Living Well

Becoming More Compassionate

By Mary Ann DeSantis  |  Photography courtesy of Eartha Goodwin and Leo Babauta

   The spirit of the season doesn’t have to end with the holidays if we learn to practice compassion all year.

    Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could make the feelings of goodwill and cheerfulness in December last all year? Some are lucky if it even lasts through January.

    One place to start is within ourselves by becoming more compassionate. Compassion can be a powerful force whether it’s for strengthening our own personal relationships or building a stronger community – or even a better world.  Our society is more polarized and divisive than ever but hopefully the Christmas season will let us put aside our differences. We can only hope the goodwill we feel this month will continue throughout the new year.

    Developing compassion is not a new notion. Leaders throughout history have advised becoming more sensitive and caring of others. Greek philosopher Plato said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle,” while Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Theresa shared “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

More recently, best-selling author and popular blogger Leo Babauta has written about making life more meaningful by practicing compassion. Babauta has written extensively about ways to make compassion a daily habit. He also says it’s important to our own physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

“Scientific studies suggest there are physical benefits to practicing compassion — people who practice it produce 100 percent more DHEA, which is a hormone that counteracts the aging process, and 23 percent less cortisol, known as the stress hormone,” he says.

    He adds that there are other, more important benefits as well.

    “The main benefit is that it helps you to be happier, and brings others around you to be happier. If we agree that happiness is a common aim for each of us, then compassion is one of the main tools for achieving that happiness. It is therefore of utmost importance that we cultivate compassion in our lives and practice it every day,” he advises.

    The link between compassion and happiness is not a new concept. In his book, “The Art of Happiness,” the Dalai Lama says happiness and compassion are intertwined.

    “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion,” he advises.

    Defeat negative emotions by looking within yourself through meditation and quiet reflection. When we focus on inner love and peace, we reflect those back to those people around us.

    “Without love and compassion, humanity cannot survive… they are necessities not luxuries,” says the Tibetan monk who has guided world-renowned scientists in trying to help individuals achieve peace of mind.

    Why is it we become generous during the holidays, from food drives at Thanksgiving to collecting toys for underprivileged children at Christmas yet by July the food banks are empty and many children are home alone?

    Making a difference can happen when we stop being self-focused and reach out to others all year long. Maybe it’s something as simple as a hug when a friend is blue or offering a ride to someone who no longer drives.

    British anthologist Jane Goodall, who is in her mid-80s, has practiced and preached the importance of spreading kindness all her life, whether with her chimpanzees or with human beings. She launched an organization called Roots & Shoots to inspire young people to reach out and change the world with kind acts.

    “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make,” Goodall says.

    Author Babauta reminds us that we are all human beings who need the same things: food, shelter, and love. And we crave attention, recognition, affection, and mostly happiness.

    “Instead of recognizing the differences between yourself and others, try to recognize what you have in common,” he says. “Reflect on these commonalities you have with every other human being and ignore the differences.”

    Once you can empathize with other people and understand their humanity and suffering, the next step is to want them to be free from suffering. This is the heart of compassion, says Babauta.

    Develop the feeling that you want their suffering to end. Then, do something small each day to help others, even in a tiny way. A smile, a kind word, doing an errand or chore, or just talking about a problem with another person goes a long way to ease another’s suffering. Practice doing something kind every day – and long after the holidays have ended – to help ease the suffering of others.

    And perhaps, Mother Theresa summed it up best: compassion and peace begin with a smile.

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