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We all felt the tug at our hearts when we heard the news of Hurricane Harvey. Thousands having to flee their homes and seek shelter somewhere else. Our first reaction might be of deep sadness for the victims. After the initial sadness, we might experience other feelings such as the relief of I’m so glad it wasn’t me or my family. This feeling illustrates how hard it is to really sit in someone else’s suffering for more than a minute.

Sympathy is feeling “for” someone and compassion is feeling “with” someone

Our discomfort with suffering urges us to exit our feelings of compassion and take a sigh of relief that it wasn’t us. Compassion springs from a feeling of what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes. It arises naturally when we feel ourselves in connection with the other. When we sharpen our ability to stay with someone else’s experience and really soak in what it must feel like to be in their life, something magical emerges. We let down our guard and join another person’s reality. We feel a connection.

Sympathy Vs. Compassion

When hearing about someone else’s pain or suffering, we may immediately feel sympathy and want to help. But sympathy is different from compassion. Sympathy is feeling “for” someone and compassion is feeling “with” someone. Sympathy can inspire us to help others, but it may not teach us how to truly listen and hold space for the suffering of others. In order to hold space for another, we must first learn how to rest in our own suffering and discomfort. This takes practice and patience.

How to Rest in Your Discomfort

Meditation teaches us this skill. It is the practice of learning to sit with ourselves. It teaches us to be mindful in each moment and to observe the ways we try to exit staying in the present moment. When thoughts and feelings arise, we stay still and observe our own reactions and feelings without judging or labeling. We let ourselves witness without getting lost in the storyline. We keep returning to the moment over and over again. Overtime we train our minds and hearts to be still and open to whatever arises. This way we build our sense of tolerance.

Tolerance Fuels Compassion

It is tolerance that fuels compassion. When we practice tolerance, even in the darkest times, it leads to compassion, and ultimately compassion leads us to love. Love is what heals us. It heals our hearts and it heals our communities. This is something that Dr. Dean Ornish, the founder of Ornish Lifestyle Medicine says over and over again. “Love heals.” This is why Ornish Lifestyle Medicine teaches compassionate listening and meditation. These two practices support each other and lead us in the direction of love.

Two Practices to Inspire Compassion

Meditation Practice

  • Sit quietly and comfortably.
  • Close your eyes and let your attention move inward.
  • Begin to follow your breath as it comes in through your nose and as it leaves through your nose.
  • Relax your body and relax your effort.
  • Send your breath to any areas that may feel tense or resistant.
  • Let breath pass in around and through these areas as if to unwind them.
  • Now let your attention rest in your heart.
  • Breathe as if your heart were breathing in and breathe as if your heart were breathing out.
  • Let you mind and awareness rest on the breath in your heart.
  • If the mind wanders, gently return your attention to the breath in your heart.
  • Sit quietly for several minutes.
  • Before coming out begin to extend your awareness to the hearts of others.
  • Imagine your connection to everyone breathing and living as if all hearts were connected and breathing as one heart.
  • Slowly open your eyes and take this feeling of connection and oneness with you.

Compassion Practice

  • Lie down in a comfortable position.
  • Let your whole body relax.
  • Imagine your whole body breathing in and your whole body breathing out.
  • Begin to imagine someone you love and hold them in your heart and imagine what it must be like to be in their life and to live in their circumstances.
  • Begin to send them understanding, compassion and love. Hold them in your heart for several breaths and let their image dissolve into your heart.
  • Repeat this practice with someone you are neutral about. A person you may not have strong feelings for either way.
  • Repeat this now with some you have a small misunderstanding with. Someone you normally feel is a friend or you appreciate them but you may have things that you differ on.
  • Lastly repeat this with yourself. Holding yourself in your own heart. Going through these steps with yourself.
  • Let yourself linger in these feelings of love for yourself before coming out of the practice.

When you practice regularly, you will begin to transform your relationships with yourself and others. They will build tolerance, compassion and love. What better way to mend your own heart while healing your community.

Could you begin to mend the relationships with people who you struggle with by practicing compassion?

Contributed by

Susi Amendola
Stress Management Specialist

What have you done to remind yourself of the things that have meaning for you?

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