Developing Selfless Compassion
‘So if we love someone, we should train in being able to listen. By listening with calm and understanding, we can ease the suffering of another person.’ ~Thich Nhat Hanh
While the idea of being more compassionate is appealing to many people, what stands in the way is that we get irritated by other people, often actually strongly disliking them.
How can you be compassionate with others when they irritate you, rub you the wrong way, make you angry?
It’s difficult. I have a hard time with this fairly often, so I’ve been studying it inside myself. What’s really amazing is how much we get in our own way.
My “self” is the thing that stands in the way of true compassion, I’ve been learning.
And my “self” is almost always putting itself in the center of the universe, demanding things, and becoming angry when it doesn’t get what it feels it deserves.
I’m really blown away by how much I think about myself, and how often I believe (without admitting it to myself) that I deserve to be treated a certain way, that others should act the way I want them to act.
Watch Your Selfish Thoughts
Try monitoring those kinds of thoughts in your own head:
- When someone irritates you, your “self” is angry because they aren’t acting the way you want them to act. You think you’re entitled to quiet, entitled to being treated fairly or with respect, entitled to have the world behave the way you want it to behave.
- When someone doesn’t clean up after themselves, you get irritated because you think you’re entitled to everyone acting the way you want them to act (being clean and considerate).
- When someone gets in your way or cuts you off in traffic, you get irritated, because you think they should not be in your way. Maybe everyone should watch for where you’re going and clear a path?
- When someone else needs help, you think first about how it will affect you, rather than how it will affect the other person.
- When something unexpected happens at work or in your personal life, you think first about how it will affect you.
- When people are talking, you think about how what they’re saying relates to you, how you’ve had a similar experience, what they’re thinking of you.
There are many other variations, but you get the idea. These are self-centered thoughts. I have them all the time — way more than I would have believed before I started monitoring them.
It’s natural for us to have these self-centered thoughts. When we are kids, we believe we’re the center of the universe. When we grow up, we mostly still believe this, and it’s probably a self-defense mechanism to create a universe where we’re at the center of it, entitled to what we want.
But it gets in the way of compassion. Let’s see what happens when we remove ourselves, get out of the way.
Compassion starts with empathy — imagining putting ourselves in the mind of another person, and imagining what they’re going through. We are probably wrong about what they’re going through, because we can’t know, but without this imaginative process we can’t have compassion.
Once we’ve empathized, and feel their suffering, the second half of compassion is wanting to end that suffering, and taking action to ease that suffering in some way.
So empathy is incredibly important, but if we are thinking about ourselves first, and only ourselves, we can’t empathize.
We must get ourselves out of the way, and think of the other person. When we think about how we should be treated, what we want, how something will affect us, we cannot also be thinking of the other person and how something will affect them, how they should be treated, what they want.
So to empathize, we must get out of the way. Be self-less rather than selfish.
How do we do that? Honestly, I’m still learning.
The first step for me has been to become aware of my selfish thinking. And it happens all the time.
The next step, when I recognize this selfish thinking, is to pause, and try to put my mind in the mind of the other person, to empathize, to try to understand what they’re going through. To feel their suffering, and then to want to end it.
And then ask, how can I end that suffering?
Get yourself out of the way, so that compassion becomes possible.