Universal Compassion

I have a challenge for you – but first I want to write a little about universal compassion. Many religions and philosophies hold “universal compassion” as a moral value that we should try to practice in our everyday life. It is best defined as a desire to alleviate the suffering of others, and it is often a byproduct of empathy (our ability to understand another’s perspective) and altruism (valuing the welfare of others).

When I was younger, I have to admit I used to disregard a lot of empathy and compassion as meaningless and superficial. I recall watching news stories that seemed designed to tug at my emotions and manipulate me to feel a certain way. It seemed that if I didn’t sympathize or want to help others, I should feel guilty and ashamed of myself. In reality, I just wanted to take care of myself and discover my values on my own.

Over time, I learned to minimize my empathy and compassion for others. They were values that felt forced down my throat, and as a reaction I decided that I wouldn’t practice them. I wasn’t a moral nihilist, I just wanted to discover my own values for myself, like most people want to. I think everyone’s morality needs to be discovered for themselves, and blindly following other people’s values is always a recipe for disaster.

Then as I got older, and perhaps a bit more selfish, I noticed I couldn’t find happiness living this way. I used to harbor really negative feelings towards others. I found many people to be manipulators, liars, idiots, guilt-trippers, haters, and just plain evil. By this point I was already starting to get into personal development and trying to find happiness on my own.

Then things began to change. I had learned a lot of useful personal development techniques already (how to think more effectively, set goals, and so on), but there felt like something at my core was missing. I felt more rational than ever, but emotionally lost. I couldn’t make any sense of it.

Then, upon someone’s recommendation, I picked up Eckhart Tolle’s books Power of Now and New Earth. From that moment I began meditating and getting more attuned to who I was as a person or “self.” I gradually began to read more resources on Buddhism, Taoism, and Sufism, and I felt a wave of wisdom and clarity slowly crashing onto me.

I found that I was not as independent of a self as I thought I was. I was, in fact, quite interconnected to the people around me. I found that when I harbored negative feelings toward others, it was actually a reflection of my own insecurities and personality flaws. I didn’t like other people mainly because I thought they could never like me. The changed the way I treated others, which changed the way they treated me, and it turned into a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy.

The more I understood and experienced the metaphysical notion of “interconnectedness,” the more I realized how important empathy and compassion were. Because when people did things that caused me pain, I knew that was actually a reflection of their own suffering as well. I knew it, because I had been there myself.

With this understanding, I practiced becoming more empathetic and compassionate toward others. Not because someone on the news, or at church, told me that this is what I had to do (or I was evil). I did it because I could see clearly why I should value and contribute to the happiness of others.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”


In Robert Thurman’s book Infinite Life he describes a great metta meditation designed to expand our circle of compassion. We first start by sending positive intentions to those who are closest to us: friends, families or coworkers. Then we expand those positive intentions to the friends of our friends, families, or coworkers. From there we move on to showing compassion toward random strangers. Then, sometimes the most difficult step, is extending that compassion even to those who we dislike or consider to be enemies. Thurman describes a similar meditation in his TED video below.

Expanding Your Circle of Compassion

“It’s hard to always show compassion — even to the people we love, but Robert Thurman asks that we develop compassion for our enemies. He prescribes a seven-step meditation exercise to extend compassion beyond our inner circle.”

The Hitler Test

In light of this expanding circle of compassion, I wonder how many individuals can honestly say they have compassion for notoriously evil figures throughout our history, like Hitler or Osama Bin Laden.

It’s a question that I have pondered about for awhile (long before writing this post). I’ve asked people on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media if they could ever see themselves showing compassion to someone like Hitler and it has led to some really controversial debates.

I think this question is a good test for those who are trying to cultivate universal compassion. It helps to pay particular attention to our enemies, since those are the people who we often find most difficult to direct compassion towards.

To direct compassion toward someone like Hitler means that you sympathize with their suffering. Clearly, it takes a really sick man to do the atrocious things he had done. If only he had found true happiness and love in his own life, I doubt he would have acted so immorally. Perhaps if we can learn to better understand how to love our enemies, we can help reverse the cycle of suffering in this world.

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The Science of Self Improvement

How To Bring Out Your Best Self

Don’t just be yourself, be your best self. Take what makes you you, and then build and expand off of it. Being yourself doesn’t mean you have to stay fixed in place or always repeat the same patterns of behavior. Instead, self-actualization is a never-ending process that keeps going moment-by-moment, day-by-day, and year-by-year. We are constantly recreating ourselves and discovering new things that make us who we are.

Here are some core principles to take into account as you try to improve yourself throughout this journey of life. They are principles that I believe apply to all realms of personal development. If you are trying to be more healthy, or having more meaningful relationships, or improve your career, then you can follow these principles and have a better understanding on the things you need to do to evoke your best self.

Identify your positive attributes

Whenever we find things about ourselves that we want to change, it’s very easy to focus only on our flaws, and forget the positive attributes we already have. Say you want to build more meaningful relationships, but you have a lot of past blunders. You may fall into the trap of thinking, “This is all who I am. I am just an awkward individual who doesn’t know how to interact with others.” But more than likely this isn’t true. Instead, you probably have some positive experiences with individuals, you just aren’t as likely to recall them while you are wallowing in your self-pity.

Think harder. I’m sure there are people who like you, now ask yourself, “What do they like about me?” Then take out a piece of paper and list out some of these positive attributes. Maybe you are:

  • Funny
  • Smart
  • Respectful
  • Interesting
  • Loyal

Everyone’s list of positive attributes is going to be a bit different – it’s important you remain honest with yourself.

You can then expand on this list by recalling events in your life that reaffirm each attribute. Remember that one time you were at your friends house and you told that awesome joke that everyone laughed at? What about that time you helped someone with their math homework? Or that time you offered a listening ear when someone was going through a rough time in their life?

You see? You aren’t as incompetent as you may have first thought. By giving yourself periodic reminders on the things you’ve excelled at, you can better cultivate these qualities in the future. And by reflecting on these positive moments in greater detail, you may re-discover qualities about yourself that you had since forgotten. Use these past memories as a resource to learn from and build upon.

Raise your expectations

Some people have what is known as an “Upper Limit Problem.” They want to improve themselves, but only up until a certain point. Once they’ve reached that point, they stop. Maybe they don’t think they deserve to go any further? Maybe they are actually scared of too much success? Or maybe they weren’t ready to do what it takes to maintain their new life?

Of course, no one can be infinitely successful, but the “Upper Limit Problem” hurts most when people know they are capable of more, but choose not to pursue it. They essentially halt their own growth, even though there is more potential to be tapped into. I imagine not pursuing something that you know you are capable of can be very frustrating. There is always that “What if?” question lingering in the back of your mind.

  • What if I actually took that job as CEO?
  • What if I married someone who I thought I really deserved, instead of just settling for what was available in the moment?
  • What if I finally finished that project I had been working on?
  • What if I took that vacation to Europe back during my college years?

When we don’t expect much out of our lives, we tend to settle for things that could’ve been better. Some people have a habit of lowering their standards whenever their goals become a little more difficult then they would’ve liked.

But “successful people” (and I use this term loosely – because there are many different ways to be successful), are always trying to raise their standards. Maybe you’re a screenwriter who has already written 3 movies, but you want your next one to be your best. Maybe you’re a musician who is already signed to a label, but you want your next album to go platinum or win you a Grammy. Maybe you’re a blogger who is happy with 100 visits a day, but now you want to work your way up to 1,000 visits a day.

When average people achieve something, they become complacent to their current position in life (which isn’t always a bad thing). But when successful people achieve something, they are always looking for that next plateau.

I would recommend everyone to at least have one aspect of their life where they are constantly raising their standards. It gives you that feeling of “constant growth and progress,” which really gives you that sensation of being alive. It screams passion.

Discover positive role models

When trying to achieve your best self, it is often useful to discover positive role models that embody characteristics that you would like to cultivate for yourself. You can find these positive role models anywhere: in movies, literature, TV shows, or in your real-life interactions with friends, family, and other strangers. You can use these influences as a resource to look up to and learn from. Imagine what they would do in certain situations, then model that behavior to see if it works for you.

Of course everyone’s different and no one is perfect, so you shouldn’t model everything from just one person. Instead, mix and match what works for you. Mike Tyson is a good model for having a competitive attitude, but you wouldn’t want to model his reckless behavior outside of the ring. Bono may be a good model for philanthropy, but you don’t have to necessarily enjoy his music. Being able to model people’s positive attributes, even if you don’t necessarily like them as a whole, shows intelligence and maturity.

Discovering positive role models in my own life has been one of the most effective strategies in my personal development. I currently have a list saved on my computer of over 100 different people who I think have personality traits that I would like to build within myself. I consider them archetypes I have consciously built in my mind, they symbolize different attributes like Humor, Courage, Spontaneity, Intelligence, Sexuality, Good Communication, among other things.

Be ready to experience growth pains

Change is often always met with some kind of resistance. It takes a bit of wiggling to sometimes get comfortable in your new self, and you should be aware that when you first start making changes you are going to feel an urge to snap back to your original form (this may in part be due to the “Upper Limit Problem” discussed earlier).

As I’ve mentioned in other recent posts, it is nearly impossible to go through any stage of personal development without some level of discomfort or pain. It’s one of those things that is inevitable, but also a good sign that you are pushing yourself and exploring new territory. Successful athletes, for example, learn to embrace their physical pain as a sign of growth (this is epitomized in the popular phrase “no pain, no gain”). But similar pains are often experienced throughout other forms of personal development: starting a new relationship, a new job, or some other personal goal. The pain can be psychological as much as it is physical, but it will likely be there as you create your best self.

Please beware that not all pain is necessarily good. It may also be a sign that this isn’t what you really want. In that case it is important to reflect back on your values and goals, then determine if there is something to them that you hadn’t considered. Maybe when you were young you got the false impression that you wanted to be a doctor, but as you went through Pre-Med school you noticed the subject matter didn’t really interest you anymore. In that example, it may be appropriate to re-adjust your goals to something more suiting. Don’t just push through all pain blindly – make sure it is a sign of growth and not a sign that you are doing something that isn’t congruent with your best self.

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The Illusion Of No Control

The illusion of no control

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits recently wrote an interesting piece called, “The Illusion of Control.” In it he describes how our efforts to control our lives and our surroundings are fundamentally flawed and worthless. We cannot control things, Leo argues, because our world is too complex, and the future is ultimately unknown.

I partially agree, but I also find his position a bit absolutist:

    “When you think you control something, you’re wrong.”

No, at least not always. When I consciously make a decision, I’m taking control over my actions. When I choose to say something nice, hug someone, or do some other act of loving-kindness, I am indeed taking control over my pattern of behavior.

    “Consider the fish. A fish swims in a chaotic sea that it cannot possibly control — much as we all do. The fish, unlike us, is under no illusion that it controls the sea, or other fish in the sea. The fish doesn’t even try to control where it ends up — it just swims, either going with the flow or dealing with the flow as it comes. It eats, and hides, and mates, but does not try to control a thing.”

It may be a bit presumptuous for any of us to try and understand the psychology of a fish, but I would argue that a fish is not under the assumption that it has no control over anything.

Have you ever tried to catch a fish with a net before? The fish does not sit idly, drifting with the current, going wherever destiny seems to take it; instead, it reacts to the net by moving away and seeking freedom.

How much of the fish’s actions are conscious or unconscious is beside the point, the fish acts as if it has a mind of it’s own (and I would argue it does!), and this mind determines some of that fish’s destiny.

If a boat comes by and kills the fish, sure, there may have been nothing in that fish’s capacity to change those circumstances. But just because some things are outside of our control doesn’t mean everything is outside of our control. Often there is a middle ground – and there should be a balanced understanding between what is inside our control and what is outside of our control.

The stoics were one of the first schools of philosophy to take this compatibilist approach to the question of free will vs. determinism. One of the core tenets of their philosophy was finding the balance between the consequences of free will (which they defined as “prohairesis”) and the consequences of what they called “cosmic determinism.” They believed both were intertwined into the laws of causality that determine our reality.

In other words, we are neither complete puppets to external circumstances, nor are we the sole determiners of our reality. There is in-fact a gray area between this black-and-white approach.

Buddhism takes a similar compatibilist approach, although it is more practical than theoretical. Buddhists believe that through meditation one can increase attention and gain insight into what thoughts and attitudes influence their behavior. Then, using this knowledge, we can learn how to change our pattern of behavior by living more consciously and adopting new attitudes. This is why mindfulness has shown to be effective for exercising better self-control over impulsive decision-making often found in those with addictions or Borderline Personality Disorder. (See Alan Wallace’s “Achieving Free Will: A Buddhist Perspective” (PDF) for more on this pragmatic approach to free will and determinism.)

The point I think Leo Babauta was trying to make is that many people sometimes overestimate their influence over their world. This can be an unhealthy attitude because it leads us to assign unnecessary blame for things that are outside of our control. A best friend may get into a car accident, an earthquake happens in Japan, or a mother has a miscarriage, and they exclaim “Why me?! What did I do to deserve this?” The truth is sometimes things just happen regardless of what we do. Just like the fish gets hit by a boat and killed, we too experience things that we have no power to predict or control. This is a very important warning to keep in mind, and I’ve expanded on this idea before in posts like not everything is in your control.

At the same time, some people also have the tendency to underestimate their influence over their world. They become something like a lifeless automaton, letting the wind dictate wherever they go, without a care in the world as to where it may lead them. At times, such a “letting go” attitude can be beneficial, but other times it is a denial of our ability to change ourselves for the better. When we see a handicapped person crossing a road, it is not outside of our control to walk over and help them. In such a case, a “whatever be, will be” attitude actually inhibits us from making a positive difference.

We can’t control many things. We certainly can’t control the past, and our influence on the future is also limited. But in the present moment – when we make conscious decisions – we are indeed exercising our control over our lives and the lives of others. I don’t think it is smart to deny this responsibility.

Leo says in his “Illusion of Control” post that his new attitude allows him to stop making goals and plans. I have a hard time believing him. So he doesn’t meet up with friends at a restaurant or bar? What about when he goes to a blogging expo (that doesn’t require planning?!) Is there also no effort or planning involved when he writes a new post or book? Although he uses absolutist words in his article, I find it hard to believe that he can consistently practice this attitude at all times. In fact, the very action of trying to write a post that (presumably) changes people’s minds to believe in the “illusion of control,” ironically assumes some realm of control.

The point of this post isn’t to criticize Leo (I’m actually a big fan), but to take a more realistic approach to the problems of free will and determinism that many people seem to struggle with. In the end, I think a compatibilist approach is the most accurate and practical. We aren’t fully responsible for everything that happens in our lives, but we do have some responsibility so long as we are conscious and thinking beings.

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God Gave You A Mind – Speak It!

Speak your mind

I believe our minds are the most powerful things we have, yet each one seems to be a bit different. We all have different thoughts, ideas, values, and beliefs about the world and how we should live in it. I personally think it’s great, because the more diversity we have in our thoughts and beliefs, the more we have to learn from each other. I believe that everyone’s perspective has something valuable to offer; for the same reason, it pains me to see people not speak their minds when they may have something important to add to the discussion.

But I understand it can sometimes be difficult to say what we really think. Every individual faces social pressures to conform. And often times being ourselves requires some kind of “rebellious” behavior. Perhaps that is why I like and admire many rebels – they stand up for themselves despite the impulse to conform. I find that even when I greatly disagree with someone, I still appreciate it when they speak their minds. It’s kind of weird actually, because I find myself having more respect for people who I disagree with who at least say what they think, rather than those who I may agree with but rarely stand up for themselves

“If a man isn’t willing to take some risk for his opinions, either his opinions are no good or he’s no good”

Ezra Pound

I guess life is too short to shut up and not say anything. You’re a part of this world, you experience it everyday, you must have something to say about it – so go ahead and do it. That’s the attitude I adopted when I first started writing this blog. At first I thought, “Why should anyone listen to what I say? I’m not an expert in anything.” But then I thought about it more, and I realized I had an obligation to speak my mind. I have strong beliefs about things, as I imagine everyone does, and it would do the world a disservice to not share those passions.

Diversity of human thought is a good thing

I believe the diversity of human thought is one of our greatest advantages as a species. When different minds come together and share what they believe, there is little telling what can be accomplished. Of course, our differences also fuel a lot of conflict and competition (sometimes even violence), but when done right I think we are all better off. When we learn how to understand different viewpoints, it fosters intelligence, empathy and compassion.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, American author

The more people learn to speak their minds and understand different viewpoints, the stronger we become as a society. When we can feel free to speak our minds, disagree, argue, or debate without resorting to personal insults or aggression, then I believe we have achieved a level of freedom, tolerance, and compassion that cannot be replaced.

I don’t think we will ever reach a point where everyone believes the same exact beliefs. In fact, as our society evolves, I think the diversity of ideas will only grow greater and greater. Therefore, it is required that we also expand our tolerance and compassion for these differences, especially if we want to get along and survive in the future.

The cost of speaking your mind – and why you should pay it

Of course, speaking our mind will always come with certain risks. If the diversity of ideas continues to grow, then there will always be people who disagree with us. They may even insult or threaten us when we say something that gets under their skin. But that’s a cost we might have to be willing to pay.

I’ve been writing for two years now, I’ve had plenty of people criticize me along the way. I’m not sure if it can even be avoided. Usually, I just thank them for their opinion and carry on my merry way. I know that I can’t please everyone, especially if I’m being honest with myself. Sometimes, it’s more important for me to be honest with myself than to try and meet the unrealistic goal of making everyone happy. When I learned to accept this simple truth, I found myself much more free to express myself.

Respecting others opinions makes it easier to voice your own

I’ve also noticed that when you have respect for others opinions, it becomes easier to speak your mind. If you accept the idea that everyone has their differences, and you can tolerate those differences, then you don’t have to voice your opinion with the intent to persuade others. You can just voice your opinion to share what’s on your mind – but there is no pressure to get everyone else to agree. As a result, you are often more willing to put yourself on the line.


End on a good note

Regardless of what happens during your interactions with others, there is always an opportunity to end it on a good note. Maybe the conversation gets too heated, you both yell at each other, exchange insults, maybe even spit in each other’s faces. People’s animalistic instincts can sometimes kick into gear when they are talking about something they are really passionate about. It’s not pretty, but it can happen.

Despite it all, it’s usually better to forgive and let go rather then hold life-long grudges. Maybe you said something that really upset someone, maybe they said something back that really upset you. But usually disagreements are not as serious as we make them out to be in the moment. Take a step back, remember that people have different perspectives about things, accept it, and let it go.

You deserve to take up space

If you find yourself being too reserved most of the time, and not expressing yourself when you really want to, remember that you deserve to take up space every now and then. You have ideas just like everyone else, and there is no logical reason that everyone should take up the spotlight but you. You have an absolute right to speak what is on your mind, when you so choose to speak it. Don’t let others deter you from saying something that you think is important.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes every now and then

Occasionally we are going to speak our mind and instantly regret it. That is another risk we have to be willing to take when engaging in free speech. We don’t always know how someone will react, we also don’t always know the best way to communicate our message, but good communicators are willing to put themselves out there and possibly get some backlash. It’s only in those moments where we test our boundaries and fail where we learn how to adjust our speech so that it is more effective in the future. But if we never test those boundaries, then our speech remains limited and we never learn how to improve it.

Pay attention to your verbal cues

Sometimes the words we use are correct, but we say it in a way that still irritates others. Remember, how you speak is just as important as what you say – and much of our communication is dependent on our tone, volume, pitch, and the pace at which we speak. Become more mindful of these characteristics of speech whenever you engage in an interaction, and you will greatly improve your communication.

Know when to shut up

I know it’s ironic that I’m telling you to “shut up” in a post about how to speak your mind, but there are times when it is appropriate to end an interaction. Sometimes you can tell when nothing good will come from a conversation. Maybe your values are too different, so it’s better to just let it go and not share your thoughts with someone – especially if it may jeopardize civil discourse in the future. Remember, it’s not necessary to put your 2 cents in on every topic; there is a lot of wisdom in someone that knows when to just be silent.

Finding your own balance

In the end, I don’t want it to sound like I’m telling you when you should speak and when you shouldn’t. That is a balance that will be different for everyone, and there is no way I can discern what’s good from what’s bad, because it depends on so many different factors. You have to explore that for yourself.

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The Myth of Overnight Success

overnight success

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it is important to me that I’m realistic about self improvement and success.

I read a lot of different blogs and sites on self improvement, and I notice that it is popular (and probably more profitable) to give others a false image of instant gratification.

People don’t just want to be happy or successful, they want to be happy or successful right now.

The problem with this desire is that it ignores the work and effort it often takes to achieve something in life. It’s a process that takes time to carry itself out. There are no magic pills to take, or blueprints to follow, that will give you everything you want automatically. Overnight success is a myth.

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