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Choosing Compassion

Jun 30, 2020 ● By Ellen Katz

Photo by Kieferpix for AdobeStock

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” ~The Dalai Lama.

Compassion is a feeling we’re told to cultivate. We try gazing at the lake, the sky or the trees; we pray, we chant, we surrender. We may get momentary relief, be moved to feel sorry for someone, decide to help out—we may give some money, offer a random act of kindness or do a mitzvah. But, this fades. For some reason, our old habit, judgment, comes back again and again. We get irritated, annoyed, impatient. Or we feel sorry for ourselves, feel sorry for someone else, or get caught up in the drama de jour. The quest is for how we can actually transform ourselves to become that wise, deep and compassionate person we want to be.

Here are a few powerful paths to open the heart in a way that can stick. Of course, repetition is the key. Doing a little bit of one of these every day, even starting with five minutes, can absolutely lead to real change.

The Buddhist practice of metta, or loving kindness meditation, is one simple and powerful path to opening the heart. In this series of short visualizations and softly repeated phrases or mantras, we begin by first sitting in a quiet place, with spine erect, eyes either closed or gazing downward.

We imagine a beloved mentor or teacher, someone we deeply revere, enter, sit and face us. We gaze at our “guest” from our mind’s eye. As we breathe, gently and slowly, we mentally repeat the phrase. “May you be happy... may you be at peace… may you be free from suffering.”

As we continue to repeat this, we imagine waves of gratitude and love coming from our heart toward our teacher, and we imagine our words gently penetrating or soothing their body and soul. We continue repeating the mantra, watching the transformation. Then we pause, breathe and sit for a moment.

The practice transitions to our second “guest”, which is a stranger or someone we barely know. We repeat the entire above sequence, hearts open, focused. We are aware of their response and how that feels in our body.

The third “guest” is someone we have had some trouble with, someone that has been an irritant or hurtful toward us, but usually not (at least initially) a mortal enemy. We again repeat the mantra, send the love and watch the responses. We pause, sit, and just be.

Finally, our fourth “guest” is... us. We sit before a version of ourselves, possibly younger, possibly from a time that was painful or perhaps just a mirror of who we are today. We repeat the three phrases, offering love, and watch as the person in front of us takes it in. If any of these rounds feels too daunting, just imagine how much better the world would be if that guest actually could feel loved, cared for and joyful.  It’s a powerful experience.

Another approach to cultivating compassion involves imagining that we can see the inner child of those we judge. We consider how it would be to see them from our heart center, imagining them in their most vulnerable moments. We see them being scolded or punished at home or at school. We imagine how they felt when they were ostracized, humiliated or bullied. We imagine them in moments of failure, shame, fear or insecurity. We’ve all had those moments, and if we could see them in the “other”, our walls of judgment start to drop. Compassion for their suffering arises.

Rick Hansen, a neuropsychologist and meditation guide, as well as the folks at the Heart Math Institute, encourage us to simply visualize what makes us feel either free, joyous or in some other way open and relaxed. We “take in the good” as often as we can. We use our imagination to change how we feel, open up and in this state, our natural inclination for compassion can surface.

Both Thich Naht Hanh, renowned Buddhist teacher, and the hugging saint, Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi Devi), teach us to imagine holding our own inner children, our intense feelings of fear or anger, as we would hold a baby. We send them our lovingkindness and tenderness, which comes easily as we hold these very young energies, child versions of ourselves… Doing this elicits our compassion.

Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) offers a powerful exercise through imagining four bubbles surrounding and slowly encircling us, and in each bubble we see a scene of a time in our lives when we felt loved, seen, appreciated or totally happy. We sit still as each bubble passes in front of us and just experience what it’s like to be encircled by these images of joy, success and aliveness. We feel a deep peace and joy, a deep sense of connection and love—and taking in these feelings, we’re more apt to give them away.

There is no doubt that our brains can be modified by these and other techniques.  If we remember to slow down and allow ourselves to take in the internal sensations that come with the experience, we can count of success with any of these approaches.

In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

Ellen Katz, is a licensed psychotherapist and clinical director at Inner Balance, in Northbrook. For more information, visit