Self-Less Series Part 2: Building Compassion

This is a series exploring the many benefits of being Self-Less.  In part one we saw that being compassionate does not fatigue us, but in fact it rejuvenates us, even when we are feeling low. In this second part of this series, we’ll explore a number of ways we can build this capacity for compassion.

So, a good place to start is why might we not feel inclined to be more compassionate and what can we do about it? Why, for example, might we ignore or resist the suggestion to operate more out of kindness each day even when we may know it is likely to make us happier and healthier?

Perhaps a major reason is that although we are hard-wired for compassion, we are also deeply hard-wired for self-interest.  Some people are more predisposed by personality, life experience and role-modelling towards compassion and, naturally enough, others are more predisposed, for the same reasons, to self-interest. 

But perhaps it is also the way compassion is perceived.  In the absence of a scientific understanding of how mutually beneficial compassion is, it may appear as yet another thing to add to my long list of what I should do. Perhaps the claims about compassion strike me as too touchy-feely to be true. Or is trying to be compassionate just plain inauthentic? Shouldn’t it just come naturally?

Whatever the complex of reasons, one thing has been clearly demonstrated: that we can build our capacity for compassion.  It is a muscle that can be strengthened.  And a muscle that can be weakened.  How do we know this?

It has been shown that after practicing Loving Kindness Meditation, people are not only able to perceive and feel the suffering of others, they are also able to cultivate positive emotions, which then serve as a buffer against empathic distress.  

So, there is not only activation of the regions of the brain that process empathetic pain and distress (specifically the anterior insula and anterior medial cingulate cortices) but there is increased activation in brain regions associated with positive emotion (such as the orbitofrontal cortex, ventral tegmental area, and the putamen).

Indeed, the brain scans of expert practitioners of Loving Kindness Meditation show that through repeated practice the compassion circuits and pathways become highly elaborated and available on demand, almost instantly. And these powerful feelings of compassion show very clearly, in real time, on their brain scans.

All of this points to the power of deliberate practice. Utilising neuroplasticity, no matter who we are, we can become more and more compassionate.  We can wire it in.  Once we understand the wisdom of developing our compassionate capacity, and we understand that practice instantiates that capacity, it then is a matter of intentionality.  Remembering to take as many opportunities as possible in daily life to ‘wire it in’.

Of course, one way to do this is the formal practice of loving kindness meditation – in which practitioners vividly imagine and feel the emotions that embody phrases such as:

May you have happiness.
May you be free from suffering.
May you experience joy and ease.

At first, these are typically directed at people we care for as this is easiest. Then one might progress to acquaintances, to people in general, to people we dislike, to ourselves, and perhaps to all living beings.

But there are many other less formal ways to build compassion.  By being altruistic and taking prosocial action we flood our system with oxytocin, dopamine and certain opioids that together activate our parasympathetic system and thereby generate the positive emotions typical of compassion – as well as calming our mind and body.

So literally every day, with every person we encounter, we have opportunities for this practice.  We can, for example remember to avoid being judgmental and righteous (which produce negative emotions in us) and instead can understand that others are just like us, finding life difficult, making mistakes, suffering.   

We can recall, and even write down memories of, people we have warm and compassionate feelings for.  We can experience what Buddhists call sympathetic joy as we recall our pleasure at their pleasure. This is an antidote to the polarised anger and righteousness so characteristic of our times.  

Remember, our experience is determined by what we pay attention to and the manner of that attention. So, by intentionally imagining people’s happiness, safety and success we can experience their joy, their peace and their satisfaction. 

An exercise I often give to people is to try to give each person they meet what I call the ‘3 experiences’: the experience of being heard, understood and accepted. This type of generous listening is enabled in the listener by compassion if they really desire the wellbeing of the other person.

Why is this so helpful? Because the other person, in turn, relaxes and brings forth their better nature.  So, it is a genuine win-win, and we increase the number of positive relationships and interactions we have in our daily life.

A word of encouragement: developing the capacity for compassion is gradual.  It is an emergent quality characterised by a growing wisdom that enables us to cultivate more and more win-wins in everyday life.  Wisdom is inherent in non-zero-sum relationships.  By contrast, zero-sum relations pit person against person.  There’s always a winner and a loser.  There is always tension for both sides of this equation. But in compassionate dealings with each other lies the evolutionary wisdom of the species, the very secret of our success and our hope for the future. 

And one more thing, this series is about gradually becoming more self-less, more ego-less.  Ultimately, the goal is a radical decentring in which self-concern is extinguished through this practice of setting aside our self-focus in favour of openness.  And ironically, it is to this dropping of self-focus that we turn in part three of this series, when we explore the development of self-compassion.