Jonathan spero

Widening the Circle of Compassion

 
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We may find that we can easily connect with the struggles and conflicts of those we love, and extend love and compassion to them, but we may feel quite indifferent to strangers, and when it comes to people we do not like, such as competitors and adversaries, we might even feel happy that they suffer because it gives us an edge over them or justifies our desires of retribution and revenge. So, the next challenge on our journey is to find a way to be compassionate toward those who do not fall within our immediate circle of concern and to turn away from taking pleasure in their suffering.

Compassion is not about being superficially nice so people will like us; it is not weakness, softness, or letting people off the hook if they cause harm. Compassion is about keying into the nature of suffering, understanding it to our core, and recognizing its sources; but just as important is committing ourselves to relieving pain and to remain hopeful for the future alleviation of suffering for all. We come to realize that whatever differences there are between people, in essence, we are all seeking the same things. Compassion requires strength, determination, and courage within an emotional context of kindness and connection with others.

Try this:

STEP 1: Think of someone whom you neither like nor dislike, but have some form of contact with on a daily basis. It might be a bus driver, the person who serves you a coffee or drink on the way to work, a classmate, or someone you see on the bus every morning. Bring to mind an actual person. 

STEP 2: Think that, just like you, this person has dreams, hopes and fears. Just like you, this person finds themselves in the flow of life and struggles with their emotions, life circumstances, and setbacks. Just like you, this person struggles with feelings of anxiety and anger and self-critical thoughts; they are hurt by rejection and boosted by love.

STEP 3: Now imagine this person facing suffering in some way: perhaps dealing with conflict at work, struggling with addiction or depression, or feeling lonely and unloved. 

STEP 4: Then allow your heart to feel tenderness and concern for this person and offer the following heartfelt wishes:

1.    "May you be happy and well."

2.    "May you be free of suffering and pain."

3.    "May you experience joy and well-being."

Notice how you feel when you express these wishes. Perhaps there is a natural flow of care and concern, or perhaps you feel indifferent or even irritated by the exercise. If you notice yourself feeling shut down, irritated, or resistant, simply be curious about this and notice where you feel this in your body. Is there tightness in your face, jaw, or shoulders, or tension and contraction in some other part of your body? Try to be gentle and honest, not suppressing the emotions you are feeling. Try looking” from the balcony,” so to speak, as an observer of how your threat and compassion systems are clashing in some way. Then, affirm your intention that although you cannot open up to this person right now, you make the wish that one day you may open your heart more fully.

STEP 5: Now shift perspective and think about how this person to whom you feel indifferent loves and cares for some people; there are people who look forward to seeing them when they come home from work; there are things in their life that they cherish. In this way, reflect that your indifference or neutrality is about you and the way you see things; it is not intrinsic to them.

STEP 6: Reflect that just like you, this person wants to be happy, and just like you, this person wants to be free of suffering and pain. Just like you, they want to be loved, safe, and healthy; and just like you, they do not want to be despised, lonely, or depressed. Let the poignancy of this person touch you. 

STEP 7: Then, let the image of this person fade and spend a few moments tuning in to the feelings that may have arisen in you, noticing in particular how this feels in your body.

STEP 8: Now, shifting your awareness to someone else who you know is having a very difficult time. Maybe it is someone at school or in your personal life. It should be someone who's going through a rough time and someone who you care about. Bring this person to mind along with the awareness that they're struggling right now. Let yourself feel what you would wish for them. You may wish them wellness, happiness, or contentment. There may not be specific words, but more of a general feeling. Perhaps it is care in general, or wish for their well-being.

STEP 9: Imagine them receiving your compassion, that simple wish for well-being, and the sense of care. 

NOTE* You may wish to expand your wish of compassion more widely to anyone experiencing difficulty or pain. You may say to yourself “May everyone's suffering end.” Can you believe that? “May everyone feel a sense of care. May everyone be well.” 

STEP 10: As you breathe out, breathe out compassion for others, and breathe out your sense of care to the world.

STEP 11:  If you're not able to connect directly with feelings of compassion, just bring kind awareness to whatever it is you may be experiencing in this moment. Just notice what you're feeling. Breathing in compassion for myself, and breathing out compassion for others. Breathing in compassion for myself, breathing out compassion for others.

The Benefits of Feeling Gratitude

 
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We all think of gratitude as benefiting the person on the receiving end. However, is gratitude also good for the person who is grateful? 

Robert Emmons, the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude, has been studying its effects and the results are very convincing. Dr. Emmons has studied more than one thousand people, from ages eight to eighty, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:

Physical

• Less pain

• Improved sleep

Psychological

• Higher levels of positive emotions

• More focused

• Greater confidence

Social

• Greater empathy

• More forgiving

• Increased connection with others

The social benefits are especially significant here because gratitude is a social emotion. You see, first, gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there is good in the world. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore challenges, negative situations, burdens, and hassles. However, when we look at life as a whole, gratitude highlights and emphasizes the positives in our life.

The second part of gratitude is figuring out what is contributing to the goodness in our lives. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. Gratitude involves a humble dependence on others. We acknowledge that other people and things give us many gifts that make our lives better. 

What good is gratitude?

So what’s really behind Dr. Emmons’ research results—why might gratitude have these transformative effects on people’s lives?

I think there are several important reasons, but I want to highlight four in particular.

  1. Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present. By focusing on being grateful our brains actually change. Our neurobiology shifts to one that makes us feel better and one that makes us a higher performer in life.

  2. Gratitude blocks negative emotions that can destroy our happiness. A 2008 study by psychologist Alex Wood in the Journal of Research in Personality shows that gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression. (This makes sense: You cannot feel grateful and have negative emotions at the same time.)

  3. Grateful people are more stress resistant. There’s a number of studies showing that in the face of serious trauma, adversity, and suffering, if people have a grateful attitude, they’ll recover more quickly. So, in fact, a sense of gratitude is the most important when someone is going through challenging times.

  4. Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. When you’re grateful, you feel that others are looking out for you—someone else has provided for your well-being, or you realize that you have a network of people in your life that value you and contribute that other to your life. Once you realize that other people have seen the value in you, you can transform the way you see yourself.


We want to feel more gratitude—and we want our students to do the same—because gratitude is so closely associated with happiness that the two are practically indistinguishable from one another. The opposite of gratitude is entitlement, which brings negative feelings like disappointment and frustration. But when we feel grateful, our world fills with positive emotions like love, compassion, enthusiasm, and confidence—and our satisfaction with life soars.

What we’ve learned from the gratitude interventions that don’t work is that one size definitely doesn’t fit all. So how can we help an adolescents become happier through gratitude?

The first thing to remember is that teenagers’ unique developmental task is to be independent: to break away from you, the adult who is asking you to appreciate what they do for you.

So every time teens take your advice—about how to be happier, or by following your instructions for practicing gratitude—they are setting themselves up to remain dependent on you. Which doesn’t feel good. Herein lies the problem.

This doesn’t mean that we should give up on teaching our students to feel and express more gratitude in their lives. Here are some suggestions for practicing gratitude with your students:

  1. Let teens lead. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to practicing gratitude—and a gratitude practice is going to be a lot less effective if it is seen as a chore or an assignment. So tell teens you want them to design a gratitude practice for themselves. And give them options to choose. for your whole family this year. credit, even if they come up with something you suggested weeks ago.

  2. Use gratitude to cultivate the growth mindset in difficult times. What did you learn from that terrible experience? What good came out of it, despite the difficulty?

  3. Be persistent. When teens feel authentic gratitude, it is a positive emotion for them just like for everyone else. When they create a gratitude practice that works for them, feelings of gratitude will become habitual, hopefully built into their daily lives

Below are some of the specific steps I like to recommend for overcoming the challenges to gratitude.

  • Gratitude Journal - Gratitude journals have been shown to be an effective approach to helping children be happier: One study had 221 sixth- and seventh-graders write down five things they were grateful for every day for two weeks. Three weeks later, these students had a better outlook on school and greater life satisfaction compared with kids assigned to list five hassles.

A Gratitude Journal can be just listing just five things for which you’re grateful every week. This practice works, I think, because it consciously, intentionally focuses our attention on developing more grateful thinking and on eliminating ungrateful thoughts. It helps guard against taking things for granted; instead, we see gifts in life as new and exciting. 

  • Grateful Thoughts - Another gratitude exercise is to practice counting your blessings on a regular basis, maybe first thing in the morning, maybe at the end of the day. You can use concrete reminders to practice gratitude, which can be particularly effective in working with children. What are you grateful for today? You don’t have to write them down on paper.

  • Think Outside of the Box - Mother Theresa talked about how grateful she was to the people she was helping (the sick and dying in the slums of Calcutta) because they enabled her to grow and deepen her spirituality. That’s a very different way of thinking about gratitude—gratitude for what we can give as opposed to what we receive.