Widening the Circle

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to enhance all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
— Albert Einstein

The problem is: if we perceive the universe to be an unfriendly place, we tend to also see unfriendly people in it. The media that dominates our culture reinforces the notion that all that is bad. It preys on sensationalism elevating emotions of fear and alarm desensitizing us over time. Our image of a depraved world, accurate or not, causes us to retreat to the small circles that we know and trust.

So how do we find and extend compassion to others, let along strangers, in a world filled with widespread fear, anger, and hate?

Through the lived experience of our own suffering.

In Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford, we learned first about the suffering that we experience in the cycle of our own self-concern.

Suffering is anything that is other than that which we want it to be and the root of suffering is our resulting psychological distress. We escalate it through habitual mental gymnastics, wishful thinking, woulda, coulda, shoulda thinking, and over analysis. By practicing self-compassion, we can shut down our default mode of blame, self-pity, and judgment.

Then we learned how to treat the self as a friend, expressing support and loving kindness.

Next we moved beyond the self toward a broader concern for others and the concept of common humanity – that “just like me” others wish to be happy and free from suffering.

In this way, our own suffering becomes the gateway to widen the circle of compassion for others. The suffering that we see and experience in the world can be a catalyst to do something meaningful about it.

Compassion is an understanding that suffering is the base of what it is to be human. It provides us an ability to engage with difficult situations as they are and respond with A Fearless Heart.

In a moment of suffering how might we gain the greatest peace? At times a fierceness is needed to combat the impacts of dehumanization. When we forget our common humanity, conflict and violence find space to emerge.

Compassion looks beneath the action to the actual person, acknowledging our humanity without endorsing bad behavior. Compassion does not condone immoral behavior. It is not blanket forgiveness. Nor does it always lead to reconciliation. It is not an unconditional acceptance or approval. It is simply an ability to be with the TRUTH of suffering without turning away.

Compassion brings our shared humanity back into view. Whether realized or not, there is a universal responsibility in our interconnectedness. Whatever happens to one happens to others. By living equally for ourselves and others we can find a more lasting joy and peace.