What Do Religions Teach us?
Compassion, the feeling of concern for other person’s wellbeing, is one the main teachings of buddhism. In his book, Becoming Enlightened, His Holiness Dalai Lama talks about engendering great compassion on way to enlightenment. He describes seven steps to committing yourself to help others, which revolve around the idea of teaching your mind to find everyone dear and cultivate love for human beings, such as the poor and vulnerable.
Christianity talks also about the compassion in the parable of the good Samaritan, told by Jesus in the New Testament. The Samaritan helps a traveller which had been beaten and left almost dead on the side of the road, whereas the priest who had first passed by avoided the injured man.
My mother has always told me to help people who are in need. She repeated this message so many times throughout my childhood that it became one of my fundamental believes.
At my grandfather’s funeral, a friend of his told me a story about grandfather. One night, the two of them were walking home. They met a stranger who was going to walk all the way to the next village. It was a cold night and grandfather offered his jacket to the stranger. He was quite close to his home and the stranger needed the jacket more than he did. I was very close to my late grandfather but he had never mentioned this story to me. I would have never known it if it hadn’t been for his friend.
Ever since I’ve been a mother, I became more aware about how people behave towards my baby and I. For example, for one year, I have been walking around pushing the pram and carrying the baby bag in my back. When entering the stores, I keep the door open with one hand and with the other hand, I hold onto the pram. People come in and out as if I were hired to be the doorwoman or as if I were invisible. Rarely, someone notices me and keeps the door open so that I can enter as well.
Other times, it happens that I have to stand in line for buying a train ticket, for example. With a 11kg baby in the arms, fighting to escape, I decide to go in front and ask for permission to buy the ticket. Most of the times, people look at me as if I were a strange creature, talking a language they don’t understand. Their facial expression says, “Why don’t you stand in line like the rest of us?”. There is usually one person in the line who shouts, “Let her pass, she has a baby, can’t you see?”
What Do Scientists Tell Us?
I’ve been wondering why do I see so few reflections of compassion in my every day life? Do people feel compassion at all? Or is compassion but a virtue set as an example – never to be attained by humans – in spiritual and religious books? Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, thought of compassion as a “soft-heartedness and should not occur at all among human beings.” (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_compassionate_instinct)
However, recent studies done by psychologists and neuroscientists show that Kant was not right in his judgement. Both the body and the brain seem to be wired so that we respond to other people suffering. Yet, feeling compassion is different from acting as a result of feeling.
Social researcher David DeSteno did an experiment which showed that people have the tendency to help others if they perceive some commonality with the person they decide to help (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/the-science-of-compassion.html). He concludes that compassion can be cultivated by changing the way we perceive the people around us: in terms of similarities. DeSteno’s finding confirms the first step to practising compassion recommended by Buddhist teachings:
“I have difficulty seeing any person in the long past who has not been your father, mother, uncle, aunt, sister, master, abbot, guru or guiding figure.” (Dalai Lama, Becoming Enlightened, pp. 166)
In conclusion, compassion lives in all of us. It is a matter of being aware that it is in us, and to be willing to practice it and cultivate it. Next time when I keep the door open so that people can come in and out of the store, I will be saying out loud, “You’re welcome!”