How to Cultivate Compassion

Here's a technique for grounding yourself to gain inner calm.

By Isaac Eliaz, MD

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How do we increase our compassion? In our fast-paced lives, it's helpful to have some simple practices that we can use to calm our own minds, release our self-focused anxieties, and increase our sense of connectedness with others. Many ancient traditions have such practices, which include various forms of meditation and visualization. Here's a basic yet profound meditation practice to help get you started: Sit comfortably in a quiet place and focus your eyes, your attention, and your breathing on a small object, such as a pebble. Focus your awareness and breathing on this object and let your mental chatter slip away with your "out-breath," your exhalation. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the object and to your breathing—imagine breathing in from the object, and direct your breath out to the object. This exercise is a simple variation of an ancient meditation practice called Shamata in Sanskrit, which translates to "calm abiding." This simple and effective exercise forms the foundation for more advanced meditation practices.

When we sit for even a few minutes and simply become aware of our breathing, we lay the ground for inner calm. From this calm state, we can begin to contemplate a simple, basic truth: that all beings want to be happy. This truth is a great equalizer; we are all the same in this most basic wish. In addition, calming meditations can increase our awareness of another basic truth, which is that everything is impermanent, including ourselves and all those we hold dear. When you allow yourself to feel this deeply, you will find that, sooner or later, your heart naturally opens and you feel a sense of the interconnectedness and preciousness of all life.

You may start to feel compassion more deeply if you practice visualizing someone close to you, or not as close to you, who is suffering with either a physical ailment or emotional turmoil. As you breathe out in a relaxed, meditative state, visualize sending love and compassion to that person with your breath, and imagine his or her negative situation.

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