Compassion When it is the Most Difficult, but the Most Necessary

Anger. Hatred. Ignorance. Oppression. Prejudice. Violence. Inequality. Intolerance. Fear. Discrimination. The list of words to describe the darker aspects of American society as displayed this past Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia seems to be endless. The content of this blog post has morphed significantly as events have unfolded, and the horribly shameful response by our nationally elected leaders nearly led me to abandon the idea of writing about the link between mindfulness, compassion and social justice all together because, really, who the hell can feel anything other than anger and fear at a time like this? But then I recalled a quote by the Dalai Lama that I sometimes use in therapy when helping my clients practice self-compassion: "Love and compassion are necessities, they are not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.

So most of us can probably agree that having compassion for the counterprotestor who was killed and for her family is easy, right? And I find that many people feel for all the counterprotestors who were at the Unite the Right rally. And some of those folks feel compassion toward all the disenfranchised groups in society who were more generally the target of the rally's white nationalists' protesting. But of course it's much, much harder to find anyone who isn't actually aligned with the alt-right and white nationalist movement who will say that their compassion extends to the protestors themselves. And at this point, you might be asking, "Why would we even want to have compassion for those people when they very clearly don't exhibit compassion for others?" But it's precisely because they struggle to have empathy and compassion for others that we need to have empathy and compassion for them. 

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, compassion means "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it." By definition, to experience compassion necessitates being aware of, or mindful, of someone else's suffering and having sympathy for it. In thinking about the white nationalist protestors, it might be hard to see them as the ones in distress or the ones who are suffering. But I invite you to explore your own personal experience. Have you ever gotten so angry at someone that you felt like you could kill them? Have you ever said that you hated someone? Have you ever said terrible, hurtful things to another person, maybe even on purpose? Have you ever held a grudge? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you know what it is like to suffer, even if mildly, the negative consequences of overwhelming anger that eats us up inside.

Imagine the world with with a different vocabulary.

Imagine the world with with a different vocabulary.

Now, imagine experiencing that anger or hatred, not just against one person in the heat of the moment, but against an entire population of folks on a daily basis. What would it feel like to hate an entire segment of the population and then feel a need to turn that hate into action? Do you imagine that such people are generally happy, contented, and well-adjusted? Do they view the world from a positive, hopeful lens? Is it likely they experience the gift of true inner peace and the joy of living in harmony with others? No! I imagine that most of those who marched in the rally on Saturday, as well as many of those who supported or defended those who marched, are chronically angry, frustrated, impatient, isolated, stressed, tense, anxious, hostile, scared, and pretty much lack any sense of peace and contentment in their lives. They are always at war and can never relax. I get sad just thinking about anyone living their lives like that day in and day out.  

Mindfulness Tip #2: Increase your capacity for experiencing compassion toward yourself and toward others by practicing loving-kindness meditations (AKA, metta meditation

Compassion includes a call to action. Rather than simply stopping at having sympathy for someone else, compassion entails having a willing desire to end the suffering of someone else. This is the Dalai Lama's direct point. Humanity cannot survive without compassion because without compassion, we will self-destruct. Without compassion, the anger continues...the hatred continues...the intolerance continues...the fear continues... And out of the anger, hatred, intolerance, and fear comes interpersonal violence, chaos, war, and possibly, eventually, human destruction. So, hating the haters only serves to perpetuate what scares us when we see white nationalists marching and spreading their rhetoric. But having compassion for the haters allows us to respond differently. To find ways of actively and peacefully trying to alleviate their suffering so that they no longer have a motivation or purpose for marching. In this way, mindful awareness, leads to recognition and acceptance of the problem as reality, without judgment, but with a desire and motivation to change reality for the better. And if every single one of us makes it a priority to practice compassion toward ourselves and toward others in our daily lives, a new vocabulary list of words replaces the old one. Words like Love. Healing. Tolerance. Strength. Courage. Joy. Peace. Contentment. Unity. Empathy. And who doesn't want that?

Wishing you peace and contentment always,

Dr. Alysia Griffin