Learning all about the art of compassion

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Compassion is about alleviating suffering and ultimately it is the only thing that is meaningful in life

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Compassion is not a hobby, or something you do in a good mood, or when you are well fed, or with your friends. It is a mental state, or an orientation towards suffering that includes four things –

• Recognising that there is
suffering.

• Being emotionally moved by that suffering.

• Wanting relief from that
suffering.

• Being ready to take action to relieve that suffering.

The heart is a muscle. It needs to be exercised for it to expand or it can deteriorate and atrophy. All children are born with the capacity to love all beings – humans and nonhumans. By the time they are three, their parents have conditioned them to fear compassion and they stop loving. But you can recondition yourself.

In fact, there is a course for it! Based on scientific trials, there is a two-month academic compassion cultivation training course that was developed by Thupten Jinpa, PhD, and colleagues at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. If I were minister for education, I would make it compulsory. There is also a course called Great Good in Action (GGIA), which gives you exercises. As with most exercises, the more you do them, the quicker the heart and mind expand. Even tiny steps help – if your physical exercise goal is to take 10,000 steps a day and you only take 3,000, that’s still better for your health than
taking none.

Start noticing your own actions: when do you feel spontaneously compassionate? When you see an accident on the news and don’t have to do anything about it except watch? When do you resist acknowledging suffering throughout the day (for example: when passing someone on the street who is asking for money or your attitude towards an annoying family member)? How many times a day do you judge or minimise personal suffering saying that it was deserved, or is insignificant compared to someone else, or something else going on in the world. Once you notice your own thoughts, change comes easily.

So next time you are going for work, notice how clean the steps are and who cleaned then, when you stand in line at a mall take a moment to actually see the stress of the cashier or the people stocking the shelves. A word of appreciation? One of the times I remember with pride, because it came naturally, was when my car stopped at a light. I opened a bottle of water to drink when I noticed a parched plant on the road divided with drooping leaves. I jumped out, put the water on the plant and waited to see it revive. At that point I didn’t think of anything, but it certainly gave me happiness. You are on the right track when giving and doing for other forms of life gives you more happiness than getting something for yourself.

Set the intention to “practice” compassion. What do you want for the world? What do you want for your life? What do you have to offer the world? Here are some tips which sound like clichés but work: encourage others with praise, respect privacy, open the door for someone (metaphorically!) , allocate time to do good things consciously, learn how to say thank you, practice empathy – the art of seeing yourself in the other’s place, step mindfully (literally).

Are you changing? Have you stopped making excuses to turn away? Is your sight improving to see the world as a place of suffering which you can make better? Are you better towards humans and non humans? Have you added value to your life? Whose life did you affect for the better? Have your heroes changed? How many times have you thanked a being or even the universe? How many times did you resist the opportunity to hurt? Did you notice how many times beings were compassionate to you? Keep a diary if you like on your thoughts and actions.

Compassion is about alleviating suffering and ultimately it is the only thing that is meaningful in life. It is easy to fight with your neighbours and thousands of people did that during the lockdown. It is easy to kick a dog on the stairs who is taking shelter from the rain. It is easy to declare a wounded mother tigress as a man-eater and hunt her down. It is easy to put bombs in food so that a cow has her jaw blown apart, it is easy to chop down trees. But did that take the world forward or backwards? Violence is the ultimate setback for good economics and it is the direct opposite of
compassion.

Princess Diana’s handshake with an AIDs patient, something done spontaneously, changed attitudes towards AIDs all over the world. Mother Teresa cradling the very sick, the lepers and homeless, brought so many people into the field of compassion. The people who have made companies to bring artificial meat to meat-eaters have done so out of compassion, the people who run shelter homes, with absolutely no money, for accident-hit and diseased animals, the people who give blood, the people who start foundations for bone marrow transplant victims, the people who donate small amounts of money to the needy rather than offering it to a temple as forward payments for wishes to be granted, the NGOs who go into the deep villages to help medicate or train people… the world is better for them. The Pay it Forward movement is what we need to adopt. Do three good deeds without expecting anything in return and only ask that the recipient do three good deeds too.

Many years ago, my mother and I watched a TV show by Larry King. His guest of the evening was Jeanne Dixon, a world famous “seer” who was famous for her predictions. We, in India, have hundreds of people like that, so it wasn’t that part that interested me. It was something else that she said that has stayed with me as a living principle. She said that Earth was the designated “hell” of the universe. Every being that had committed violence or “crime” of some kind on any other planet was sent here and that is why everyone on the planet, rich or poor, was in a constant state of suffering. And we would come back again and again until we changed themselves. And the only way out of it was compassion, rising above oneself to be kind. Do you want to get yourself out of here? I do.