Compassion: Be Good to Others; Don’t Just Think, Act!

By Carolyn Reuben

Great Spirit, save me from judging a man until I’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.  ~ Apache quote

To understand a man, you’ve got to walk a mile in his shoes, whether they fit or not.  ~ Moslem proverb

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”   ~ Atticus Finch to his daughter Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Whether in Arizona, Arabia, or Alabama, human beings regard compassion as a noble value. In fact, millions of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and other devout religionists embrace compassion as a fundamental belief. And yet, examples of ruthless indifference fill our newspapers each day. Is there anything we can do as individuals to help transform our world and, indeed, ourselves, by living more compassionately?

“Compassion can be learned,” says Leah Green, Founding Director of The Compassionate Listening Project in Indianola, Washington. “It’s like learning the cello or a new language. Without practice it’s a bumper sticker slogan. With practice it creates new neuropathways in the brain.” In other words, although just about everyone acknowledges the value of the concept of compassion, according to Green, “practicing compassionate actions is what creates a compassionate person.”

Compassion encompasses more than simple pity for the plight of another. Green describes pity as an uneven balance where the other is lower on the scale. Embodied in the saying “there but for the grace of God go I” compassion is between equals, because the person feeling compassion recognizes the inherent commonality of suffering of all human beings. A compassionate person is conscious of the other’s distress and desires to alleviate it, if only by allowing the other to tell the story of their suffering.

The Compassionate Listening Project, for example, brings Americans to Israel and Palestine to listen to Palestinians and Jews, build trust on all sides, and invite them to come together to listen to one another and receive training. Compassionate Listeners don’t take sides. A person listening compassionately doesn’t have to solve the problem of the other or even agree with what he or she is hearing. Sometimes realizing someone else is actually listening instead of simply waiting for one to finish so the other can speak is enough for profound peacemaking in the heart of the person being heard.

“When you can get beyond the politics and arguments down to how is the conflict leading to suffering in your life, that is the magic formula that cracks open the hearts of enemies,” explains Green, who experienced this profound truth herself.

Green lost family members to Nazi concentration camps. Some years ago when her international flight landed for a short stopover in Germany, she froze. She closed the window screen and hunkered down until the plane took off again. Just thinking of her feet touching German soil made her stomach churn. And then in 2002 she was invited to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Germany. She forced herself to go, and became physically ill the day after she arrived. She recovered and made it to the conference. One evening she asked if she could meet with just the women. After an awkward beginning, when no-one wanted to speak first, finally one of the women shared how World War II had personally affected her and her family. She cried as she told the story of how her family came to learn that her grandfather had worked in the Concentration Camps. Green’s heart opened to the stories of immense suffering she heard that evening. After the conference, she and her new German colleague, Beate Ronnefeldt, founded the Jewish-German Compassionate Listening Project and the following year, 34 Jews and Germans came together for 10 days of profound healing. Trained facilitators have led groups multiple times in Germany. Said one participant, “The layers of healing this project provides go deeply inward and hold the possibility of great gifts-to families, communities, and nations.”

More recently Green has brought the Compassionate Listening process to San Pedro La Laguna, at the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala where Mayan natives have suffered their own brand of Holocaust. This project is in collaboration with Centro Taa’ Pi’t, a grassroots Mayan educational organization.

What is different about Compassionate Listening compared to ordinary listening? Say you walk into work. Your superior snarls, “You’re thirty seconds late! I need this report this morning!” and flips a file onto your desk, then storms out of your office. You can feel abused and angry the whole day and shout at the first driver who cuts you off on the way home, or you can reframe the interaction as the result of something that happened to the boss last night or this morning and realize that his overflowing stress has nothing to do with you. Later that morning, as you turn in the report, you may gently and quietly say, “I’m so sorry you are having a hard day. I hope my report helps lighten your load.” He may or may not confess to a chain of disasters in the last 24 hours, but at least his misery has been acknowledged. Most important, the compassion you feel for him protects you from his earlier assault on your peace of mind.

Or, imagine a child returning home from school and with deep drama reporting that the teacher clearly didn’t like him, the kids were tormenting him, and he was never returning to that classroom again. Ordinarily a parent, busy preparing dinner, might respond, “Don’t be ridiculous! The teacher likes you today just as much as yesterday and if the other kids weren’t nice you probably said or did something annoying! Of course you’re going to school tomorrow!” When the child whines, “But Mom….” the parent, still looking down as she chops, probably cuts him off mid-sentence with, “Don’t “but Mom” me. Go do your homework. Dinner is in 45 minutes.”

Replay that scene with a Compassionate Listening frame. The child complains. The mother stops chopping and looks at the child while he speaks. She doesn’t say anything and even waits a couple seconds in silence when the boy finishes speaking, which gives the message she is really listening and considering what he said. Then she mirrors what she heard, in her own words: “Wow, it sounds like you had a really hard day and that your feelings are really hurt. I’m so sorry.”

The child may respond, “Yeah…it was really bad. I need something to eat.” And grabbing a string cheese runs off to do his homework. He just wanted acknowledgment of his feelings. There may be times when he needs an advocate to step in to an untenable situation, but most of the time a child doesn’t need advice or intervention, just to be heard. And, listening and allowing the child to come to his or her own solutions is empowering.

Compassionate Listening isn’t only useful on the world stage or between parents and children, husband and wife, bosses and subordinates. It is also an antidote to self-abuse. The next time you hear yourself snarling “You stupid idiot!” and you are the stupid idiot you are snarling at, hold a hand over your heart and give yourself a dose of compassion for being human.

“When we are in an uncompassionate state with ourselves we don’t learn effectively – we are literally disconnected from the frontal lobes of our brain, where higher learning and reasoning occur. When we are in a triggered state, our brains are literally in an incoherent state. It affects our hormones and our health. It affects everything.” Green explains. In contrast, she says, “When we offer ourselves compassion everything comes into a state of coherence. Our body and brain work in harmony and we positively affect the brainwaves and chemistry of people around us. Compassion is contagious. That is how powerful we are. We have the opportunity to change our world in everyday life.”

You may not be a professional peacemaker but you are spreading peace and harmony day in day out with every single interaction. When triggered by someone, breathe deeply and put your hand over your heart, or simply imagine breathing into your heart. “It will calm you,” claims Green, whose been doing this work sine 1996. She also suggests bringing to mind someone that you love unconditionally, a person or an animal, and breathing deeply while keeping your focus on the loved one. You can even do this in the middle of a contentious meeting to calm yourself down and reconnect to your highest functioning brain before saying something out of anger or impatience and regretting it later. Coming from a place of compassion can snowball through everyone you come in contact with in a day and, in your own way, create a better day for all.

Resources:
Websites
www.compassionatelisteningproject.org Books, videos, and training dates on the use of compassionate listening.

Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas, Austin, speaking briefly on self-compassion.
www.greatergood.berkeley.edu
The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley teaches skills to foster a compassionate society.
www.centerformsc.org
The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
A project of Dr. Kristin Neff (www.self-compassion.org) and colleagues to foster emotional healing. Includes workshops, referrals, and a Self-Compassion Test.

Books
Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, PhD (http://self-compassion.org/self-compassion-the-book/about-the-book.html)
Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening by Andrea Cohen with Leah Green and Susan Partnow
Listening With the Heart: A Guide for Compassionate Listening by Carol Hwoschinsky (Compassionate Listening Project, 2002)

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