Discovering Common Humanity
Welcome to Lesson One of Boundless Self-Compassion. If you’re starting out with trepidation about poking at your wounds and unpacking your traumas, you can relax for now. Your journey towards self-compassion begins, strangely enough, not by gazing inward but by looking outward.
Since you signed up for this course, it is likely that the idea of self-compassion doesn’t quite make sense to you for whatever reason. Perhaps you are disappointed by yourself and about how your life has turned out. Perhaps you hold yourself to higher expectations than you hold others. Or perhaps you truly don’t believe you deserve compassion from anyone, let alone from yourself.
If this is the case, then no matter what I say about your basic good, your value on this planet, or your right to self-compassion, the words will bounce off of you without even making a dent. You’ll have a list of reasons I am wrong, reasons you should feel badly about yourself, reasons you are dissatisfied with the person you have become.
But we’re not going to focus on those reasons today. If a garden is overrun with weeds, we don’t start by grasping at the thorns. That gives us bloody fingers but leaves the roots clinging deep. Instead, to rid a garden of weeds, we loosen the soil with water and with a trowel. We dig deep to find the stubborn roots of the weed, and we pull from there. It is only by removing the whole weed that we can make room for the beautiful flowers that have yet to be planted.
And so it is with the beliefs that get in the way of planting seeds of self-compassion. We must loosen the soil of our garden before we can address the roots of those beliefs themselves.
Compassion and Common Humanity
The word compassion comes from the Latin word compati, which means “to suffer with.” For many of us, it is easier to sit with someone else while they are suffering than it is to hold positive feelings about ourselves while we are suffering. It might be that we’re scared to truly sit with ourselves, because we don’t know what we’ll discover. Often, we want to believe we did something to deserve our own suffering--because if we did something to cause it, maybe we can do something to avoid it next time. And for some of us, we just haven’t learned how to be kind to ourselves when we’re less than perfect.
Whatever the reason for your own particular self-compassion block, I believe that the first step towards learning how to practice self-compassion is to develop our connection with others. We are beings wired for connection, for love. And it is often easier to start practicing love and compassion towards others--and then apply it to ourselves by extension--than it is to jump straight to trying to love ourselves.
Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher who works and teaches here in Austin, terms this awareness of others (and knowledge of belonging with them) Common Humanity. Personally, I call this our Universal Mind. The only way to move beyond our own limitations is by tapping into our connection with the Universal—whether the universal is “God,” the natural world, or (in this case) your community and in fact humanity as a whole.
To be a human being means to have weaknesses, to make mistakes, and to experience pain. We are all suffering under those burdens. We have all suffered heartache and loss, felt stressed about finances, worried about those we loved. We have all felt inadequate in our bodies and felt stupid. We’ve all lost relationships and had major disappointments.
In fact, every single person on this planet is experiencing some kind of pain, always.
Developing a sense of common humanity is important to developing self-compassion because it means you are suffering with others, not in isolation. If you have ever thought that your life seems to be much harder than other people’s lives, or felt that your own inadequacies dwarfed others’, then you have not yet developed your own sense of Common Humanity.
Such a sense of separation from everyone else probably increases your suffering, because it tells you that are uniquely suffering. It blocks your ability to connect with others and increases your loneliness. It also reinforces the belief that you do not even deserve compassion because you are so uniquely flawed.
My friend, you are not uniquely flawed. You are a human being, and being human is fucking hard.
To that end, today’s meditation and exercise is intended to help you develop your own sense of Common Humanity. I invite you to do both with a sense of gentle curiousity about yourself, and your own sense of your belonging with humanity.
Meditation: 5 Minutes of Compassion
This is a modified version of what is often called the Lovingkindness Meditation. This abbreviated version takes only 5 minutes and is intended to help you practice extending the compassion you feel for a loved one to Common Humanity. To prepare for this meditation, settle into a comfortable position that you will be able to hold for some time without falling asleep. If possible, use ear buds or headphones and allow yourself to “be” in the meditation.
Exercise: Mindful Awareness of Humanity
Today’s exercise is intended to help you tap into your awareness of our Common Humanity. I regularly practice mindful awareness of humanity when I am out walking my dog in the neighborhood. I also find it helpful when I am sitting in traffic to avoid getting angry at other drivers because I am feeling frustrated by something from which we are all suffering.
(If you find yourself getting distracted by other thoughts and are unable to focus on this exercise for the full five minutes, I sometimes find it is easier to put some classical music on to help quiet my mind and allow it to pretend I’m watching a music video.)
To deepen your sense of Common Humanity, go outside to a place where you will see other people you do not know. Put your phone on airplane mode, set a timer for five minutes, and then simply sit and look at the people around you.
We often see ourselves as the center of the universe, which means we see the people around us as extras in the movie about our life. We may even forget they’re real people, simply seeing them as cardboard cutouts moving in the background of our lives.
Focus on others as though they were the main characters in the story. Allow yourself to wonder about their lives. You may start easy with questions like, Why did that man choose to put that tie on this morning? Was it a gift from someone who loves him? Once you are comfortable thinking about other small details of people’s interior lives, move onto harder questions like, Has that man lost his mother or grandmother? Is that woman jogging from a place of self-love or a place of self-hatred? You may even move on to extremely challenging questions like, I wonder what this person is suffering from to make him behave rudely to a cashier?
For five minutes, explore the depth of every single person you see. Consider that everyone is flawed and experiencing pain in his or her life. Allow yourself to consider that they are all just trying their best—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. You’ll probably feel a sense of warmth and tenderness rise in you for these people you don’t even know. If you feel drawn to, you can place your hand over your heart to really savor the physical feeling of your own compassion for others’ suffering.
Eventually you’ll be able to summon this sense of compassion at will. Until then, simply allow yourself to consider others’ pain and suffering to practice compassion.