I have a good friend who looks at me like I’m crazy whenever I talk about loving everyone. “Are you kidding me?” she asks. “Love everybody? I have enough trouble loving the people I already love! And now I’m supposed to love people I don’t care about, not to mention people who do terrible things?”
I get her point. We live in a world punctuated by horrifying acts of violence, in which entire groups of people are marginalized by virtue of race, class, religion, nationality, sexual preference, and gender identity. How is it even possible to imagine loving them all? And what about the truly difficult people in our daily lives—the colleague who takes credit for our ideas, the spendthrift relative who’s always asking for a loan, the neighbor who cut down our tree. Not to mention the random thorns in our side who spike our blood pressure and pull into parking places that should have been ours. There are days when we can feel good simply about staying calm.
Jacqueline Novogratz, bestselling author of The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, recounts how the story of her beloved blue sweater, given to her by an uncle when she was a little girl, inspired her to start Acumen, a nonprofit social venture fund that addresses global poverty. One day while jogging in Kigali, Rwanda, Novogratz spotted a small boy wearing the blue sweater—still bearing her name tag—that she’d donated to her local Goodwill a decade earlier, more than five thousand miles away. “I’ve held that story as a metaphor for how interconnected we are, how our action and our inaction can impact people we might never know and never meet, every day of our lives, all around the world,” she says.
There’s no denying that it takes effort to set the intention to see our fundamental connectedness with others. In a certain sense, the path of least resistance in life is survival, getting by—doing the least to complete what’s necessary to put food on the table and stay safe. If we stretch ourselves to open our minds, to see our shared humanity with others, we allow ourselves to see the existence of community and generosity in unexpected places. We just need to challenge ourselves to opt for the path that may take a little more effort but actually helps us let go of our conditioned resistances.
Yet it’s also true that we miss a lot when we push for unity at the expense of understanding the differences in context, experience, hopes, and fears we each may have. It’s all too easy to slip into a “we’re all alike at the core, so we should all get along” kind of statement. It’s not real love if we don’t also honor our differences—as long-term couples and friends find out, and as communities and workplaces also find out.
Just think about what it’s been like when you are in a place—a group, an event, a training session—where you have the feeling “I belong here,” in contrast to what it’s like when you are in a place where you sense you don’t belong: the uneasiness, the uncertainty about social cues, the dread of inevitable humiliation.
What about being in an environment where you’ve been told outright you don’t belong? Then your anxiety wouldn’t seem so much about the fight-or-flight syndrome built into your biology from long, long ago; it would feel (and in fact be) awfully current.
So the question arises: along with our oneness, can we also recognize the vast relativity of experience—and make room for it? The combination of realizing our distinctiveness along with our unity is seeing interdependence.
Today, with unprecedented threats to our planet and divisions among people, awareness of our interdependence is no longer optional. It’s critical that we widen our attention to include those we encounter as we go about our daily lives, including our dry cleaner and the stranger sitting next to us on the subway. We extend our sense of inclusion even further to people we may have disagreements with, people whose actions we disapprove of, even those who may have harmed us or those we care for. We don’t have to like what they’ve done, and we might take very strong action to try to prevent their doing it ever again, but as our experiences of the universality of suffering grows, our sense of interconnectedness deepens, and we begin to wish others could be free in a new way—in spite of their actions, beliefs, or their positions in the world.
Getting to Compassion
As modern neuroscience has discovered, we’re wired for empathy. We literally have brain circuits focused on “feeling with” others. “It’s a genetic imperative for us to care,” says James Doty, MD, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University. It’s essential to the survival and flourishing of our species. But the neural circuits related to empathy aren’t always activated, especially when we’re feeling anxious or stressed. And at other times, we may feel so much empathy for another’s pain that we lose our own sense of equilibrium.
In 2004, neuroscientist Tania Singer and her colleagues published an important paper showing that pain-sensitive regions in the brain get activated when we empathize with someone else’s pain. In other words, when we say, “I feel your pain,” we’re voicing the literal truth. But this is not always a good thing.
Singer, who is director of the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, now calls empathy a “precursor to compassion,” but notes that too much of it can have negative consequences. In an interview with the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, she explained, “When I empathize with the suffering of others, I feel the pain of others; I am suffering myself. This can become so intense that it produces empathic distress in me and in the long run could lead to burnout and withdrawal. In contrast, if we feel compassion for someone else’s suffering, we do not necessarily feel their pain, but we feel concern—a feeling of love and warmth—and we can develop a strong motivation to help the other.”
What’s more, Singer said, even the neural networks underlying empathy and compassion are different; the former increases painful emotions, while the latter is associated with positive feelings.
These findings have a lot of implications for burnout, a distinct kind of exhaustion often characterized by loss of motivation, stress, anger, depression, and dissatisfaction. As a meditation teacher, I often lead retreats for caregivers—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, spouses, nurses, doctors and hospice workers, therapists, chaplains, and many more. People in positions or professions of caregiving can be particularly vulnerable to burnout, as they tend to empathize with and take care of others without necessarily refilling their well through self-care.
Ellen, who works at a school for students diagnosed with mental illnesses—spanning mild anxiety to severe schizophrenia—is prone to burnout at her job. “I am often in a classroom full of emotional expressions, including anger, anxiety, muteness, screaming, throwing chairs, tuning out with an iPod, tears, and more tears,” she tells me. Ellen is passionate about her work and committed to her students, but describes herself and her fellow teachers as getting “pummeled” by the student body’s resistance to rule enforcement.
Unsurprisingly, Ellen explains that she not only feels frustration and fatigue but often also a sense of hopelessness. When I asked Ellen how she finds meaning each day or if she relies on any self-care routines to replenish her energy, she responded by telling me that she is renewed by the sense of emotional openness between her and her students. “The only real hope I could see is when those kids sincerely felt that you cared about them and believed they could be better and saw some potential in them.”
And in addition to offering students encouragement and support, Ellen admits vulnerability of her own: “And we also told them, ‘I feel that way, too, sometimes’; ‘It is really hard for me to get to work some days, too’…Telling them the truth, showing them that we can share the same feelings…has made a difference to them and, I think, given them hope. And it gave me hope to give them hope.”
The authenticity that Ellen brought to her relationships with students—and that they gave her in return—helped nourish her, despite the exhaustion and frustration she felt. Her meditation practice fostered that emotional openness, helped her not be engulfed by the pain of her students, and taught her how to return to a place of steadiness in those times she did get overwhelmed. Like Ellen, we can be compassionate while also strong; understanding while also savvy. Healthy boundaries require balance.
Compassion is not just a feeling but a skill that can be learned and applied in our lives in surprising ways. While we typically think of this skill as benefiting others, compassion can also be thought of as an attitude toward living, one that fosters self-care. There’s a strong link between compassion and both physical and mental health. When we act compassionately, our vagal tone—or the neural connection between the brain, heart, and other organs—increases. This, in turn, leads to the release of oxytocin, the feel-good neuropeptide that calms the sympathetic nervous system, including the fight-or-flight—that is, fear—response. As a result, our heart rates and blood pressures drop, inflammation is reduced, our immune systems are strengthened, we’re less prone to stress —and we may even live longer. Researchers have actually proven that strong social relationships predict a 50%-increased chance of longevity. What’s more, the greatest advantages come not from receiving love but from offering it to others.
Until we can relate to our own pain with kindness and acceptance, we’re more likely to defend ourselves against the pain of others. Or perhaps we do, in fact, engage with the pain of others, but are inclined to offer support out of a desire to receive validation to soothe our own pain. If we turn away from our own pain, we may find ourselves projecting this aversion onto others, seeing them as somehow inadequate for being in a troubled situation. And, paradoxically, when we truly allow ourselves to feel our own pain, over time it comes to seem less personal. We start to recognize that what we’ve perceived as our pain is, at a deeper level, the pain inherent in human existence. In fact, it is awareness of both our shared pain and our longing for happiness that links us to other people and helps us to turn toward them with compassion.
Kevin Berrill, a clinical social worker and bereavement counselor who teaches mindfulness to oncology patients and their families, says that he’s able to sense the difference between empathy and compassion in himself when he’s working with clients. ‘’I’m aware that I’m best able to serve when I’m in a compassionate place,” he says, noting that, over the course of his career, there’s been a shift from a tendency to feel another’s pain to simply be present with it. “I love my work the most when I’m in that state of flow. I don’t try to offer solutions or fix anything prematurely. I feel calm and peaceful and fully engaged. I can hold another’s pain without drowning in it,” he explains, adding that he can go through a wrenching session and come out feeling awake and alive. Berrill attributes the movement from empathy toward compassion to his own practice of mindfulness. And, he says, “When I’m in that place of compassion, I feel a deep sense of kinship and affection for the people I’m working with. I find myself loving them.”
Yet when we talk about compassion and love for others, we must also talk about love for ourselves. This isn’t simply because opening ourselves up to others feels good (which it does). Rather, we need to think of the relationship between loving ourselves and loving others. Unless we take care of our own needs and respect our own boundaries, we may end up feeling depleted, exhausted, and so burned out that we endanger our physical and psychological well-being.
Alas, this lesson is often overlooked. During a discussion following a recent talk I gave on compassion, Eileen raised her hand. Eileen, a second-grade teacher and single parent who is the primary caregiver for her ailing mother, described her constant feelings of guilt with a look of worry on her face. “There’s so much suffering in the world, I feel like I should be doing more all the time,” she began. “But between caring for my mom and my kids, and teaching all day, I just don’t have the time or energy.”
I was grateful to Eileen for sharing her concerns. So often, well-intentioned students interpret the teachings on compassion to mean they should be helping others 24-7, regardless of the toll that may take on them. But most of us, including me, are not saints, nor should we expect ourselves to be. We all have our limits. In order to avoid burnout and practice true compassion, it’s important to remember that we can only do what’s possible for us; when we try to do more, we risk feeling resentful or making ourselves ill. What’s more, the capacity to give to others varies from person to person. Ultimately, compassion has more to do with the attitude we bring to our encounters with other people than with any quantifiable metric of giving.
Us versus Them
A recent body of research shows that people with the most wealth and social status pay scant attention to those with less power. The haves tend to lack compassion for the hardships the have-nots endure. Writing in The New York Times, psychologist Daniel Goleman said, “Social distance makes it all the easier to focus on small differences between groups and to put a negative spin on the ways of others and a positive spin on our own.” But, he added, “In contrast, extensive interpersonal contact counteracts biases by letting people from hostile groups get to know one another as individuals and even friends.” This kind of camaraderie is far more common among people who live in proximity and, out of necessity, come to rely on one another.
Ultimately, a host of cultural assumptions encourage us to act according to this mentality. We live in a competitive, individualistic culture, where success is often seen as triumphing over others; alternatively, we think that repressing parts of ourselves that are culturally undesirable (such as emotional states like anger and anxiety) will lead to happiness. So rather than doing what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt refers to as stepping outside of our “moral matrix” and seeing ourselves as fundamentally related to everyone else, we think we have no choice but to meet anger with anger, or separate ourselves from others in order to feel freedom.
Of course, the opposite often becomes true. Seeing others as “them” makes us feel stuck. It also keeps us from ever accessing a fresh perspective—a new way of relating to our experiences, to ourselves, and to them. Respecting differences while gaining insight into our fundamental connectedness, we can free ourselves from the impulse to categorize the world in terms of narrow boundaries and labels.
An Intention to Stretch
The first step toward feeling compassion for others is to set the intention to try it out. Regardless of whether we have certain fears or feelings of aversion when considering this idea, we can relish the experience of exercising our minds and hearts. While we may be biologically wired to look for differences, we can also accept that there is validity in experimenting with new habits, wisdom that results from encouraging ourselves to learn and expand.
This works for groups we may harbor resentment toward, as well as individuals. We need patience, though; opening our shuttered hearts has its own timetable. Often, we may spend a while just going through the motions. Yet with a clear intention and a willing heart, sooner or later we experience the joy and freedom that arises when we recognize our common humanity with others and see that real love excludes no one.
There’s no need to begin with judgment or harsh discipline. I’ve had students tell me they feel inadequate upon realizing that love for others doesn’t spring forth from their hearts like water in a babbling brook. Finding this boundless love isn’t the result of a goal-oriented search, but a practice. We experiment with what it feels like to treat ourselves with kindness whether we “succeed” or “fail.” We open our eyes to the suffering and joy of those we see in line for security in the airport as much as we do to our family members.
None of this is easy. Learning the practice of loving-kindness meditation for the first time challenged my emotional fabric in ways I didn’t expect. As I practiced sending phrases of loving-kindness to myself, then to benefactors and to acquaintances, to difficult people, and—finally—all beings, I began noticing just how much I was conditioned to entangle myself in judgments, assumptions, fears, and stories. This act of noticing itself is part of real love. We see that we can set the intention to stretch past these habits we’ve gotten used to—both internally and as the result of familial, circumstantial, and overarching societal factors. We are not doing something phony or trying to force ourselves to be hypocritical or pretentious. Rather, we stretch because, as human beings with capacity for real love, we can. We learn to move and breathe in a new way, until we realize one day how much stronger we are.