Compassion is a central theme, and a cultivatable skill, in Buddhist psychology. To develop this skill, first we reflect on the suffering we have experienced and then notice the suffering of others. The next step is to make a connection between our painful experiences and theirs. When I hear of a child being abused, I can relate to this child’s suffering by recalling the pain I felt from years of neglect and abuse in my childhood. This leads to a prayerful wish, “May such pain not happen to anyone in the world. I wish that no child would ever be abused, based on my experience.”
Compassion starts with self-compassion. It is easy to fixate on our bad choices, on the mistakes we have made and unskillful things we have said. Buddhist psychology makes a distinction between remorse and guilt to aid in seeing ourselves compassionately.
Remorse is skillful: we recognise that we have said or done something that created harm and we experience the pain of that. If we forgive ourselves, then we have the energy and inspiration to not keep repeating the same mistakes. We need the courage to learn from our past and not live in it.
Guilt is unskillful: as it is associated with self-loathing. We ruminate onthe thing we have done, continually blaming ourselves, leading to disbelief that we can ever improve.
We are more than our bad behavior
Healing can be much more complete by remembering that our past actions are only a part of who we are and of who we might yet become. There is a contemplation practice focusing on the good we have done and the untapped potential for good that we can activate. We reflect on our skillful actions and the times we helped people instead of missing the opportunity to help. In this context, we can honestly and directly look at when we have not acted skillfully and move beyond them.
We often find it difficult to care for ourselves, in believing that we deserve to be happy and loved. Developing self-compassion builds the foundation for including others and finally everything into the circle of compassion.
Here are some ways of developing kindness towards ourselves, suggested by the beloved teacher Sharon Salzberg:
- Spend time reflecting on the good you have done or a good quality you have.
- Remember a time you made a mistake. What helped you learn to act differently? What qualities stifle the urge to change?
- If you feel anger, fear or similar emotions arising, and you label them as “bad” or “wrong”, purposefully translate that response to “painful” or “suffering”. See what changes.
- Reflect on what the middle way might look like for you in a particular relationship or challenge.
- Devote time each day for self-care. Perhaps 15 to 20 minutes doing something to be kind to yourself.
- Practice self-compassion meditation by repeating following phrases or others that you find meaningful:
May I live in safety.
May I have mental happiness, peace and joy.
May I have physical happiness, health and freedom from pain.
May I live with ease: may the elements of daily life, work, family go easily, not be a struggle.
Praying to be Kind by Danna Faulds
I used to think that
being smart, successful,
and accomplished was
the key. And then I
believed that being a
disciplined seeker would
open the doors to divinity.
Now it seems to me all
that really matters is
being kind – kind to my
stumbling, imperfect self,
kind to every other being
I meet along the way.
I pray for the rough edges
of my judgment to be
smoothed so what remains
is kindness and acceptance
of this unfolding moment.
Inside this kindness may I
find truth and may truth
illumine my way today.