How to Cultivate Compassion in 12 Words

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
~ from Mary Oliver's poem Sometimes

How does one cultivate compassion? Why should we even bother? Mary Oliver answers these questions in just 12 words. If we read between the lines we will find the beautiful gifts we give and receive from compassion cultivation.

Instructions for living a life:

The word cultivation, according to, means “the process of fostering the growth of something” and “socialization through training and education to develop one’s mind or manners.” Throughout our lives, we develop relationships with ourselves, others and the world.  We are socialized by our experiences sometimes developing habits that close off our hearts and increase our suffering. While we will always have pain and suffering, as this is the human condition, through the deliberate act of cultivating compassion we can re-train our minds (neuroplasticity!) to relate to our experiences with loving awareness. We can grow compassion!

Viktor Frankl writes, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In that response lies our growth and freedom.” Let us choose a compassionate response, to live a life that cultivates love, kindness and care for humanity. To do so, we must take steps to cultivate compassionate thoughts and actions. It takes seeing the weeds of destructive habits, gently pulling them out, replacing them with seeds of compassion, and watering daily so they may take root and grow. This is compassion cultivation –  instructions for living a life –  and the gifts are bountiful.

Pay attention.

This is the essence of mindfulness, to be present in the moment. Meditation is a means to nurture such attention. Jack Kornfield describes meditation as being “able to stop and listen to the music of life with a sense of reverence, connectedness, and awe.”

Learning and practicing to pause, to be still, to be in the moment, is such a gift in this world of constant to-do lists, smartphones, and the physical and emotional demands of our hectic lives. Even more than ever, do we need tools to help us slow down, take a break from multi-tasking so that we can connect to our inner lives, to our loved ones, to our world. Often we are doing something other than tending to the parts of ourselves that are in need. It can be scary to pause; it can be quite vulnerable for some of us. Self-compassion is most crucial when we are afraid of feeling exposed, especially to ourselves. 

Meditation is a gift we give ourselves, a form of self-compassion. While there are many forms of meditation, I have found compassion and loving-kindness practices to be profoundly influential in supporting my capacity to trust that my heart can handle all that life offers. These practices help us to see our innate goodness that no one can take from us. We begin to see the goodness in others too, even our adversaries. Practices of compassion cultivation, whether it’s through meditation and/or daily actions are the sun and water that support our growth in living a loving and compassionate life.

Practice: Try to notice someone you would otherwise not really “see” and contemplate just like me, this person wishes to be happy, loved and appreciated. See the effect of this small shift in perspective. 

The act of paying attention can go deep and wide, encompassing not just ourselves and our families, but the broader world. Engaging in compassion cultivation is a robust daily action, fostering an unconditional friendship with ourselves, and our ability to see others through a lens of empathy, kindness, and shared humanity. 

Be astonished.

Compassion cultivation is like putting on 3D glasses. The beautiful and uniqueness of life jumps out at you. The world is an amazing phenomenon. It is so easy to take things for granted or get caught up in our bubble. We are all weathering this life; we are not alone in our ups and downs. When we cultivate compassion, we are growing roots of appreciation for life in its many forms. The leaves with the rain drops sitting on the sidewalk as we rush our children to school catch our eye. We appreciate the sound of the wind through the trees and hear the truth that we are interconnected. We are grateful for someone holding the door for us. When we are suffering, we are more likely to be open to receiving the hug or the hand. Cultivating compassion nurtures our astonishment with all that is within us, surrounds us and connects us. This fills us with joy, hope, and happiness.

Practice: Pause throughout the day and recognize the simple everyday joys, and let this fill you with warmth and appreciation.

Be astonished with your capacity to live wholeheartedly. We all have value and something to offer this world. This truth can get covered up with layers of conditioning like shame. We are bombarded with messages that we are not good enough, worthy enough, happy enough. We are enough just as we are at this moment!

At first we may not even know what we offer, and once we do it may look different than we expected.  As we pay attention, nurture a loving awareness, we begin to take off the layers of protection and truly see ourselves. People who cultivate compassion tend to become less critical and more forgiving of themselves, happier, and better able to managing intense feelings like anxiety.  We increase our resiliency, increase our acceptance of ourselves and others, and increase feelings of gratitude. 

Practice: Every day, list up 3-5 things for which you feel grateful.  After a week, take notice of its effect.

Tell about it.

We embody what we practice. And this speaks to people. As I began to engage in compassion cultivation practices, I started to notice more acts of kindness. I began to share my gratitude with others, including strangers. Tara Brach shares, “The greatest gift we can give someone is to mirror back their goodness.”

Practice: Next time you see someone act thoughtfully or kindly, thank the person.  Pay attention to the person’s body language, facial expressions. Pay attention to how it makes you feel.

As we grow in living compassionately, we tend to notice rather than ignore suffering including our own. We show up more for ourselves and for others. The words that come out of our mouths tend to be more loving and caring. And when they are not, we provide ourselves with self-compassion and forgiveness so as to become lovingly aware of the suffering that underlies those thoughts and actions. We become more forgiving of others and have more empathy because we understand that one’s unskillful response is due to an underlying unmet need or some degree of inner tension, just like me. It’s helpful to notice how we show our care and concern for others and vice versa. This way we strengthen the roots of compassion.

          Practice: Can you think of one thing you have done within the past week that shows your care and concern for someone or a              group of people? Can you think of a situation where you received care and concern from someone, possibly in an unexpected              way? How did this affect you? Savor it! Speak about it! Keep doing it!

These are the instructions for living a compassionate life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

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