As school started last week, my daughter entered her senior year. She was looking forward to being back at school to see her friends but had one specific mission last week—to help as many scared freshmen as she could.
When she was a freshman, she was terrified. She put up a good front, but her fear had been building all summer. The halls of high school promised to hold bully older kids, mean teachers and certain inevitable social faux pas. To make it worse, a friend got sick in front of the entire class in Biology, her very worst nightmare.
Somewhere in those first few days a few kind upperclassmen had given her directions to classes and shown her the ropes. This was her time to return the favor.
As she described a few encounters of the previous day, I noted she was an Ambassador of Compassion. As she got out of the car, she said:” I’m a Combassador!”
I would love to pat myself on the back and note what a good job I did as a parent. The truth is that basic compassion for ourselves and others is a skill most of us possess at some level. However, my own compassion rating for most of my life would be considered below average. I was self-critical and judgemental of others. Often.
My daughter was just born with more compassion. It is one of her gifts. She has been an excellent teacher for me. Also, I have learned the value of compassion and intentionally cultivated it over the years.
So what is the value of compassion?
First, I have found that recognizing that I, and everyone else, is human. We are going to make bad choices sometime, and mess up important conversations and be sad and scared and worried. It is the human condition. Yet in the past, I would try and power through, pull up my bootstraps, build walls around my heart thinking that would make me tough. Ultimately I just felt less, pain and joy, and also became very tough and lacked compassion towards others.
I thought being compassionate meant being soft and weak. I was wrong.
Compassion is an orientation of mind that recognizes pain and the universality of pain in the human experience and the capacity to meet that pain with kindness, empathy, equanimity and patience.
Compassion has been a learned skill for me. I have learned how to care for my own aching or worried heart and also how to show that care and kindness toward others. Research in the field of positive psychology is just beginning to track the ways we can cultivate compassion and has identified the habits of compassionate people.
A practice of Loving Kindness Meditation is a great place to begin compassion training. In this meditation, there are four lines you recite, first for yourself and then for others in your life. This practice has settled my nerves and given me something positive to do for someone I was terribly worried about.
How does it work? The research shows that a Loving Kindness meditation builds positive emotions. It focuses on developing feelings of goodwill, kindness, and warmth toward ourselves and others. Often when we are feeling bad, it is accompanied by a sense of separation from others which originates from feeling disconnected from ourselves.
As I have practiced really “being there” for myself, it has made such a difference in how I navigate life’s experiences. When I can see myself as vulnerable and human and accept my own pain with my own love everything shifts. I see how we all feel sadness, loss, disappointment at some time. We are all so much more the same than we think. We are all connected in that we are living a human life with all its challenges and joys.
A Loving Kindness meditation practice also had research-backed benefits beyond my own feel-good experience. Studies show that the brain’s areas that regulate emotions and are responsible for empathy and emotional intelligence are activated and strengthened through more gray matter in those areas.
With this practice, there is an associated reduction of pain, anger and psychological distress and significantly reduced depression and PTSD symptoms. Also, they can measure an increase in vagal tone, a physiological maker of wellbeing, which increases positive emotions and feeling of social connection.
Are you ready? It’s easy to begin, it takes just 10 minutes. Listen to the Loving Kindness Meditation here.
As I pulled away from the school, I smiled. How proud I felt of my daughter and how lucky to have my very own in-house combassador.
The world needs more combassadors. Will you be one today?