Suffering appears for all humans in this life. It is experienced in myriad ways, such as when feeling anxiety, experiencing depression, losing a loved one, feeling lonely, illness, aging or seeing others harmed. When we recognize suffering in ourselves or in others, responding skillfully to that is compassion. Compassion includes a quality of kindness or concern that we each naturally have within us and we regularly express. It arises in many forms, including listening to a sad friend or soothing a crying child, or contributing time at a soup kitchen. Compassion has a variety of qualities that include integrity, morals/values, altruism and empathy. So, for example, we may be guided by integrity to “do the right thing,” which is based on our morals or values. Empathy is present as we resonate with another person’s experience, like the loss of a loved one because you have lost someone. Acting in a selfless way to help another is altruistic (e.g., giving to a humanitarian cause).

Essential for compassion to arise is being present to our own experience and/or to the experience of others. We all know what it feels like to be really listened to when we are upset, to really know that we are heard. However, being present is challenging because there are so many distractions in our daily lives. Cellphones, social media, to do lists. When we gather our attention, we are here, embodied in the present moment. When we are fully here, and our hearts and mind are connected, we can respond more skillfully from the heart.

What helps you focus, settle, gather your attention? Perhaps a morning run, a slow breath, or contemplative prayer. As mentioned, being embodied enhances accessing our compassion. You might pause just now and notice your body and mind as you read this. Perhaps take a breath. Notice what is true in your body: is there tension, shoulders hunched, jaw clenched, relaxed? Placing your attention in your body brings you into the present moment and therefore provides the opportunity to also connect with the person or situation before you.

For whom do you have compassion? Your family, your neighborhood, those you feel alignment with, those you don’t know or don’t like? Compassion tends to arise most easily for those close in, like family, friends, coworkers. And yet we can also respond compassionately to those we are less connected with in our daily lives. This may lead to sending money to those in need, helping to gather donations, or volunteering in a local support agency.

What about those we don’t agree with, dislike, whose behavior offends us, or who cause harm? If you can’t directly prevent the harm or unskillful behavior, then what can you do? How can you respond from a place of care and not fear or hate? Can we have compassion for them? Perhaps we could have curiosity. What must it be like to be them? What led them to this behavior? How have I acted like this? We don’t want to condone their behavior and we want to hold them accountable. They too need care. Hating or punishing another is not skillful, though it might feel protective. We can choose not to put them out of our hearts. This is one of the greatest challenges of responding compassionately.

Equally important is compassion for ourselves. We too can experience external causes of suffering, such as physical danger or threat of violence, that require a response. We need to care for ourselves and remove ourselves from those situations. Also, the daily stresses in our lives can be emotionally and physically depleting. So take a moment to attune to your physical and emotional body and notice how you are feeling. Do you feel tense, pain, relaxed, anxious?  Taking a moment to acknowledge what is true for you. Maybe at this moment you need some care or kindness. Whatever nourishes you… a hug, the night sky, a walk. In these busy days of doing, stopping, taking a moment for yourself is an act of care for others. When we refill our well, our resilience is buoyed and we can then respond with more openness and kindness to another.

The Rev. Jean Ashland is chaplain at Waldo County General Hospital.

GBAM, an interfaith group, envisions a world in which faith unites, rather than divides people. It gathers monthly to support one another and our community. The group can be reached at 338-4482 or on its Facebook page, GBAM – Greater Bay Area Ministerium.