The What & How of Compassion

Life always calls for compassion! Generating compassion for family, friends and community when we are all in this time of disruption may be more challenging than usual. Humanitarian, author and Zen Buddhist scholar Roshi Joan Halifax describes the following four conditions as a map for creating compassion: the capacity to attend to the experience of others; to feel concern for others; to sense into what will serve others and to act in order to enhance the well- being of others. That is the what of compassion and following is the how of compassion.

To be able to follow this map and navigate the terrain to generate these conditions for compassion, she teaches a process of G.R.A.C.E. To begin, we gather our attention. The affirmation Be Here Now is useful. To get here, use the instruction to put your mind and body in the same place at the same time. Do this preferably by placing attention on feeling one place in your body where you are already receiving strong input based on your homunculus (face, hands genitals, feet). Take a few slow breaths, with a long exhale.

The next G.R.A.C.E. step is to recall intention. Connect to what is motivating you to do what you are doing right now and FEEL its alignment with your values. As you prepare to engage, attune to self and other. Using the perspective of yourself as a happening in continual co-creation with your environment (inner, outer, other), pause and sense into your somatic experience all that is happening in your interaction as it unfolds. While we may be conditioned to react to the situation at hand with either helping or fixing, Halifax reminds us to consider what will serve. When we respond with service, we are appreciating the whole context of the situation and acting skillfully to relieve the suffering we have attuned to by sensing what is happening in ourselves and the other person. Engage and end is her final step. Once you are clear on what will serve, take the compassionate action you are able to take with the resources at hand. Sometimes this engagement may generate creative solutions for meaningful change. Other times, engagement is bearing witness together the suffering we experience in the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome of our situation. End with creating some symbolic gesture, such as shaking out your hands, or momentarily bowing your head, to signal to yourself you are closing the encounter to prepare for a next encounter.