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40k for 40 days

February 23: Day 38

Day 38 - Compassion for Others

For these next two reflections folks, I will be focussing on Compassion for others. This is building on self-compassion but now relates to both inner and outer peace.

As I begin to bring this challenge to a close and reflect on the whole experience so far, I did want to share a little bit more about how I understand, how I attempt to practice, and how I hope to be able to practice and learn more going forward to bring more compassion into my world as an offering towards peace.

Motivation or desire to alleviate the suffering of others. Building on empathy which is about recognizing and feeling what others are going through.

Compassion for me is more like active empathy. It still doesn't give us the answers as to what to do or not do but it acts as a motivator and fuel to find out what that next step is.

Being compassionate for me can sometimes mean, taking the harder decisions and not always the ones that seem like they are the nicest ones at the moment, especially when it comes to being a parent, carer, and/or mentor for young people, it may even seem like I am being discompassionate at times by saying no to my children when they are asking for things like more sugar, more screen time, to stay up later, etc. The compassionate act is the one that has the concern of others at hand and not the one to be liked more or more popular and I've no doubt we have our own specific examples.

3 different components I've learned about compassion are:

  • 1st component of compassion is Noticing when people are actually suffering, beyond the obvious signs, paying attention. Recognizing that a lot of other people's suffering is beyond the surface. There are so many reasons why others may be suffering and the more we recognize that we are each vulnerable beings, the more we can be aware of others.
  • 2nd component is to have Empathic Concern, which is the ability to resonate both cognitively and emotionally with others. We are bringing this from the previous blog, right into one of the components of compassion for others. Often in the past, I may have even seen and recognized suffering in someone or groups of people who I had difficulty with or had been in conflict with and even felt joy in witnessing suffering. This is a distorting factor to compassion and not having empathic concern. Or it may be the case that I see and recognize suffering but I feel nothing because I don't want to be in distress, this is quite common actually and it's also not an empathic concern.

Feeling a sense of Agency is the third component. I might witness suffering and I might feel genuine concern for another but if I don't feel like there is anything we can do about reducing the suffering, it's hard to show compassion, and likely that I will experience empathic distress. I felt this at times while living in Palestine when the injustice felt so enormous, that despite efforts and solidarity, at times, it just felt like there was nothing anyone could do, including myself to make a difference. There are also times when I saw my grandparents suffering toward the end of their lives due to family politics and the system that currently existed to deal with elderly people as they approached the end of their lives. It felt like I was unable to truly practice compassion at times. This can also change and that's important to share as even if I feel a lack of agency, by doing even the smallest things, I know I can often gain that agency back. Sharing with others, writing a poem, or sharing a creative effort of some kind and just being there and holding space with those who are suffering and feeling and knowing that it can make a difference, does make a difference. Hope is so important for compassion and for peace.

I mentioned this before on day 12 when making an initial link from compassion to peace but I mention it again today when exploring compassion in a little more depth. I'm currently sitting on a plane on my way home from home and compassion today is making more sense at least but it's great to constantly revisit how I see it and how I can hopefully implement it in my life. It was almost 7 years ago when I first started hearing and looking into the science behind compassion and how it can be a radical tool for peace. I owe a lot of gratitude to two people in particular who have influenced my practice and knowledge in this area and also given me an opportunity to share it with others.

Brendan and Michael are the co-founders of the CIT, compassion integrity training which I took while working as a peace program coordinator back in Derry, in the North of Ireland. I remember them specifically sharing with me, the different levels of compassion which we can all have at times, depending on our circumstances and capacity and it has always stuck with me.

Wishing compassion, 'how wonderful would it be to see fewer children suffering, how wonderful would it be to see fewer refugees suffering across the world, fewer climate disasters, less domestic abuse', and so on and so on. It's real and it is a genuine wish but with little agency and action based on my wish that suffering wasn't happening. 

Aspiring compassion involves a little more urgency, 'may there be fewer children, refugees, women, and girls, or nature-based suffering in the world', still no personal responsibility or much sense of agency but it's really none the less and I can relate to it very strongly. 

And the highest sense of compassion and agency is engaged compassion, 'I am going to do whatever I can to reduce the suffering of someone that I can see, suffering. I'm going to do it now. I may not know how right now but I will take steps either way. I imagine that I can have all three levels at different periods of time. If one of my daughters is suffering and myself and my partner are currently experiencing this right now, we will do whether it is we can to stop that suffering, get her support, and even medical intervention because that's what is needed.

If I think about the tragedies around the world right now, earthquakes and conflicts in the Middle East, Turkey, what is going on in Eastern Europe, in Eastern Africa, at this point right now in my life, I am not expressing engaged compassion, although I would love to be able to contribute through my work and solidarity efforts, it's not as possible for me to be fully engaged. This will also change. 

To finish today's blog, whether I am on the ground, in the air, or on a saddle while contemplating compassion, I see it as both an inner and outer strength, I see it as an emotion, a tool, and an option to work towards creating a world with more peace and closer to the world that MLK described and desired than the world that I currently see and play a part of. When I recognize Compassion, I recognize the many benefits to me on a personal level in terms of self-confidence, self-worth, recognizing the power I have to make a difference to the lives of others and myself.

It strengthens my connections with others and this can very healing and reassuring.

The Dalai Lama, a massive proponent of compassion in the world in all its forms and a founder of many centers for compassion around the world, is famous for saying. "When you practice compassion, the first person who benefits is you, yourself, so, If you want to be happy, practice compassion, if you want others to be happy, practice compassion".


Shane O'Connor



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