Dancing in the Winds of Change

Practicing Compassion

This blog will be largely a philosophy blog.  As I come to understand and practice my values in my life, I find I want to share what I’ve learned, for others seeking a similar path.

I often find that blogs end an interesting topic too early, and I want more.  So at the end of some articles, I will provide links to other related websites for deeper study. I am not a paid sponsor, nor am I trained by or endorsing any particular groups. I am just pointing you towards resources that I find relevant.


Holding Hands shadow on sand

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Loving-kindness and compassion are the basis for wise, powerful, sometimes gentle, and sometimes fierce actions that can really make a difference — in our own lives and those of others.  – Sharon Salzberg

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. – Howard Zinn

The major block to compassion is the judgment in our minds. Judgment is the mind’s primary tool of separation. – Diane Berke

Nothing is so strong as gentleness. Nothing is so gentle as real strength. – Frances de Sales

At the heart of many of my values is compassion – empathy for other people, and patience with myself.  I don’t always practice it as well as I would like.  (Who does?) But I do go through my daily life with a clear awareness that others have hidden pain, unfulfilled needs, and reasons for their behaviors that I may not have the background to understand.  In recognizing their humanness, I have more patience for quirks and irritations, and I’m more stable dealing with conflicts or confusing moments.

Acting reflexively from compassion doesn’t come out of nowhere; it takes time, thought, and practice.

The first step to practicing compassion is Self.

I cannot consistently act compassionately for others if I haven’t first done my personal work, and met my own needs reasonably well.  If I choose to commit to holding a value of compassion and acting from that, then I am also committing to taking care of myself effectively.

  • Am I fed, rested, and cravings satisfied? Am I physically healthy and not in severe pain?
  • Have I sought out social contact, and ensured my emotional and communication needs are met?
  • If I am working with other leaders, have I ensured I have a team to lean on for support among the other leaders, and not by putting my needs onto the people I serve?
  • If I am feeling anxious or not confident, have I given myself a pep talk and tried to address the issues?
  • If pain from my past is coloring my interpretation of current events, have I taken the time to ask questions, check in with reality, and try believing that this new situation could be different?  Have I worked on healing my long-term emotional wounds?

On days when I am hungry, tired, moody, I am far less likely to remember to think and act compassionately.  On days when my needs are intense and unfulfilled, I tend to be rash and snappy instead of taking the time to consider results.  And during moments of tragedy when my world feels crushed, I may be blind to others’ needs because my own needs are so intensely present.

Feeling bad myself isn’t an excuse for acting without compassion.  But taking care of myself is my responsibility, to be able to put my values into action more fully.  Can you feel the difference between excuses/blame versus responsibility/choice?

This leads me to another aspect – to be compassionate with others, I must first be compassionate with myself.

No holding onto guilt and judgment and self-punishment and berating every mistake or slight misstep.  No viewing myself as too weak-willed to put my values into action.  No using perfectionism as an excuse to avoid trying.  No expecting perfection in the first day and then giving up completely when I make a mistake.   And no guilting myself when I realize I’m feeling resistance, making excuses, distracting, procrastinating, or worrying.  Instead, I notice it, acknowledge it’s there… and let it go.

And in this moment, realizing that I’m avoiding – I have choice.  I can look inside and figure out why I am avoiding, and see if that’s resolvable.  I can move ahead and do the thing I was avoiding, even if it takes a bit of work to get past the fear.  Or I can allow myself to keep avoiding, and practice non-judgment about that choice.  No guilt.  Just choice.  How does that feel?

Working on my inner self is the beginning.  Practicing self-compassion is a way to reduce the need for emotional defensiveness.  If I am attacking myself all the time, of course I am going to feel guarded, nervous, not good enough, and prickly.  I am more likely to lash out in fear or anger at others who make an ambiguous or misheard comment.  And that drains my energy and introduces conflict where it wasn’t necessary.  Self-compassion lowers the shields, puts away the canons, and makes space for a new experience.

The second step is deeply listening to others.

Compassion happens when I hear another person’s pain, or history, or reasons for their choices.  Compassion happens when I let the other person live and tell their own story, and avoid projecting my imagined meaning, reasons, or outcome onto it.  Compassion happens when I trust a person to make their own decisions, even if I disagree, and I accept that they may have reasons, feelings, or insight about their situation that I do not have.

Compassion accepts that I am limited, you are limited, and all of us are making day to day decisions without knowledge of the future, and with a limited education and perspective.  Compassion accepts that some of us are injured, fighting untreatable illness, coming from backgrounds of deprivation or abuse, or just plain having a bad day.  Compassion recognizes that I cannot know another’s plight unless I make space for them to feel safe enough to share their story… and I ask, and listen, and do not cut them off with my interpretation or judgment.  Compassion recognizes that not everyone has the language or emotional skill or time to put their story into words, and so even if I ask, I am only seeing part of the story.

Compassion is knowing that we all struggle, and having extra patience with the awkward moments, confusions, conflicts, and accidents that happen as we bump into each other throughout the days.

I awakened to a deeper meaning of compassion when I attended a personal growth program where many people were doing deep emotional healing.  In various workshops and exercises, we listened to each others’ stories, heartbreaks, and struggles – not to give advice, but just to be a listening ear, a supportive friend.  Some of the stories truly broke my heart — broke it wide open, with a wish to see them heal and grow beyond those wounds.  And it broke open with respect for their strength, their courage, their patience, their compassion, their persistence.

If I had been trying to give advice, to “help,” I would have missed out on that respect.  Advice is a subtle message that says, I can solve your problem when you cannot.  We often want to be helpful, and offering information when the person asks for it is appropriate.  Unsolicited advice, however, can be an overt power-over tactic, or it can be an unintentional insult or invasion.  This is a subtle balance and very culturally sensitive.  I find it is usually better to ask, “Do you want a listening ear, or do you want advice or help?”  That leaves space for them to make their own choice, and still allows for a compassionate and supportive response. The person may choose the option to talk through what they’re feeling and struggling with, move through the emotions by feeling and expressing them in words, and then have a clearer head to solve their situation themselves.  By respecting their choice to vent and express, without trying to fix, I show respect for their power and autonomy in dealing with the situation themselves.  I am subtly showing, “I believe in you.”

Compassion can be listening or it can be action… but don’t underestimate the power of just listening.

The third step is realizing when compassionate action may need to be direct and honest to an individual, for the benefit of a larger group.

People lean on each other.  This is why we choose to live in families, communities, friendships, tribes.  Living in close quarters can bring us into unintentional conflict with each other.

Sometimes the most compassionate way to deal with a situation is head-on, with direct communication and clear limits and boundaries.

It’s a weekend retreat; there are thirty of us living in a few cabins and sharing one kitchen while we attend workshops and activities.  People chat around the table at meals and between events, and I’ve been excitedly joining in on the chatter.  What I haven’t realized is that each time I talk, I am unintentionally one-upping each person’s story, as if the wounds we’ve suffered are a competition.  At first they ignore it; they avoid talking to me, avoid topics I seem to be overly enthusiastic about, and they pull away.  They’re afraid to be rude by challenging me.  I get the sense that people don’t like me but don’t know why, and spend the rest of the week off by myself, avoiding the group and nursing my bruised social confidence.

Then, someone notices that I’m avoiding groups.  She comes over and asks me what’s up. I explain that I didn’t feel like I fit in.  She sits quietly for a moment, and then says, “Well, actually, I heard some comments a few days ago that you kept speaking too loudly, and instead of listening to someone’s story, you take over conversation with your own.  I don’t think anyone dislikes you personally, but you might try working on your communication style next time you’re in a group.”  I take a moment to recover from my surprise, thank her, and return to the table – and in a few hours I’m blending in successfully, a bit humbled by the experience, but listening more carefully and learning.

Notice that this goes straight into the realm of unasked-for advice?  As I said, that’s a balancing act.

Is it more compassionate to let someone fumble through an issue that’s affecting a community… or help them figure out what’s wrong (even if they’d rather not hear it)… in the hopes that it will help others?

This is where compassion expands to the group, instead of just two people.  When a community is negatively affected by one person’s choices, the community may need that person to hear about their impact.

Hopefully that communication can still be respectful.  Hopefully that person can be approached in a way that isn’t intimidating or threatening, and is relatively easy to listen to and hear accurately and completely.  Hopefully that communication can include the respect and appreciation that the community does feel for that person, in spite of the current issues.  Accomplishing that is a skill of graceful communication that can be learned but isn’t easy, and also depends on the listener.

The final step to compassion is setting healthy boundaries and knowing when to walk away.

Remember how the first step was to take care of self?  Having limits and boundaries is a strategy for remaining healthy in difficult circumstances.

Boundaries mean knowing what is me and what is not me; understanding that your feelings are separate from mine, and do not need to determine my reality.  I do not need to cater to them or rebel against them, because I have my own feelings to make my decisions from.  Boundaries mean keeping a clear sense of myself, my needs, and that I have value regardless of what one other person thinks of me.

Limits are the ways that I enforce my needs.  Limits say, I am willing to put up with this up to a point, but not beyond this.  Limits are how I declare what is nonnegotiable in my daily life, my relationships, my health, my feelings, my body.  If I allow my limits to be crossed, I pay for it with my own pain, and it compromises my ability to function effectively and act compassionately.  Saying “No” is a healthy tool for maintaining effective relationships.

When a community member consistently causes trouble for a group, and when interventions have failed or been insufficient, sometimes it is appropriate to ask that person to leave the group.  Likewise, if a person is having trouble with a group, and the group will not adjust or act in healthy ways, healthy limits mean that person will choose to leave the group that is not meeting their needs.

Our world is large and there are many options, many places to start over, and many ways to get the resources to meet basic needs.  We are not dependent on each other for our daily survival, and so it is not unreasonable to use separation as a final resolution of difficulties.  We can choose who to associate with, and we can choose to address difficulties directly, and when that doesn’t work, we choose when to leave.

Compassion and honest conflict are not opposites.  Sometimes the point of mediation is not a solution or a compromise that works equally badly for both sides, but rather, clarity on differences and mutual understanding of boundaries and limits.  Sometimes conflict is absolutely healthy, compassionate, and appropriate.

Acting compassionately then becomes a dedication to learning graceful communication, so that conflict can be respectful and effective rather than wounding, shaming, or bruising.

In Summary

Compassion as a way of life leads towards peace, and also towards dedication to practices of good communication skills, sensitivity and careful observation, and recognition of one’s own and others’ needs, limits, and resources.

Compassion starts with the self, for it is not until we can stop beating ourselves up that we can start to diffuse our defensiveness and make space to sincerely hear another, without projections or judgments.

Compassion reaches out from self, to one other, to a few others, and then to the group and community.  While it tries not to wound or shame, it also recognizes hard limits and when the kind thing to do is speak up and raise an issue honestly and clearly.

Compassion asks questions instead of presuming motivation.  It recognizes limited information instead of judging another’s choices or life story.  Compassion recognizes someone’s “no” and is willing to hear it, and avoids coercion, pressuring, or other disrespectful behavior.  Compassion for oneself understands the value of a social safety net of other people to lean on for support.

Compassion as a way of life brings peace to self and others, by ensuring that issues don’t stew, and by finding respectful ways to work through challenges.


For a deeper exploration, I found these pages helpful.

The Center for Nonviolent Communication provides some information. Concepts goes over basics,  and the Needs and Feelings lists give vocabulary to help figure out inner experiences. They also have Chapter 1 of their book online.

MindTools.com has an article on how communication gets confused or lost.

NewConversations.net has a workbook with actionable behaviors for improving communication.

LivingCompassion.org has information on mindful awareness as a practice for compassion.

CommunicatingWithHeart.com has an article on personal power in communication.


Comments on: "Practicing Compassion" (1)

  1. […] Practicing Compassion (touchedbylife.wordpress.com) […]

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