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Mindful : August 2017
and come out feeling awake and alive. Berrill attributes the movement from empathy toward compassion to his own practice of mindful- ness. 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 open- ing ourselves up to others feels good (which it does). Rather, we need to think of the rela- tionship 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. Dur- ing 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 suf- fering 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 energ y.” 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 let- ting 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 neces- sity, 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 anxi- ety) 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 expe- riences, to ourselves, and to them. Respecting differences while gaining insight into our fun- damental 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 oth- ers 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 Ultimately, compassion has more to do with the attitude we bring to our encounters with other people than with any quantifiable metric of giving. 78 mindful August 2017 insight