Hands holding out a heart sized pink rock.
Hands holding out a heart sized pink rock.

The importance of compassion right now

This article was originally published on Smiling Mind.

Cultivating compassion – for ourselves and for others – is more important than ever right now. Here, we find out how powerful meditation can be when it comes to developing compassion.

The caring nurse, a parent cuddling an upset child, the teenager helping an older person across the street, these are all examples of compassionate behaviour towards others. Compassion is commonly thought of as an emotional experience in which an individual experiences a state of concern for the suffering or unmet need of another, coupled with a desire to alleviate that suffering.

It has been suggested that the world would be very different if all of us felt ‘global compassion’, which means widening our sphere of concern beyond those who are familiar to strangers.

Practicing this may help us to view the behaviours of others, including the bad, with greater understanding and empathy. Similarly, a compassionate view towards the health of others at this time may encourage increases in awareness of how our own actions and behaviours, such as continuing to heed governmental health advice, can significantly impact those we have never met.

Meditation and compassion 

Buddhist teachings have long held that compassionate responding is a key outcome of meditation. It is only more recently that this has been confirmed by Western science.

In 2013, a study from David Desteno’s laboratory at North Eastern University demonstrated very neatly the impact of formal meditation practice on compassionate behaviour in a waiting room setting.

For the study, 39 individuals were recruited and randomised into either eight weeks of meditation or a wait-list control group. At the end of the eight weeks, all participants were invited to the laboratory, but instead of undergoing tests, they were secretly observed to see how they responded to a woman walking into the waiting room with crutches and a walking boot, who was visibly in pain.

The study showed that those who completed eight weeks of meditation offered their seats to the sufferer more frequently than those who did not meditate. In fact, three times as many meditators offered their seat than non-meditators. As a result, this study became one of the first to show how powerful meditation can be in increasing the compassionate response to suffering.

Cultivating compassion while washing your hands

It is recommended that we still regularly wash our hands for at least 20 seconds, which is significantly longer than the time most of us were accustomed to before the pandemic.

As we continue to develop this habit, we can use it as an opportunity to cultivate compassion, both for ourselves and all other people.

Each time you wash your hands, consider saying the following words silently in your mind. Say these words slowly and deliberately, and as you do so try to connect to a genuine feeling of care and concern for all humans, including yourself:

May all beings be safe; 

May all beings be healthy; 

May all beings feel loved, supported and cared for.

If you are interested in cultivating compassion in your own life try the Smiling Mind app that contains many meditations that will help to support compassion.

You can download the app for free and listen to one of these meditations now.

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