A Lesson in Compassion: Practice Makes Perfect.

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~a guest post by Kristen at 32 Ounces of Goodness~

Confession: I’m a self-help junkie. I’ll buy any book or listen to any podcast teaching me how to be more patient or efficient, and I read any article with suggestions on how to sleep better or become more connected to my chakras (I actually have no idea how to connect to my chakras, but maybe that will be my next task). I am in the constant pursuit of self-betterment and have no ability to selectively filter my sources of advice; I’ll take it from anywhere and everywhere I can get it regarding just about anything.

Whether you’re a self-help addict like I am or not, I think we all want to improve ourselves – at least to some degree. Most of us have goals for becoming healthier, smarter, richer, or just better at the things we want to do, and a lot of us are willing to put substantial time and energy into achieving those goals. I have always loved the idea that if you’re terrible at something you can practice it until you’re not, that initial states of ineptitude are fleeting and not defining.

But what about the things that do define us such as if we are patient, hard-working, funny, smart, rude, short-tempered, gentle, or lazy? The qualities that we consider to be the pillars of our being… can we practice and alter those? Science would say yes! To spare you a detailed explanation of neuroplasticity that I would unquestionably bludgeon with my elementary neuroscience vocabulary, just know this: emerging neuroscience says that you can change most things about yourself if you make the effort to. That’s the important takeaway.

Over the past several months, I have been putting this concept to the test. In another segment of my epic journey towards self-improvement, this summer I have been focusing on one particular quality that I would like to build: kindness.

I’m going to inject a defense of kindness here because it is supremely underrated. All of my closest girlfriends agree that it is more important to them that the men they date be smart instead of kind, and when was the last time we elected someone to office because they were nice? While kindness is by no means the only valuable trait a human can have, I really can’t think of one that is more likely to bring happiness to those who possess it and surround themselves by others who do as well. Intelligent people can tend to be cruel, successful people tend to be tired, and fun people tend to be tiring. Kind people are wonderful and in a critical shortage. I think everyone should want to be kind.

But how do you practice kindness? It’s actually pretty easy. For the past two months, I have been trying three different methods for becoming a kinder person, and while my peers, co-workers, and family may be able to more objectively testify to the efficacy of my attempt, I feel like I am a kinder person. It’s hard to describe what that means, but I know that I have become kinder because I have become remarkably more compassionate to the person I find it most difficult to treat with goodness and dignity: myself.

At the start of this journey, I could not go more than hour without thinking something negative or critical about myself. I encourage you to spend one day of your life keeping track of how many times you send cruel or defamatory thoughts to yourself – you may be surprised. While I don’t think I have any outstanding self-esteem or self-love issues at this time in my life, I could not find it within me to just think kind thoughts about myself, even when I found it easy to do so about others. I also encourage you to keep track of how many critical or unkind thoughts you feel towards others, even if you don’t express them. Above all else, the most important thing I learned from this journey was that it is almost impossible to act in compassionate ways if you are actively combatting a swarm of negative and rude thoughts in your head. To be a kind person you have to feel like a kind person. That means no more rude thoughts.

Alright. If you made it this far, you’re a trooper, so let’s talk about how to practice kindness. In typical self-help fashion, I have three pieces of advice. I have been doing these three things every day since the beginning of May, and I genuinely believe in efficacy of all of them. I’m not a neuroscientist, I’m not a behavioral psychologist, I am not an expert. You can take what I say with a grain of salt, but I am writing this as a happier person than I was when I first undertook this journey, and happiness is something I wish for you, something that I hope you wish for yourself. You can stop reading here, but even if you don’t care about becoming kinder, please believe that you deserve the highest forms of kindness from others and yourself.

No more Facebook.

Okay, not exactly. I still have a Facebook and I use it every day, but I never check it more than three times a day, and I have completely removed it from my phone. Facebook can be hard to rid yourself of because if you’re like me then you are part of networks and communities that communicate primarily on Facebook. I had hoped to delete my Facebook at the beginning of the summer, but because I cannot lose access to some of the group communications, the best I could do was reduce the amount I use it and my access to it. And what a difference if made.

I’m not anti-Facebook, for the record. I think social media is an amazing, beautiful, and exciting artifact of our time. The ability to connect with others in a multi-media platform from across the world is ingenious and exciting. Unfortunately, the way most of us utilize Facebook is anything but that. It’s tedious, it’s draining, it’s emotionally toxic, and it’s holistically unnecessary to our lives.

The first time I ever realized how Facebook makes people meaner was when I was in high school. The boy I dated informed me one day that some girls from his school had found me on facebook and he’d overheard them saying cruel things about me and going through my pictures. I, and most people I know, are guilty of doing the same, and to strangers nonetheless. I have observed friends spending entire hours on Facebook going through other peoples’ posts and photos saying critical and judgmental things. Facebook offers us a platform to judge others and judge we do. Facebook makes us meaner.

I genuinely don’t know why this is. As I’ve now learned, it’s just as easy to get on social media platforms and search for positive things to say and think about others, but most of us make no attempt to do so. We sit on our phones and look at other peoples’ projected selves, usually either criticizing others or criticizing ourselves for not being as pretty/exciting/happy/etc. as others. It’s absolutely toxic.

The underlying advice here is to not judge others by immediate impressions and to not compare yourself to others. These are both nebulous and daunting tasks that require constant attention and time. So start smaller – eliminate the forums in your life in which you are most likely to make snap judgements and compare yourself to others. For many of us, the most dangerous and frequent site of these behaviors is social media. In whatever way you feel you can afford to (and you can probably afford to more than you’re willing to admit), rid yourself of these things. You’ll be surprised by how little you miss it.

Do not speak negatively of others without reason.

It usually happens in groups, and it usually masquerades as comedy. People love to get together and say rude things about other people. We usually call it gossip, and sometimes we call it complaining, but almost always it’s unnecessary and can only add negativity to your life.

There is certainly a time and a place for expression frustration or anger with people who are upsetting you, but sitting by the pool with friends, bashing someone who isn’t present and who you haven’t seen in weeks, probably isn’t the time or place.

Complaining less in general is another mountain-sized goal you can try to achieve here, but the simplest step on your journey to getting there is being observant about when you or those around you are speaking negatively of people who aren’t present. Ask yourself if you could be talking about something else or if the conversation is productive? Is it a conversation that could improve your relationship with the person you’re talking about? Is it something that would reflect on you poorly if it was somehow publicized? Asking yourself these sorts of questions can help you filter what you say about others.

If you don’t want to shut down negative talk by calling people out, try throwing a positive comment into the mix. Even if you have nothing nice to say, you can always remind others that the person they are talking about is not their problem, and maybe if is just best if you all create distance between yourselves and that person if they are truly so negatively impacting you. There are people in the world who deserve to be criticized and complained about, but all of us deserve to be criticized and complained about at some point. Do it when it’s productive, and be self- aware when it’s not. Thinking and speaking kindly of people when they’re not present makes it easier to do when they are.

Guided Compassion Meditations

I saved the best for last. Of all the things I’ve done this summer to expand on my ability to be nice to others, this one has made the most tangible and remarkable difference.

I was introduced to the idea of compassion meditations by a dear friend who took a course at our university in which they practiced empathy meditations the way they are conducted by Buddhist monks. The idea is pretty simple: bring yourself into a peaceful state and once you are in a state of mental clarity and serenity, think compassionate and empathetic thoughts about others.

If you don’t have access to Tibetan monks every day, Youtube has tons of guided compassion meditations. They range from ten minutes in length to two hours, and they’re all a little different. Some use music, some ask for you to lie down, and some begin with very long segments of focused breathing exercises. I have my personal opinions on which ones I enjoy more than others, but you could really give any of them a try. Go into the experience with a purposeful and open mind, and commit yourself to the meditation – that’s the only rule.

In these meditations, you are asked to think certain phrases repeatedly about people you love, people you hate, or yourself. You will be asked to be compassionate and recognize that everyone deserves a life free of suffering and pain. If this sounds easy, it’s not. While it’s easy to wish well onto your parents or friends, it’s not so easy with people with whom you experience tension. I found it almost impossible to do towards myself.

But compassion meditation has given me a functional skill that I never imagined possible: the skill of centering my thoughts and finding a vibrant desire to desire happiness for others including strangers. Compassion training has altered the way I see people: my first reaction to strangers is less likely to be one of annoyance or judgement, and is now usually one of either neutrality of positive affect: I find more people attractive, I am more interested in talking to strangers, and I feel more willing to make small sacrifices that might improve the environment I am in. Kindness, it turns out, is most easy to exemplify when you are feeling grateful and excited about what is around you. Compassion training has been teaching me to feel that way when I am in otherwise neutral states, and to bring myself to feel that way at moments when I notice myself becoming enraged or upset. If you only try one of the things I’ve suggested, try this one.

Life is hard for everyone. While we are all afflicted with different struggles and adversities, all of us must overcome battles within ourselves and in our lives. You cannot know what others are experiencing, but you need not know someone’s struggles to feel empathy and love towards them. Good people act in ways that are kind, but great people feel in ways that are kind. In pursuit of whoever and whatever it is you want to become, consider adding kind to the list, if not for the benefit of others, then for yourself. You and everyone around you is deserving of kindness and happiness, and each of us is capable of practicing those things. Know that you deserve to feel good and wish that for others, even if just in this moment. Every second of practice counts.

Sending positivity and love always!

–         Kristen

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