Embracing the World as It Truly Is With Compassion

Remaining connected, engaged & inspired in an era of uncertainty

Posted Nov 13, 2016

There has been significant tumult in our world for some time. You see it everywhere— on the news, in social media, in discussions at local coffee shops. What we see and hear has the power to move and change us, to make us more connected and engaged. Yet, for most of us, the inundation of information causes us to tune out, to disconnect, to pretend it’s just not happening. Or, it causes us to argue with others, to create divisions and animosity where common ground could be found.

What if your emotional life could be unaffected by what is happening in the world— such that you can take that information in, rather than tune it out—yet still be full of compassion, engagement and caring?

What if you could see people as they are and see that they are not all that different from you? What if you could see their fears, their feelings, their hopes, their dreams?

What if you could “know” at an experiential level that everyone on this planet is trying to do the right thing for their loved ones, their friends, their community?

What if we could see the truth without blinders?

Every day working with patients, I see the powerful tendency we have to distort reality. I’ve observed people filter experiences and comments made by others through a particular lens that makes the other person “wrong.” When we do this reflexively, we create more space between “us” and “them.”

We are well meaning, yet we just can’t help judging others—unless we learn to do things differently.  The truth is, the problem lies in our brains and, specifically, in which areas of the brain are active and which are not.

A major cause of the problems lies in the medial pre-frontal cortex, which we call the Self Referencing or “Me” Center.  This area of the brain is hardwired to process all incoming information through a filter of “me.” It colors everything you perceive about yourself and guides your interpretations of your environment, including what people say, believe and do. See this post for more on these areas of the brain. 

And it does all this without you being aware of it. It is where many “knee jerk” reactions come from, it’s what causes you to seek out people similar to you and to avoid people you differ from, and it’s what makes you “assume” what others are thinking.

It also causes you to take things personally (even when they are not personal) and to amplify your emotional reactions (especially when other brain regions involved in social pain are activated—see the work of UCLA’s Naomi Eisenberg on how social distress causes us to feel physical pain).

These brain areas unwittingly combine to drive our actions, our thoughts, our reactions. Without the influence of a countervailing force, we are simply following our brains, wherever they take us, which can lead us, as individuals, society and as a species to devastating consequences.

A Way Out?

If it is true that each and every one of us is capable of rationalizing away (or toward) almost anything and of turning a blind eye to things that are staring us in the face, how can we change it?

The only way I know of is to increase our levels of compassion, love and focused attention/mindfulness. Buddhists talk about cultivating loving-kindness and the sheer pain involved in beginning to see the truth that surrounds us. They also talk about the freedom people experience when they finally embrace the truth and let go of the false beliefs that have held them back—when they truly can cultivate love and compassion for all, regardless of beliefs, words or actions.

This is by no means easy to do. It takes time, commitment, patience and motivation. It takes a willingness to see the world as it is and still retain an open heart. It requires you to send love and compassion to those who might hate you or wish you harm. Doing so also changes your brain.

I can say from my own experiences this is a painful process.  It will make you cry and wish the world were somehow different. If only this didn’t happen or if only that had worked out...The reality is, the world is how it is.  You cannot change it simply by ignoring what is going on or by holding resentment in your heart toward anyone.

If you truly want to make the world a better place, you necessarily need to work on yourself, as it is virtually impossible to change anyone else. You must be willing to endure the discomfort associated with the path that leads to seeing the truth and place your own needs and those of everyone else on the planet on equal footing. You must be willing to learn how to undo years of indoctrination, of beliefs, that hold you back and separate you from others.

I’m sure there are many routes to reaching this point and almost all major religions, I believe, advocate this as a noble aim in one’s life and describe a path to attain it.  If you are not religious or simply prefer another option, consider mindfulness meditation without the traditional Buddhist components (i.e., focus on practicing insight-oriented and loving kindness meditations) and genuinely adopting the 5As, described by David Richo, PhD, in his book How to Be An Adult In Relationships.

Although the 5As were written in the context of attachment relationships, I will discuss them as a tool to enhance compassion for others:

  • Attention – involves having a genuine interest in others, devoid of judgment or bias. When we provide this to others, they feel heard and noticed.
  • Acceptance – genuinely embracing another’s interests, desires, activities and preferences as they are without trying to alter or change them in any way
  • Affection – physical comfort and compassion
  • Appreciation – encouragement and gratitude for who a person is, as he/she is
  • Allowing – providing a safe space for someone to be him/herself and express all that he/she feels, even if it is not entirely polite or socially acceptable

Stop for a moment and really look at what the 5As ask of you. Really try to envision what that would mean for you in your every day life, in your consciousness, if you adopted them. What would it be like if you could push the unhelpful aspects of your brain aside, engage the parts that help you with these endeavors and generate true compassion for those who oppose you, who believe or behave differently than you do?

When you remain in the present moment and no longer are constrained by anger, divisiveness or entrenched false beliefs, you are set free. You see what is happening in the world yet you are not ensnared by it. You do not become disaffected or disengaged. Instead, you have compassion for the whole world, including the environment, animals and all people – and are inspired to make a difference where you can.  You are more engaged and believe there is hope.  Look at the Dalai Lama, the Pope, Eckhart Tolle or Thich Nhat Hanh, among others.  They see the world as it is, yet they do not hide from it and they do not despair. Instead, they try to inspire, educate, make a difference and provide a consistent message day in and out.

Even if 1 in a million people are able to make the change, to shift consciousness in this way, the world will be on track toward a brighter future.