A lot of times I feel like I want to emotionally disconnect from this world. Rush home after a long day at work, shut the door and soak in a bubble bath with my headphones on – inside my own little world, far away from everything and everyone.
But you can’t live like this you tell me, this world needs selfless and caring souls who can lead others to help heal and save our planet so that humanity doesn’t end up being remembered (or forgotten) as the doomed race who destroyed itself through their selfish acts.
This all sounds good in theory but I already have difficulty coping with my own hectic life (and emotions.) I love and care for my family and friends, I think that should suffice. Besides, at the end of most days I feel drained, only wishing for an escape from all the madness. How can I possibly develop the capacity to care about the suffering of some strangers?
To care for someone who is similar to us or gives us something in return doesn’t require much efforts. The challenge is to love someone who makes you want to run away. To forgive and love others who have betrayed us. To find the strength to reach out to people even in the midst of our storms, when we rather retreat and take care of our own needs instead.
True compassion is developed when we open our hearts and regain access to our empathetic abilities, to be able to feel what the other is feeling. Real love isn’t lazy, it’s characterized by our willingness to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. To see through their eyes when our first impulse may be to spit out our frustration at them or ignore them.
When we apply this greater understanding to our life, we are able to reflect this kind of love inside and outside of our home and truly change the world into a better place. Only then can we develop genuine love for each other that isn’t superficial and won’t evaporate as soon as frictions arise.
Life’s bitter experiences as well as our pursuit of happiness and material gains may have shrunk our sweet core to the size of a shriveled raisin. But compassion can be cultivated (psmag.com) and trained. It’s a practice. The more we practice, the more it will become part of who we are. Similarly, the less we water the seeds of altruism, the bitterer we become.
What are some ways we can expand our own empathetic potential and fully embody compassion?
1. Remember who you truly are, underneath the pride and pretenses
In the risk of sounding naive, I believe that all human beings are naturally sweet
Humans are social creatures by nature, we are hard wired to care and connect with each other.
“Over the last decade, neuroscientists have identified a 10-section “empathy circuit” in our brains which, if damaged, can curtail our ability to understand what other people are feeling. Evolutionary biologists like Frans de Waal have shown that we are social animals who have naturally evolved to care for each other, just like our primate cousins. And psychologists have revealed that we are primed for empathy by strong attachment relationships in the first two years of life.” (greatergood.berkeley.edu)
Everyone has this ability to feel empathy, as neuroscience shows, empathy is an important characteristic of the human brain. It’s what renders humans humane.
2. Let go of past hurts, it wasn’t personal
Once you accept that others couldn’t give you the love or compassion you really wanted because their heart at the time was not capable of it, you will also understand that they projected their inner conflict or suffering onto you. If you walk around with a backpack full of bricks, mad at the whole world, you won’t be able to strengthen your natural empathetic abilities.
Recall the times you treated someone unfairly. The negative you see in others also exist in you.
Similarly, turn down the volume of your negative inner voice and forgive yourself for past mistakes, they were meant to strengthen and guide you.
As you forgive yourself, you gain the ability to also forgive others, you become free of an enormous burden that weighs you down. Through forgiveness you make room for peace and love to enter in, which can only benefit you. Let it go, the choice is yours.
3. Master your emotions or they will end up controlling you
If we don’t learn to master our emotions they become a significant obstacle impeding our growth. Instead of reacting immediately to emotional triggers, take deep breaths until your heart rate returns to normal.
Know that negative emotions come and go. Don’t resist them, instead let them pass without blindly identifying with them or reacting to them. They will dissolve on their own. In hindsight you’ll be glad that you didn’t act on these feelings.
The expression blinding rage is accurate. Intense negative emotions prevent us from seeing things from an objective point of view, including our opponent’s perspective. Through the practice of mastering our emotions we discover that we are more than our anger, fear or pain.
We free our inner voice underneath our irrational thoughts. Seeing beyond our emotions, we can cut to the core of the issue. Our understanding blossoms, we tap into our empathetic awareness.
4. Remember how you’ve felt on your worst days?
Everyday, everywhere, you encounter people who feel much worst. A lot of times you wouldn’t even suspect that they do.
Most people are resilient, they rarely show their emotional or physical pain in public. Our capacity to feel hurt, sadness, loneliness and pain as well as joy and other positive feelings are our common bonds as human beings. People feeling tremendous sadness will likely choose to hide it from the world because they know that no one really cares or that they will be judged. By showing genuine kindness or interest towards them, we allow them to be seen and heard.
Through this empathetic bond, we can also remove our masks and reveal our feelings and experiences to another person in pain, creating a mutual understanding. This in turn will defuse our own feelings of loneliness, anger, and pain.
By choosing to focus on our similarities we create a deeper connection with others, can help them alleviate their pain, while bridging differences.
5. When we only care about our own little world, we lack an emotional connection to others
Living within the confines of ourselves, our problems are magnified. When we dedicate ourselves to help another person or simply lend a listening ear, our own preoccupations become less urgent. When I open my eyes to the world around me, gratitude springs up within me as I discover that my little problems are nothing compared to so many people on this planet.
6. Over the years, your ego has built up walls around your heart to protect you.
Those ice walls between yourself and others are no longer needed
To effectively manage the ego is an ongoing process. Recognize your fears or past hurts (writing them down helps) – what your ego is trying to protect you from.
Accept your own shadows and vulnerabilities. The ego can loosen its grip it has on you once you have accepted your imperfect and beautiful flawed self. Gradually let your protective walls around your heart melt.
Flip your painful experiences around and transform them into a positive testimony. You can help other learn from your new insights and may prevent them from going through what you’ve been through.
The pain you are trying so hard to run away from could be the catalyst for changing lives. By acknowledging your pain, you understand yourself better, and in turn develop compassion towards yourself and others.
If we reconnect with our true empathetic nature, we will be able to feel the suffering of others as if it were our own. In doing so, we will treat each other differently. Someone’s ethnic background, culture, or social status won’t hold much significance in our eyes; compassion will stem from a heart of understanding. The key to solving problems such as violence, inequality, abuse, and environmental destruction is to awaken our empathy already hard wired inside our brain.
In our own quest for happiness, we forget that other peoples’ wellbeing are an integral part of that happiness.
As the Dalai Lama observes, the world doesn’t need anymore successful people or new technologies. But people who are brave enough to embrace their vulnerabilities, who take active steps toward healing and recovering from their painful past, who choose to understand and forgive instead of hate. By reconnecting with our true authentic selves instead of wanting to polish our egos, we can reconnect with our empathetic abilities and heal our world. As we heal the world we also heal ourselves.
True compassion brings to an end the separation between ourselves and others. The day we stop caring about one another is the day we lose all trace of our humanity. A heartfelt gesture, whether big or small, has ripple, multiplying effects. Imagine the impact we can have if we all choose to be more compassionate and giving, starting in our own backyard.
I believe that recovering human empathy is the main solution to create a new earth as well as health and happiness for each individual. As we help others achieve happiness, we reap happiness for ourselves.