Our Bloggers

Erika Rosenberg

Bringing Compassion into Everyday Life

Compassion is a gift that keeps on giving. When you develop a sense of connection and genuine concern for others, you not only help them with your presence and actions, you also give yourself a gift. How? By engaging in each moment with an open mind and heart, you learn not to run from any experience. As such, you become increasingly able to handle whatever life throws your way. Opening the heart develops strength, not weakness.
One can practice compassion both on and off the cushion. Here I offer a simple sitting meditation practice as well as 10 informal exercises for bringing compassion into your daily life. Pretty soon, the distinction between these modes of practice loses meaning. All of life becomes practice.

A Simple Sitting Practice for Cultivating Compassion
Once you are sitting silently and comfortably, become more aware of your body – inside and out. Feel where your bottom comes in contact with the cushion or chair. Feel the breath in your body -- the rhythm of the air cycling in and out. Cool air comes in, and warm breath goes out. This rhythm recurs over and over again. Notice the subtle but powerful transformation of the breath cycle. The cool air you take in is warmed by its contact with you. This is quite literally true, as the warmth emanates from your heart, which pumps warm blood throughout your body. The air in your lungs is warmed this way. Consider this as you draw in the next cool in-breath. You can think of your out-breath as a vehicle for carrying that warmth into the world. Make each warm out-breath an offering, a gift to those around you, ultimately touching all beings.
Now imagine that this warm out-breath is infused with a golden light, one that rains down droplets of joy on everything it touches -- including you. It is very important that you let yourself feel that joy. It is available to everyone. Let the joy rain down on you, and others, helping ease pain or suffering and supporting well-being. Relax in a light, openhearted space.

Off the Cushion and Into Life: A List of Informal Practices for Daily Life
The surest way to see if your formal meditation practices are taking hold is to put them to life’s test. See where you can apply the skills on the spot. Here are some informal practices for daily life.

1) Set the intention for your day: Try beginning your day by setting an intention. This is not a “to do” list of tasks you are hoping to accomplish. Rather, it is setting an orientation of how you want to move through your day, whatever you encounter. For example, my intention this morning was or “engage more fully with my kids.” Try something like that. It can be as simple as “breathe deeply,” “choose to be nice,” or as bold as “liberate all beings.” Setting an intention can color your day, in any way you choose. It can also serve as a reminder of how to approach every encounter.

2) Breathe out compassion: This one is easy, and it works anytime, anywhere. Try imbuing your breath with compassionate connection by breathing out compassion on every out-breath. No need for analysis, or whether the situation merits it, just breathe out compassion. Breathe in with your willingness to help others, breathe out joy. Your every breath is a gift in a totally impartial way. In this sense, compassion practice engenders equanimity.

3) Practice appreciation: Take a moment out of whatever you are doing to notice what was required to make that experience possible. For example, if you are drinking a cup of coffee, consider all the people needed to bring that cup of coffee to you; from the people who planted the shrubs and cared for them, to those who harvested, transported, and roasted the beans. Someone ground the beans, boiled the water – maybe you. Then there is the cup, which is made of materials that were gathered or processed or forged by so many others, etc. You can see how this exercise works. When you start extending your awareness to all of the conditions and people involved in making it possible for you to have a cup of coffee right now, you realize the somewhat miraculous web of relations behind this seemingly simple cup of coffee. This exercise enhances not only our sense of connection with others but also our sense of appreciation toward the richness behind the seemingly simple experiences of our daily lives.

4) Choose kindness: In any interaction there is a choice. Whatever you are handed –a confrontation, a challenge, a smile, or a handshake – you have options for response. The more spacious you are, the more time you have to mull over these options. Spaciousness confers freedom by giving you choices.
Experiment with choosing a kind manner of interaction, in all interactions. What is the behavior – action or word – that you’d most want to receive? Open the door for a stranger, smile and say hello to the cashier at the supermarket, begin a routine email message to a colleague or acquaintance with a kind statement before getting down to business, etc. You will notice how good it feels to foster a nice connection with others, and they will feel it too. It will warm and brighten your day.
In interaction with those closest to us, sometimes we respond automatically – almost reflexively -- not carefully thinking about their feelings. Pause and find a more thoughtful or gentle way of listening and talking, and you will notice how the interaction evolves differently than if you’d responded reflexively. If you choose kindness, even in a difficult confrontation, you can proceed more calmly and kindly. Ultimately, you will be more effective as well as happier.

5) Go gentle on yourself: Give yourself a break. Notice when you are harsh with yourself or experience a sense of regret for your actions. Remember that you – like all beings – just want to be happy and free from suffering. Practice choosing loving-kindness or compassion for yourself instead of harsh self-criticism or despair. Go easy on yourself – you are the only you you’ve got! Laugh at your foibles, and let them go.

6) Exercise a sense of connection with others: Try to really "see" other people in your life. At least once a day, notice someone you would otherwise not really "see," and contemplate, "Just like me, this person wishes to be happy, healthy, and free from suffering." Making eye contact, smile or say hi, and feel the warmth that arises in relation with others. It is important to not require reciprocity here – just make an effort to engage. The benefits of making connection will reverberate, even if the recipient does not immediately send a smile or thanks back to you.
Another approach is to notice something you have in common with someone who might be difficult for you, however small. For instance, you might recall that you both like chocolate or bicycling. These tiny points of connection help us realize how we are similar to others, even those with whom we have had difficulty in the past. In fact, the best gifts emerge when we connect with others who are not so easy to approach, and we choose to stay or engage anyway.

7) Be grateful: We get so busy in the details and pace of daily life that we often overlook all we have to be thankful for. At the end of the day, for a few minutes before you go to bed, think back over your day. Ask yourself, what happened today that I am thankful for? Try to enumerate the events or situations for which you feel gratitude. It can be a simple as a delicious piece of fruit, a roof over your head, or the great parking place you found this afternoon. Or it can be big and meaningful as a loving family. Recognize the things for which you give thanks. Scientific research shows that when people practice gratitude regularly – even briefly – they are happier and healthier.

8) Bring your heart into challenging interactions: Try opening your heart to an adversary, or to a difficult situation in your life. Notice where the resistance arises, feel how you tense up, and breathe in deeply to aerate that experience. Then breathe out. Breathe out the wish for no harm, the wish for all to be well. You will ease the knots of conflict, soften your responses, and make for a more fruitful engagement with the other person.

9) Practice being with suffering: When you are in its presence of difficulty, whether it's a news report or an upset or sick friend or family member, practice simply staying. Remember that seeing, being with, and wishing for the suffering to be relieved is an act of strength, courage, and compassion, even if you cannot "fix" or remove the suffering.

10) Notice beauty: Stop and breathe and look around. Lo and behold – the world offers up an infinite number of beautiful sensory delights. So often we get drawn into our own inner drama as we move through life, and we forget to notice beauty. Take a look, or a smell, or a listen, or a taste. It might be as simple as noticing a dewdrop on a flower in the early morning, the clarity of the sky after a storm, or the sound of rain on the sidewalk. Maybe the light hits the wood paneling in a room in such a way to highlight the grain of the old wood. An infinite amount of beauty resides in the mundane details of life. Try making a practice of noticing beauty 3 times a day for a week. These experiences are little doses of joy that can help buoy you throughout the day, infusing you with a sense of expansiveness.