulness, you ask? Mindfulness is central to compassion, yes, but to be mindful is to be able to observe without judgement or value. Compassion is value-laden; it is driven by a desire for love, kindness, peace, and joy, for all beings.
This pandemic has been a harsh reminder that even more so than mindfulness, we need compassion—not just for others, but for our own well-being.
The benefits of compassion are not only seemingly endless, they have been scientifically proven. The more compassionate you are, the less stressed, lonely, and depressed you will feel. Compassion actually makes us more resilient and more optimistic, because we are focusing on the positive wish to end suffering. And yet, we keep hearing about the “compassion fatigue” experienced by frontline workers. Burn-out is a very real, serious issue, and one can certainly suffer from pathological altruism, but “compassion fatigue” is a misnomer.
In fact, the main beneficiary of your compassion is not the other, but actually yourself. You are not sacrificing your happiness for another. You are creating your happiness by giving it to others. You know that feeling when you spend your money to buy someone a gift? Compassion triggers all of the same happy hormones in your body.
So why is it so hard? Because we live in a society focused on autonomy, individualism, competition, controlling our self and our environment. Our innate nature as compassionate beings (also scientifically proven) is beaten out of us at a very young age. Still, we can recapture it if we intentionally cultivate it. But we need to set a clear intention. Like a muscle, our mind can be trained. We all want a return to normal, but let’s hope and strive instead for a “new normal”—a world with more compassion.
If you want to learn more, or are interested in flexing your compassion muscle (including learning the very important art of self-compassion!), here are a few suggestions:
Book: A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, by Thupten Jinpa
Book: Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Kristin Neff
YouTube video: 10% Happier: Interview with Thupten Jinpa
Short YouTube videos for the whole family by Happify (on meditation, mindfulness, empathy, and compassion)