The importance of emulation in compassion

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In some versions of the  lovingkindness (metta bhavana) meditation practice we start by calling to mind a benefactor — someone who has been kind to us. The significance of this is that we’re remembering what kindness is like, connecting experientially with it so that we remember what it’s like to be looked at with kind eyes, to hear kind words in a kind tone of voice, to see kind body-language, and to be on the receiving end of kind actions. This makes kindness real for us, so that we can become kinder ourselves.

The reason I think this is important is that in cultivating kindness and compassion we’re all limited, and we’re all in need of outside help in order to become less limited.

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We all have genetic and cultural conditioning that makes it hard for us to cultivate compassion. We might aspire to be kind and compassionate, and although sometimes we will succeed, we will often struggle. Sometimes we fail to notice suffering or respond compassionately to it. Sometimes we behave in ways that make people suffer. We have blind spots that prevent us from even recognizing that we are acting unkindly or harshly.

We often just don’t know how to act differently. I was brought up in a household where I didn’t witness many examples of kindness and compassion, but instead saw a lot of criticism and harshness, and where suffering was often dismissed. Those were behavioral patterns that were impressed into the substrate of my developing brain, just as they’d been impressed into my parents’ brains, and into their parents’. This kind of conditioning causes the very blind spots I was talking about.

People who had the blessings of a genuinely empathetic and compassionate upbringing have very different patterns imprinted in their neural pathways. They know what compassion looks like, sounds like, and feels like. They know how to behave when face with someone’s suffering.

Ultimately, we’re never going to figure out compassion all by ourselves. We can make a certain amount of progress on our own, but our most powerful breakthroughs and insights are likely to come from learning from other people. That learning might come from a book, course, or video, or perhaps more likely just from seeing examples of compassionate behavior in action. Witnessing compassion can be an “aha!” moment. We realize, “Oh, wow! It’s possible to act like that!” And in that way we begin to transcend the limitations of our conditioning.

So you might want to remember instances of others behaving compassionately toward you. This doesn’t have to be just in meditation. You can remember instances of forgiveness and understanding, even of someone just listening patiently to you. Repeatedly calling those memories to mind, you imprint those patterns on our neural pathways. You build the realization, Yes, I can act like that. You make it more likely that you’ll act compassionately in the future.

Compassion spreads from mind to mind through a slow virality: sometimes from parent to child, teacher to student, or friend to friend. This is why the world has, on the whole has been becoming a better place over the last few millennia. (Admittedly a pattern of progress with some ups and downs.) Compassion has been imprinting itself upon our minds.

It’s good if we remember that we are part of this process. We can be the examples of compassion that influence others, and make them realize, “Wow! It’s possible for someone to behave like that! Maybe I can do that too!”

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