Compassion is a conscious willingness to 1) endure with another their suffering, and then 2) to alleviate the suffering by using the most appropriate means possible, and 3) in ways that preserve the dignity of all involved (meaning you need to have an ethical position about how to be in relationship — for more on this, listen to Thupten Jinpa). Which means that compassion is neither an emotion, nor a behaviourial trait, nor an intention. From this description, I hope it is evident that it takes alot of courage and skills to be compassionate.
Mindfulness being the ability to sustain focus in the ‘now-ness’ of the present moment. Wisdom being the clarity of perception that reveals the essence of the moment. Power being the ability to take action. Only when all three are activated at the same time may we truly contribute to the well-being and flourishing of another human being. Very quickly, let’s dive a little deeper into what I’ve learnt (measurable in tears, therapy sessions, relationships pushed to the brink) is needed to activate each of the three elements.
I’ve come to understand mindfulness as the ability to bring into alignment, to unite, to integrate, to harmonise mind, body, heart, spirit. It is not quite about “being calm in the eye of the storm”, which was my specialty even without mindfulness, for it is essentially being very good at putting up a facade that does not reflect the emotional turmoil raging inside. (PS. In no way am I suggesting that this is ‘bad’ or ‘inferior’ or ‘wrong’). Instead, it is the aspiration of being the eye of the storm, i.e. a state of grounded presence that radiates from the very core of my being.
Important notes re what mindfulness is not. It is not a (i) single destination in a linear progression of life journey; (ii) permanent state of being; (iii) magic elixir that will make my life “better” (however that is imagined to be). Instead, it is a practice that over time enables me to (i) become more capable and faster at catching myself whenever I’m behaving in ways that are not in alignment with my deeper knowing, intention, being; (ii) become more deft at activating the skills to realign / reharmonise; (iii) stay present and attuned to what is actually happening instead of mistakening my interpretations for reality. From this place of present moment awareness, I can better access wisdom.
After more than a decade of trying multiple approaches, for me, the ‘simplest’ way to practise mindfulness is learning to use my breath. No, not the “focus on your breath” guided meditation variety, because that for me was an overly cognitive exercise and actually created more noise for the beginner that I was. Instead, it’s the pranayama and Wim Hof variety that, right out of the gate, connects the mind and body. For sure secular mindfulness practices have evolved in the past decade, so whatever you end up adopting, my only suggestion is to adopt one where the connection of mind and body is explicitly at the heart of the practice. And to ritualise these new habits, check out James Clear, one of the most accessible self-taught and self-tested framework for building healthy habits.
To be wise, I need three things.
❶ First, the discipline of cultivating intellectual humility (my all time favourite exercise is to deliberately go out of the way to prove myself wrong about a topic dear to my heart such as surrogacy and cyborgs) and embracing doubt (Lesley Hazleton’s TED talk on <The Doubt essential to Faith> is stirring, sublime, stunning). This is the thinking cognitive part.
❷ Second, I also need emotional courage to feel deeply (Susan David Ph.D. is a good place to start understanding how to cultivate emotional agility) and the stamina to stay with these uncomfortable feelings until it lessens. This is the embodied feeling part. Be careful though of emoting in ways that may be result in “fake compassion”.
❸ Lastly, I need the discipline of attention (this is where mindfulness plays a role) to sustain focus on doing what matters. This is the taking action, doing part. Especially in situations where the external event is protracted or is embedded in a web of unfolding events, it may not be that easy to maintain the clarity of mind and emotional stamina to sustain focused attention. So perhaps there are times where the courage to abstain from action is the wisest path of action.
🍀 As a bonus, sprinkle on this combination a healthy dose of being able to laugh at myself! Result of this mixture? Clarity of understanding, and sensing the essence of the situation. This being the precondition to assess how to meaningfully yield power.
Power is about having both the skills and the “authority” to take meaningful action. But power is tricky nowadays because unfortunately, it has become almost synonymous with identity politics which for me means that I am more sensitive as to the kind of relationship I have with the individual, and in that context, cultivating a degree of awareness whether I’m using my power (i) in a top-down fashion, which is power over; or (ii) to walk shoulder-to-shoulder, which is power with; or (iii) lending your power — in corporate speak, it’s more commonly known as empowerment — which is power to. Again, please note that these positions are described neutrally, and not intended to confer that any one is better than any other.
Skills ‘simply’ refer to whether I have the experience and/or know-how to help alleviate the suffering. “Authority” refers to whether I have a relationship, or some semblance of influence, or a formal position where my actions / words can meaningfully alter the situation for the better (but not of the knight-in-shining armour genre).
Are all three really needed?
Compassion without mindfulness is likely to be fake compassion, because it’s about “me”. Compassion without wisdom may lead to reckless and impulsive solutions that doesn’t solve the actual problem. Compassion without power may lead to a sense of hopelessness and despair because I’m unable to meaningfully help. So yeah, in my experience, when mindfulness, wisdom and power comes together, it’s fertile ground for compassion to blossom and fruit.
PS. If you are curious about how I came to compassion, click here 🌹