RICHARD CHAMBERS: One of the things that mindfulness helps us to do is to cultivate compassion, both for ourselves and for others. When we’re rushing around in our lives, busy and reacting to things, it’s very hard to even notice that other people are experiencing difficulties or suffering, let alone to stop and actually care about that. But when we start to practise mindfulness, we notice that a little bit more. And a lot of people find that they naturally become more compassionate. Quite often, it begins with self-compassion. So we might just start to notice our own stress and difficulties and suffering a little bit more, and bring an attitude of self-compassion to ourselves.
Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff talks about self-compassion having three main components– mindfulness, the ability to be present and to notice; self-kindness, the ability to be kind to ourselves when things are hard, rather than self-critical; and common humanity, recognising that the suffering and the setbacks and the difficulties that we experience is just part of being human and something that everybody experiences from time to time. And it naturally starts to ripple out and affect how we interact with and respond to other people, so we naturally become more compassionate towards others.
There’s some very interesting research that’s found that when we empathise with somebody, it actually activates the same parts of our brain as is active in the person who might be experiencing that suffering or distress. And so, when we get this– what’s called empathic resonance– happening, if we do that over a long period of time, we can actually start to experience that distress ourselves, as if it’s happening to us. And it can even lead to burn out. And so what actually has been called compassion fatigue is actually empathy fatigue, and we can definitely empathise too much.
But with compassion, what we do is we bring in this extra step, this very important step of wanting to reduce the suffering in the other person. Maybe it’s just making a wish that they no longer be suffering, or perhaps there’s something that we could say or do that’s compassionate that might help them. You know, for instance, if one of our neighbours is unwell, and we just lie in bed every night thinking about how they’re sick, and starting to feel really sad and distressed about that, that’s not going to be very helpful for us. You know, we don’t want to disconnect from that. We don’t want to say, whatever, I don’t care about them.
With mindfulness, we can very much empathise, but without getting caught up in their suffering. And then we can bring in that step of maybe just sending them kind wishes every night, or maybe we go and knock on their door and ask them if they need anything from us. And that’s really what compassion is all about. Of course, it’s relatively easy to be compassionate when it’s somebody else who’s suffering, you know, maybe watching the news or thinking about our neighbour. It’s a little bit hardest though when it’s somebody who’s doing something to us, maybe we’ve got some conflict with them or they’re being difficult towards us.
Because in those situations, we tend to react with defensiveness and maybe throw the anger or the blame back on them. But with mindfulness, what we can do is we can start to notice that tendency to react in that aggressive or reactive kind of way, and just to calm ourselves down. And then, if we can see the situation a little bit more clearly, we might even recognise something very important. And that is, if people are happy, they tend to be really easy to be around. And when people are difficult, they tend to be pretty unhappy. You know, maybe caught up in their own reactivity.
Maybe they are caught up in some stress response, or they’re just lost in their thoughts and judgments and reactions. And so when we recognise that, we can at least not take it so personally, and we might even realise that the most useful thing that we could do would be to bring some element of compassion to them. You know, it might be asking them, hey, what’s going on? Are you OK? It might be establishing a boundary. You know, we don’t want to let people abuse us or enable bad behaviour. So we might just say, look, that’s not OK with me. But we can do that in a way that’s not reactive.
So rather than getting angry at them, we can just be very assertive and clear about our boundaries and about what our needs are. And so while it might seem a little unusual or even strange, it actually makes sense when people are difficult to wish for them to be happy, or at least not to be suffering. Because if they weren’t suffering, if they weren’t caught up in those reactions or weren’t unhappy, they’d probably be a little bit easier to be around. But it can also sometimes have a very positive effect on other people. Perhaps next time we talk to them, we’re just that little bit less reactive.
Perhaps we’re not expecting them to be a pain in the neck, but we’re open to the idea that maybe they’re suffering, and they need something, or even just that they could be different to how we usually expect them to be.