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
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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