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How to Develop the 3 Most Important Types of Compassion

By Becki Cohn-Vargas February 21, 2016 Mindset

“The cultivation of compassion is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, if our species is to survive.” – The Dalai Lama

In the first part of this blog, I shared several research studies that point to a compassionate lifestyle as a path to health and happiness. In this blog, I will share what I am learning at the Compassion in Education Working Group about cultivating and practicing the compassionate lifestyle.

At our work session, we spent a full day talking about compassion. Our work wasn’t just theoretical. We also did some experiential activities and meditations to get to the heart of developing compassion.

We learned that compassion has three dimensions: receiving compassion, self-compassion, and extending compassion.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Receiving Compassion

In our session, we did a meditation about receiving care. Along with many other women, I tend to be the one who does the caring, instead of being the recipient of caring.

My grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, used to praise the women she knew who suffered in silence and never complained. As a result, I thought that receiving compassion was a sign of selfishness or weakness.

In the meditation, we were asked to think of someone who had cared for us deeply and who we allowed to touch us.

At first, I thought of a wonderful friend, Kathe, who has been at my side through every hard moment, always encouraging me. Then, my image morphed into my almost 90-year old father. I realized that, even though much of my life I did not feel very close to him, this began to change when he turned 80.

I was able to feel his deep caring for me and tears came to my eyes. Allowing others to care for us is both beautiful and important as we enter a time in our life where circumstances may make it so we cannot be as self-reliant as we were in our thirties and forties.


A friend of mine, who was diagnosed with MS as a young woman, always spoke of what she called extreme self-care. Over the years, I have watched her practice this religiously. It has allowed her to thrive and become an internationally loved author and speaker.

It was interesting, in the compassion workshop session, that our group had a hard time focusing on self-care. We often veered away from talking about how we care for ourselves to talking about school systems and other topics.

Our facilitator commented that we were not unusual in that way. She found that most people do not like to talk about self-care. It is as if caring for ourselves is seen as selfish. And yet, just like when we go on a plane, they teach us to put the oxygen mask over ourselves first in the event of crash and then put it on children.

Taking care of ourselves allows us the capacity to care for others.

Then, we each shared how we each do self-care and the answers ranged from cuddling with a child, to jogging, to meditation. Those of us who were a bit older talked of a glass of wine in the evening and going into the hot tub.

There are many ways to care for ourselves, from taking quiet time for reflection and eating well to taking care of our bodies and forgiving ourselves and others for long-held grudges or hurts.

Along these lines, I have found a great guided meditation, by Tarah Brach, meditation teacher and psychologist. Check it out here: Guided Meditation on Self-Compassion.

Kristin Neff points out some myths of self-compassion. She says that, in addition to fears of being selfish, we also feel that self-compassion is a sign of weakness. She says:

“When we care tenderly for ourselves in response to suffering, our heart opens. […] In a surprising twist, the nurturing power of self-compassion is now being illuminated by the matter-of-fact, tough-minded methods of empirical science, and a growing body of research literature is demonstrating conclusively that self-compassion is not only central to mental health, but can be enriched through learning and practice.”

Another friend of mine has designed a program to teach children about self-compassion. She focuses on helping children be kind to themselves when they inevitably make mistakes in life.

This kind of self-compassion opens the door to discovering our own inner strength and compassion for others too. Forgiving ourselves for our mistakes (and at this time in our lives, we all have made more than a few big ones), can truly offer a sense of relief and healing.

Tarah Brach has another good meditation on healing: Guided Meditation: Letting Go of Judgment.

Extending Compassion

Extending care is the love and compassion we feel for those we know and even for those we do not know. Approaching the world with a feeling of compassion is about alleviating suffering of all kinds.

Sometimes, this involves focusing on our family members. We can take care of our parents, our adult children and our grandchildren.

Sometimes, we have a relative or friend who is alone and needs our help. I have an extended family in Nicaragua who often needs our help with medical care costs and we have put our niece in Nicaragua through medical school. This sacrifice has given me much joy.

At other times, extending care is about helping others in our community or making the world a better place. There is no shortage of ways to help others and focusing our energy on a cause gives great meaning to our lives.

Ending hate, bullying, and intolerance has been a lifelong passion for me. This is a cause that sometimes feels overwhelming. At the same time, I feel that bridging our differences is the most important way for me to help our world overcome its many problems.

Three Ways to Develop Compassion

The main way to cultivate compassion is by having the intention of doing it, reflecting on those we love and how we are living our lives. The Greater Good Science Center has some specific ways to help you jumpstart this process. Here are some of their suggestions:

Practice Altruism

Open yourself to acts of altruism. This can be practiced by reaching out for connectedness and offering support to those in your family and others in your world, forgiving people who have hurt you in your life and releasing your resentments and opening your mind and heart to those who are different than you. Read more about practicing altruism.

Experience the Power of Meditation

Meditate on feelings of compassion by picturing someone you love or who needs your support. As I said above, I use guided meditation to help get started. Read more about meditation and mindfulness practices.

Put a Human Face on Suffering

Recognizing the suffering of others and finding ways to help will move you into a compassionate lifestyle. As you do this, try not to be overwhelmed, but rather look at small things you can do to help. Read more about putting a human face on suffering.

We boomers are joining with others who are changing the landscape of how we view our lives after 50. I admire the Sixty and Me site and the blogs that inspire us to see this time in our lives as a moment of great potential.

I want to close with a story that was shared at Compassion Working Group, a Cherokee story about good and evil. It is called Two Wolves.

An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.”

“One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.”

“The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

“This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

The old chief simply replied, “The one that you feed.”

Which wolf do you feed? How do you develop compassion in your life? Please join the conversation in the comments below.

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The Author

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D, has been blogging regularly for Sixty and Me since 2015. She is a retired educator and independent consultant. She's the co-author of three books on identity safe schools where students of all backgrounds flourish. Becki and her husband live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have three adult children and one grandchild. You can connect with her at the links below.

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