In recent years the field of positive psychology has become immensely popular. Positive psychology is the study of what is right with people as opposed to what is wrong with them, with the aim of discovering how we can all be happier.
A recent experiment, published in The Journal of Happiness Studies in 2011 reaffirmed what most people know intuitively: practicing compassion increases happiness and self-esteem and benefits us on a physiological level (increasing levels of the “love hormone” oxytocin).
Like all prescriptions for good health (diet, exercise etc.) knowing this does not necessarily help us. Most of us are so overwhelmed with the demands of our daily lives we can’t imagine how we can possibly fit in compassionate acts. Or conversely, if we are of the genus of people who have trouble saying no we can experience compassion fatigue (giving too much of our time and energy to the point where we become exhausted).
Part of our dilemma can be a result of misunderstanding what compassion is. It can be helpful to return to the root meaning (etymology) of the word. “Com” means “to be with” (as in community), and passion means “suffering” (as in the Passion of Christ). To act with compassion does not mean that we need to go out into the world and fix everything. In fact, the expectation that you can “fix” people is pretty much the opposite of compassion. Often the most compassionate acts are little things, like shoveling a sidewalk, or taking a little time out to call someone who is lonely—it can be as simple as being attentive and patient when talking to a friend.
When we think about practicing compassion we have to negotiate a balance between healthy boundaries (making sure our own needs are looked after) and doing things without expectation of reward. Sometimes we need to receive help rather than give it (and by asking for help we allow others to receive the benefits of giving it).
In yoga we start practicing compassion from the principle of non-harming (towards both self and others) and also with the premise that we need to develop loving kindness towards ourselves first (maitri). If we cannot be inwardly loving and kind it’s impossible to extend this energy to others. All of this sounds lofty and idealistic, but the truth is, it’s a practice. We do it little by little, we repeatedly fall on our butts, we keep starting over, and we never graduate. When we can do helpful things for others we can reap the benefits of our actions in our own sense of purpose and fulfillment To use a cliché, “what goes around, comes around.”