In a previous post I wrote about the power of gratitude to change our every-day world-view. How when we consciously seek things to be grateful for, we start to find them everywhere. The same is true of compassion, and it is a wonderful thing to bring into the forefront of our consciousness. Once my clients and workshop participants have been initiated into the magic of gratitude, compassion is the next stage of initiation, and very much connected.
We tend to generally be grateful for that which we receive. Someone helps us, we are given a gift, we have a good day, and we are grateful. But, like hope, there are levels of gratitude through which we can rise, and gratitude arises to a whole new level when it’s tempered with compassion.
When we start to show compassion to others, our own happiness grows exponentially. When someone is kind to us, our hearts may soar. When we are kind to another, the same hearts can expand to new proportions. When we reach out from a place of true compassion, what we give to the recipient may be of great value. But what we give to ourselves can be far greater.
One evening last winter, on a lone visit to London, I bought a take-away pizza from a restaurant. It was too much for me, and I wished I had someone to share it with. I saw a homeless man across the road, wrapped up against the cold. I approached him and asked if he’d like to share my pizza. With a brilliant smile he told me pizza was his favourite meal. I sat down on the pavement next to him and we exchanged stories as we ate. His name was Robert. He was an ex-serviceman, passing through the capitol. He had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and loud noises startled him. He didn’t like the bustle of city life and hoped to find work on a farm eventually. He enjoyed solitude, as do I, but we both appreciated this unexpected company.
I could have taken the surplus pizza back to my lodgings and eaten it the next day, saving waste and money. But I would have missed out on the joy of showing compassion and receiving so much in return. The sharing of food, the companionship of another traveling soul, the honour of receiving someone’s story, and of having mine received by a compassionate friend made for a night rich in gratitude, at many levels.
I was grateful that I could afford to buy food from a London restaurant.
I was grateful for heart-felt conversation, warm acceptance and companionship.
Later I was grateful for comfortable lodgings and a warm bed; that my worries had been put in perspective, reminding me of my countless blessings.
It can be hard to be grateful for our own good fortune when witnessing another’s lack. In the past I have been homeless, and devastated by mental health crisis. When I see another person in that situation my heart can break for them. But if I flounder in the multi-faceted face of the world’s tragedy, it does no-one any good. I am no use to myself or to the world. I know it’s not for me to take on another’s pain as though it were my own. My part is to express the highest gratitude for all I have, and to balance the virtues of compassion and detachment in order to be as effective as I can.
I could not offer Robert a bed for the night, a home, a cure for his PTSD. But I could share my pizza and my time with him for a while, and that is something. I remember when I was at my lowest point, many years ago, the touch of a loving hand, the acknowledgement of my intelligence, my humanity, my worth, was more precious to me than gold. We must never under-estimate the value of compassion, no matter how inadequate our offering may seem.
When I talk to my workshop participants about compassion, I encourage them to look for any opportunity to practice it, no matter how small. A smile and a word to an elderly person in a queue could make that person’s day – and yours! Asking someone how they are, and listening compassionately while they tell you, helping to carry a heavy load, welcoming a new neighbour, calling on an old one. Learning to continually ask yourself“what is the most compassionate thing to do?” then do it if you possibly can. It isn’t always possible, and that’s OK too.
I tell participants about the Charter for Compassion, a global network of individuals, groups, organisations and communities committed to compassionate action; ordinary people in every corner of the world, doing what they can to make it a better place. I invite them to go forth and actively look for examples of compassion. Instead of focusing on life’s stresses and trials, as tends to be the default of our society, they start to see people of all kinds reaching out to others. The café-owner who takes a coffee to the homeless woman outside her premises, instead of chasing her away. The child who sees a baby crying in a buggy and hands over a toy to comfort him. The suited man who, caught in a shower, recognises a neighbour walking in the same direction and shelters her under his umbrella.
When they return the next week, group members are often noticeably different. Their newly-honed compassion antennae have alerted them to acts of loving kindness everywhere. They have seen the world anew and found that, rather than the cold, doom-laden place the media reports it to be, it is full of tiny acts of caring. Yes, there are many challenges, and much that needs to be addressed and mended, but there is also so much love.
When people realise this, they change. They become replenished, touched with hope. Their world-perception starts to alter as they awaken to the truth. Tired of the mantra “it’s all hopeless and there’s nothing I can do” they want to be part of the growing compassion revolution. The more they witness compassion, the more they want to act compassionately. They want to feel that glow of fulfilment and connection that fires their gratitude and gives their lives a deeper of meaning than they’ve previously known.
So, if you want to change the world, unpack your compassion antennae and encourage those around you to do the same. Start being a Compassion Activist and Detector and see how good it feels! Perhaps a critical mass of people dedicated to compassion could tilt the balance of the world, and then love really will trump hate. It must be worth a try!
Visit the Charter for Compassion website to sign the Charter and learn more about how to become part of the global movement for compassion.