Chapter 1: Introduction
We may think that compassion is being nice, which isn’t going to solve any problems. Yet, compassion is what gives us strength to be with the discomfort of not reacting and creates a space for mutual understanding, trust, and ultimately transformation.
Many of you know me from at least one of the roles that I play—as a mindfulness teacher, an Amherst Town Councilor, a researcher with a focus on integrating mindfulness in business, or as a friend. Would you continue to like or work with me if I told you that I voted for Donald Trump?
I ask because I’ve been struggling with this question myself. I have friends and family who voted for Trump. Many folks in my childhood home—Kuwait—still favor him. I grew up with a mindset not too different from theirs, and yet here we are. It’s been hard for me to comprehend how people I love and admire could vote for a man despite his history of bigotry[i] against African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, immigrants, women, and people with disabilities, among other problematic actions and policies.
I know I am not alone in this predicament. Many of my friends on Facebook have reacted with a range of emotions—shock, grief, anger, frustration, and anxiety—in response to the fact that more than 70 million Americans voted for Trump. Many of his followers are equally enraged albeit for different reasons.
Donald Trump is no longer going to be the president, but we still have a lot of work to do. Poverty, racism, hunger, homelessness, climate change, and other socio-economic issues existed even before Trump was elected. Moving forward, regardless of how people voted and which party they belong to, we’ll need to work together to address these issues that have surfaced, perhaps more clearly for all to see and harder to ignore.
Now that Biden has won, the question coming up for me is:
How can we engage with people who voted differently from us to work towards creating safe, just, and thriving communities?
The solutions will entail work at the individual, collective, and systemic levels. One skill we’ll need by the bucketload is compassion.
If you think compassion is a sappy, kumbaya thing or reserved for special s/heroes like Mother Theresa and Gandhi, I hope this article will change your mind and inspire you to explore and use it. Based on research on individual and systemic change, compassion is an essential skill.
Chapter II: What is Compassion
Compassion is Not Kumbaya!
As for suffering I do not wish even the slightest;
As for happiness I am never satisfied.
In this, there is no difference between others and me.
Bless me so I may take joy in others’ happiness.
– Tibetan text by the first Panchen Lama
It’s easy to think of compassion as being nice or not hurting anyone’s feelings, when in fact, it’s not at all about political correctness and niceties. Compassion requires courage to look at the uncomfortable truth and take actions to alleviate suffering. But it also involves humility that comes from understanding that we’re all human and we’re all shaped by the circumstances we find ourselves in, many of which were not of our choosing.
Would I have voted for Trump if I had stayed in Kuwait, surrounded by the same friends and family who espouse his values? Who knows? This is only to say that in a not-so-far-off parallel universe, I could have been the very person I am now questioning. We’ve probably all heard this, but it’s more relevant now than ever before: “Don’t judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes.”
Before we go into why compassion is essential to healing and working together in a divided nation, it might be helpful to have a shared understanding of compassion.
Compassion originates from the Latin word “compati,” which means to suffer together. We all have a sense of what it means to “suffer together” when people we love or care about are going through a difficult time. How we respond to others’ suffering may differ and we may not use the word compassion, but we each feel something and have a natural inclination to help ease the suffering of those we care about. What’s more challenging is to feel pain and do something for others when they’re in the outgroup, as confirmed by this study.
Based on a comprehensive review of different definitions of compassion, this study proposes a definition of compassion as a cognitive, affective, and behavioral process consisting of these five elements:
1) Recognizing suffering
2) Understanding the universality of suffering in human experience
3) Feeling empathy for the person suffering and connecting with the distress (emotional resonance)
4) Tolerating the discomfort that arises in response to the suffering person (e.g. distress, anger, fear) in order to remain open to and accepting of the person suffering and those we disagree with
5) Motivation to act/acting to alleviate suffering.
To summarize, compassion is our ability to feel, understand, and be motivated to alleviate suffering in others based on our experience of shared humanity. This includes our capacity to remain open and non-judging even towards people we disagree with. This capacity is strengthened by recognizing that suffering is a shared human experience. No one—regardless of their age, gender, wealth, race, or class—is spared from experiencing illness, disappointments, old age, and death.
I hope you too can see that compassion is far from a kumbaya feeling that’s touchy-feely. It emerges from our willingness to approach life with courage, kindness, and humility. It’s easy to react and judge others based on their worldviews when they are so dissonant with our own. Giving in to our righteous anger and desire to condemn is so compelling, but when did that ever change anyone’s behavior?
What does any of this have to do with undoing racism and building safe, just, and equitable communities? Let’s take a look at what research has to say about that!
Chapter III: The Power of Compassion
What’s Compassion Got to Do With This?
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
–Martin Luther King Jr.
Compassionate Communities Flourish
From an evolutionary perspective, compassion can be explained by Charles Darwin (1871), who stated that “those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best” (p. 130). Being compassionate is not just a nice thing to do, or something we do for others, but a way of being that makes all of us stronger as a community.
Compassion Helps Reach Our Goals
At the intrapersonal level, there’s compelling research that self-criticism compromises our goals, whether they are academic, health-related, personal, or professional. Speaking to ourselves with compassion, on the other hand fosters self-awareness, pleasant feelings, and the motivation to reach our goals. My dissertation on our inner dialog revealed that a compassionate inner dialog involves being gentle and accepting of the more critical voices within us, which leads to a moderation of negative behaviors, while self-criticism keeps us stuck in negative behaviors.
The Transformative Potential of Compassion in Intergroup Prejudices
Do the benefits of compassion work similarly in interpersonal relationships? There’s growing evidence that it does. But before I share some of the research I found on the role of empathy and deep listening in political contexts, I want to share this moving Ted talk by Megan Phelps, former member and spokesperson of the Westboro Baptist Church. To provide some context, her grandfather was the founder of a church, which has been denounced by Baptist conventions and other Christian denominations for its extremist views and hate speech. Her 20-year antigay picketing career came to an end because a few strangers on Twitter, who later became her friends, were willing to engage with her about her beliefs with curiosity and compassion. Here’s an excerpt from her Ted Talk:
“My friends on Twitter didn’t abandon their beliefs or their principles – only their scorn. They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being – and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain and violence.”
So now let’s test this theory—compassion and curiosity can change intergroup prejudices—with 501 voters who were approached by 56 canvassers in a 2016 study to reduce transphobia. Even though intergroup biases are deeply ingrained in childhood and hard to change thereafter, this Stanford study showed that a single, approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging perspective taking and deep listening markedly reduced prejudice for at least 3 months.
People’s Action, a multiracial movement to build a government and economy that puts people and planet first, used the above approach, which they call deep canvassing, to shift presidential vote choice in the 2020 elections. They had a 3.1% overall impact on decreasing Trump’s vote margin, which is 102 times more effective per person than the average persuasion programs. This has proven to be one of the only field strategies that can tangibly shift presidential vote choice.
Why deep canvassing works is because the canvassers engage the voters with non-judgment, curiosity, and authentic sharing, which creates an emotional connection and trust. When people feel heard, they are more likely to reciprocate, and it opens up a possibility for transformation.
The Hands Across the Hills project is another example of the transformative potential of dialog and deep listening. After the 2016 elections, this project got Kentucky and Leverett, MA residents to visit and live with each other’s families to understand why “red state” and “blue state” voters see things differently. One of the Kentucky residents whose family worked in the coal mines shared this:
“As someone studying to become a special education teacher, watching Trump mock a reporter with a disability spoke to me, but then when I asked my dad about it, he said, ‘Yes, that is serious, that is bad. But if I don’t have food to put on the table, and I don’t have money to pay the electric bill, then I’m not even going to see the news or hear these things he’s saying about these people.”
Responses like these completely shifted Leverett residents’ judgments about Trump voters. When these people came together not with the purpose of changing each other, but to learn about each other, change did happen.
“One of the things that’s changed for me,” said Kentuckian Gwen Johnson, “is when something’s going on in the news, I kind of check in with the folks up here to see what they’re thinking. And before, I didn’t think they cared about what was going on down home. And I found that they do indeed care. … We never at all thought that any other part of the country cared about the things that were being done to the folks down home.”
Transforming our judgment and blame into curiosity and compassion has a far greater chance of shifting intergroup prejudices than, for example, calling someone a racist or bigot. One of the most profound acts of compassion is to not box people in, as this opens possibilities for people to show up differently. I have found that when I show up with compassion, it sets a different tone and creates a safe space for others to share their concerns. That being said, it’s not always easy to be empathetic, especially towards people who we feel have had unfair advantage or wronged others.
Chapter IV: How to Develop Compassion
How to Be Compassionate When We Least Feel Like It?
As I shared earlier, we’re wired to feel empathy for those in our in-groups, but not for those in the out-groups. How can we disrupt our habitual reaction to fight-flight-or-freeze in the face of disagreement and instead invite curiosity and compassion?
Because of neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to rewire itself to adapt to new circumstances—we can retrain the brain for compassion and in turn, for a better world. Here’s how.
1 Habits of Kindness
Are my thoughts, speech, and actions kind?
We can actively cultivate habits of kindness. Like the Dalai Lama said, “We should be kind when possible. It’s always possible.” Starting with our inner dialog with ourselves, we can choose to be kind, even when we disagree or encounter discomfort. Throughout the day, we can align our thoughts, speech, and actions with our intention for kindness.
2 Finding Similarities
What’s one thing I Share in Common with This Person?
Find similarities with people we disagree with. In the examples that I cited above about deep canvassing, the canvassers trained themselves to be curious and connect with the voters as human beings, finding values and life experiences in common. I’ve used this strategy when angry people have approached me as a town councilor to voice their concerns. Their anger often feels unjustified and misdirected at the town council. A reminder that these people care about the same issue that I care about helps me to calm down and focus on the gaps in our understanding of the issue and of one another. When I ask questions without emotional reactivity, the conversation typically ends up being more productive than letting my amygdala (i.e. the emotional center of the brain) hijack our conversation.
We can actively develop compassion with a practice that I learned from my mentor and favorite mindfulness teacher, Mirabai Bush, called Just Like Me, Loving Kindness practice. This practice helps us remember what we share as human beings.
Who would I be had I lived this person’s life?
When people, especially those who are close to me, disagree with me or don’t care about issues that I care deeply about, such as social justice and equity, it’s hard for me to stay empathetic. Sometimes I can, while other times I fail to be open and non-judging. During those emotional lapses, I forget that if I hadn’t moved to the US and had the opportunities to see things the way I do now, I would’ve perhaps reacted to things very differently than I do now.
In moments of righteous anger, I forget to acknowledge another human being’s lived experiences. What was their upbringing like? What’s important to them and their loved ones? Like the people in the Hands across the Hills project, we can learn so much about each other when we drop our judgments and stop trying to change the other but start with just getting to know each other.
4 Right Understanding
Even when we’re convinced we know the other person’s motives and perspective, it’s good to ask the question: what else am I not seeing, sensing, understanding? For example, I saw many people on Facebook pigeonholing Trump voters into a homogenous group that are “full of hate” and bigots. When I looked up research on Trump voters I discovered a range of reasons that people voted for him. In one study, researchers found five unique clusters of Trump voters: American Preservationists (20%), Staunch Conservatives (31%), Anti-Elites (19%), Free Marketeers (25%), and the Disengaged (5%). Out of these clusters, only the American Preservationists had nativist and ethnocultural conception of American identity and preferred being around people like themselves. That’s all to say that the majority of Trump voters are not outright bigots and racists. (Albeit see meaning of racism under Act with Intention).
Based on an understanding that people have had different cultural, educational, and circumstantial experiences that have shaped their fears and motivations, we can seek to understand them as human beings before wanting to change them or keep them at distance.
Sometimes it’s helpful to have a group of trusted people who we can approach when we feel stuck and need help with seeing other possibilities.
5 Motivation to Alleviate Suffering
What can I do to alleviate suffering in myself and others?
This is where the rubber meets the road—what actions are we taking to alleviate suffering in ourselves and in our communities?
- Act on Your Intentions: Even though your intentions may be good, are you acting on them? For example, I’ve heard people say that they’re not racist because they’ve done a lot for Black folks in their community or have relatives who are people of color. However, Kendi, an author, professor, and historian of race, defines a racist as “someone who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” By this definition, if you’re supporting policies and people that are racist, then you are being racist. However, being a racist is not a permanent tattoo and changes based on the choices we’re making at different times. He also reminds us that being an antiracist is like fighting an addiction. It requires “persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” Again, proceed with self-compassion.
- Think and feel, before you react: When you act, will your actions alleviate suffering or add to it? For example, when you call someone who is being racist “a racist,” is that going to help them become anti-racist? It depends. If you have a trusting relationship, you should point out when your friend is being a racist, albeit with kindness. Be assertive and curious. On the other hand, if you’re tempted to react to a racist comment on social media (or even in real life) made by someone you barely know, resist saying something that is only going to create more divisiveness and make you feel worse. Use discernment over when to engage and how.
- Create compassion circles: When we feel overwhelmed or hopeless, it’s easy to shut down because it’s hard to stay with the discomfort of not knowing what to do to overcome big issues like racism, climate change, and homelessness. It’s easier to give up or become complacent. If possible, create/participate in compassion circles that include people you can work with to develop intrapersonal and interpersonal compassion in your family, at work, on your college campus, and so forth.
- Act local: It’s important to vote in the national elections but given the state of politics, you may have a bigger impact when you act locally. Encourage your local governments to pass resolutions and bylaws to reject prejudice and bigotry and take actions to address systemic gaps in education, housing, youth empowerment, employment, and business among other areas in which inequities exist.
- Reach out to people different from you: See if you can help create or participate in safe spaces for people with different views to meet or make an effort to know people who think differently from you. We’re living in our own bubbles and that needs to change! Only when you get to know those who are different from you, can you realistically hope to work together in meaningful ways.
Chapter V: To Be Continued..
Compassion is a practice. We can never quite say that we’re there. I’ll end with these words from the book, Compassion in Action, written by Mirabai Bush and Ram Das, which offers these two questions as we explore compassion:
What are the roots of my caring action?
What have we to offer one another to alleviate suffering?
As we continue to deepen our practice of compassion, these questions can invite us to go deeper and question our motivations for our compassionate actions. When I check in with my motivation before a project or a meeting, despite my good intentions, I often catch myself making “me” the center of my actions. Will I have impact? Will I make a difference? There’s nothing wrong with wanting those things per se, but if we’re not aware of our hidden motivations, they take over and distract us from the real work of alleviating suffering where it’s most needed. The attachment to getting the outcome we want becomes more important than the process of how we get there and how we show up for each other. When we can see and let go of our self-aggrandizing desires, doing the right thing becomes so obvious and natural. Self-awareness and compassion go hand in hand.
The second questions is also important, especially when we engage with people who think differently or belong to the outer-group. It’s easy to let our minds filled with righteous anger and indignation block us from seeing clearly and acting compassionately. If we can remind ourselves in those moments that this person—no matter how powerful, how arrogant, how ignorant or whatever judgment we have of them—is also looking for exactly what we’re looking for, to belong, to be accepted, and to be seen as a good person, we may be able to open space in our judging mind to allow for other possibilities to exist. Reacting on our judgments is easy. Seeing our judgments and choosing to keep an open mind and heart, that requires compassion.
Every time we disrupt our defaults—righteous anger, resist, fight, shut down, judge, be complacent, or walk away—and take a moment to connect with our shared humanity, we open up the possibility of making it a safer, equitable, and thriving community, town, state, and country.