"There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain. Georges Braque, French artist
Night before last John and I attended an art event where we saw people we had not seen in a long time. Inevitably someone would ask, “What have you been up to?”
We mentioned the grandchildren. Then paused. I realized that I did not know how to talk about our involvement with the art of practicing compassion.
We’d say something like, “We are into compassion.” Baffled faces looked back at us.
I imagined what they must be thinking. “They joined a cult.” Or perhaps they were just mystified, “Say, what?”
The shortest (though non sequitur sort of) response I had was to blurt out, "If you want to be happy, practice compassion. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion” (quoting the Dalai Lama which probably further sealed their inclination that we were had become some sort of weird religious fanatics).
With one person, John briefly shared that after he retired, we attended a workshop which got us interested in the practice of compassion (more evidence we had drunk some wonky Kool-aid?). There’s a bit of truth there in that we did over time become fully mesmerized by the power and beauty of the artful practice of compassion (also true that all eight of the major world religions are foundationally steeped in compassion stories and sayings. We sensed its importance early on, we just did not know how to "love our enemies").
When people hear the word “compassion,” they probably think about pity or feeling terribly sorry for someone in pain or a tragedy of some sort. They cannot imagine why anyone would want to fool around with that.
Let me first explain that I had been studying research and various interventions aimed at helping people live a good life for years. Though you don’t hear much about it, the practice of compassion has tremendous benefits. If I could only journey on one path to the good life, it would be to follow the way of compassion.
The power of compassion. Compassion promotes social connections which is highly related to strong friendships and family relationships (which are significantly related to well-being). Compassion is, in fact, related to increased happiness. Compassion is related to higher levels of wellness in general – higher patient survival rates and improved health. Compassion is related to less aggression and violence, to more self-control.
Compassion is related to better learning and increased classroom cooperation. Compassion is linked to increased work satisfaction. Compassion is linked to positive aging. Less psychopathology in general. Compassion is linked to wisdom and buffers negative impact of stress. Compassion is linked to resilience. I will stop there for now.
Seemingly much of the positive health related benefits come from the fact that compassion (which also incorporates mindfulness) activates the parasympathetic nervous system, induces the relaxation response (lowering heart rates, blood pressure, oxygen consumption and alleviates symptoms related to hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, depression, cancer, anxiety, even aging and can even lead to genomic change and induce anti-inflammatory processes).
The relaxation response lowers the threat – fight or flight response (John always sticks up for the fight-or-flight response. It can indeed be helpful for quick bursts of needed adrenaline and cortisol when in actual life-threatening situations. It's a helpful response in the right situation. However, most of us aren’t getting chased by tigers yet our systems are on alert much of the time, not healthy).
The artful practice of compassion. So, what is compassion and how do you practice it? The good news is that we already have the hard wiring for compassion (but it can get blocked by fears...like people will take advantage of me - it's too soft, obstacles like negative judgments, money or lots of resources can be a hindrance). The other good news is that we can learn to practice (it is a practice) compassion more artfully.
People generally define compassion as a sensitivity to suffering and taking action to alleviate the suffering. Some (like us) add that compassion also involves a desire to prevent suffering and/or promote flourishing in others as well as in ourselves.
Some of the compassion-related approaches we have found useful as we experiment with our practice are things like cultivating warm-hearted intentions toward others. Taking opportunities to connect, to smile, to engage with, to be curious about others. Learning to mentally notice our emotions, thoughts, and needs (be self-aware, mindful).
Other helpful ideas are understanding that we, as well as others, are human – learning what it means to be human and being kind to ourselves. Catching ourselves when we are being driven by impulses that might not be congruent with our values nor in our best long-term interests nor contribute to the well-being of others (then figuring out what we need to do to get back in a good place). Taking care of ourselves (getting out in nature, exercising, sleeping well, eating healthy food – doing activities that are pleasurable and renewing, setting boundaries). Whew, that's a lot to take in all at once.
Our struggles and sometimes our growth with building expertise, artfulness, is what I have been sharing in my blogs (which I hope to turn into a book...and hope you will help by sharing with me your stories, struggles, and insights). It seems to me that every aspect of my life is touched by figuring out how to better artfully practice compassion with myself or someone else.
As I have mentioned, John and I started a little compassion group some years ago. We meet weekly via zoom. We share our stories, struggles, insights (look on our resource pages for guidance on how to start your own compassion circle). We have often said to each other, practicing compassion is a way of life.
You may see why it is so hard for me to explain what we’re up to. Occasionally, John and I have said to each other, let's not even use the word "compassion" because it seems to throw people. That's when we start talking more about "journeying to the good life."
Next time someone asks me what we’re up to maybe I’ll say we are pilgrims on a journey to the good life… following the way of compassion. Nah, that’s not going to work as an elevator speech either. Too woo-woo for one thing. How about we're trying to change the world beginning with ourselves? It is true even if grandiose.
We usually end our compassion circle meetings with "Let there be peace and joy and love and compassion and hope...[and then state all our other longings for a good world], and let it begin with us, right here in the compassion capitol of the world, Cashmere, Washington." Then we all laugh and sign off.
(And maybe it's not totally crazy. One of our friends told us we should put a placard up at our house because we were the second place in the state, no, world [a bit of hyperbole], to create a pickleball ["pickleball, did you say, pickleball''] court on our driveway...now it's not only the the state game by governor's proclamation, but we've even played it in Mexico when we visit there. The world has gone crazy for it https://www.cbsnews.com/newyork/news/pickleball/. If pickleball can get around the world despite its moniker in my lifetime, why not compassion? Millions are already on it.)
Maybe I’ll say…oh, shoot. I still don’t know. Maybe by the time I finish the book, I’ll have a succinct, simple response to what we're up to.
In the meantime, how might we continue the compassion work, journey to the good life, even without a simple response as to what we're up to?