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The Art of Relationships

with Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

There is an art to maintaining the intimate relationships in our lives. Read on to explore our experts' perspectives, and learn new techniques to improve your own relationship skills.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Find Happiness Through Compassion

Comstock Images

At this time of year, the cold weather (for those of us in the cooler climates) forces people to huddle together. The result is sometimes a kind of edgy parody of a Norman Rockwell picture with families holed up together, perhaps in front of a roaring fire with snow-covered trees outside — meanwhile everyone is getting a bit ‘stir crazy’ and short on patience. What’s needed to get people through times like these (aside from a warm smile from Mother Nature) is compassion.

I am reminded of when I saw the Dalai Lama speak at Rutgers Stadium about five and a half years ago. As the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, he spoke about peace, war and reconciliation — maybe it’s the recent turbulent times in Egypt that has me thinking back to this. In any case, as a psychologist, I paid attention to how what he said applied to people in their daily lives.

The Dalai Lama explained that when people are upset, their distress interferes with them being able to think clearly. He highlighted how people tend to see those they hate or are angry with as 100% negative. Not only is this perspective inaccurate, but it also pits people against each other. And they often act in ways they later regret.

According to the Dalai Lama, the way to maintain happiness in your life is through compassion; a sympathetic perception of others that makes you want to heal or ease their pain. By recognizing that all people want to end their suffering (and identifying with this desire), you can respect, understand and connect with them.

Compassion is sometimes easy, like when we see a heart-broken child crying over her lost doll. However, it can be very difficult to feel with particular people or circumstances — especially when you also feel hurt. Imagine, for example, feeling compassion for your surly boss, who has always been critical of your work, and who is now losing his job. To be compassionate in these situations takes effort and practice. At this point, you might be asking, “Why would I want to feel compassion for someone who has hurt me?” Good question.

Time and again I’ve seen people heal and grow from developing compassion — for both themselves and others. With it, they can respond positively to the other person while also feeling accepting of themselves. Having compassion for yourself and your boss in the above example would mean feeling sympathetic toward your boss’ new circumstance, even wishing you could ease his pain, while also accepting that you feel relieved by not having to face him each day.  Importantly, this also means that you would not be simmering in anger (or harboring any malice) over your boss’ behavior toward you. The beautiful part of having such compassion is that you can feel at peace whether or not others are being kind — your inner peace does not rely on the actions of others. Compassion is a stable foundation for feeling positively within yourself.

In explaining the power of compassion, the Dalai Lama expressed a hope that individual compassion would extend out to family and community and ultimately the world. What he preaches is far from idle optimism. He has extended compassion to the Chinese, who have occupied his homeland of Tibet and oppressed his people. If compassion can bring about world peace, he is certainly doing his part to make it happen. Frankly, I find it a daunting leap, beyond my experience as a psychologist, or human being; but I have seen compassion help people find peace in their relationships with family and friends.

Whether or not you agree with the Dalai Lama’s ideas about compassion, they are worth thinking about. Do you think that practicing compassion could bring peace to your life? To the world?

If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic, visit the Relationships and Coping Community.

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 7:18 am

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