Cultivating compassion in today’s selfish worldsam
If you feel that your stress levels are constantly rising, you’re in good company. The evidence of an anxiety epidemic is all around: We are busier and more self-absorbed than ever, with less time to devote to others. Even when we do have breaks in our schedules, our fuses are short and we lose our minds if everything isn’t perfect. Compassion seems to be on its way out—and John Dowd Jr. wants to make sure the pendulum doesn’t swing any further.
“I used to be a busy, stressed-out professional who didn’t have time for anyone—and then I was laid off from my job,” says Dowd, author of Heroes, Mentors, and Friends: Learning from Our Spiritual Guides (Balboa Press, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-45255-515-7, $13.99, www.johndowdjr.com). “Being in such a vulnerable position made me realize what it felt like to be the person who couldn’t get anyone to call back, and who felt like the world was against him.”
But during the process of getting back on his feet, Dowd says, there were certain people who stood out from the crowd because they purposefully helped to build him up—or gave him a break when he needed it the most.
“I realized that to be really meaningful, acts of compassion don’t have to be grand gestures,” he comments. “More often, they’re easy, everyday acts of kindness. If we all commit to being a little more compassionate, I think we can make a real difference in our collective stress and anxiety levels.”
Here, Dowd shares six ways for you to weave more compassion into your everyday life:
Ask yourself if what happened is really that big of a deal. In a recent interview on The Rhode Show (you can watch it here), Dowd tells the following story: “Not too long ago, I was quietly resting in my car while waiting to meet a friend for lunch. As I was sitting there with my eyes closed, a woman pulled into the spot on my right and DINGED my passenger door as she opened her driver’s side door! The impact was hard enough to rock my car a bit. What’s worse, she saw me in the car and walked away.
“In situations like this, our first reaction is to listen to our judging mind and retaliate,” he continues. “For me, that probably would have been chasing the woman down and berating her. But through mindful practices like meditation, yoga, or quiet time in nature each week, we can move from the judging mind’s REACTION to a compassionate heart’s OBSERVATION. Specifically, compassionate observation gives us time to remove anger and judgment from the equation, helping us remain poised and in control. With practice we can actually choose how to react. So calmly, I opened my car door and politely asked the woman if she was aware of her actions. She stopped and gave me a heartfelt apology, commenting on how ‘she was having a very bad day.’
“Aggravating situations like these crop up every day, but in the long run, they’re really not important,” Dowd concludes. “Choosing not to engage in a negative interaction is a great way to show compassion to the other person and to yourself. After all, working yourself into a bad mood that might stick around all day doesn’t do you any favors. In my case, I like to think that the woman’s day got a little better. And as for me, choosing compassion over anger allowed me to enjoy lunch with my friend, instead of stewing over my dinged car door.”
Think about how you’re coming across. When you’re aggravated or annoyed, it’s all too easy to let your in-the-moment emotions take control of your brain. According to Dowd, that’s why you might hear something like this at a restaurant: “I waited an hour for my meal—which I’m paying a lot for, by the way—and my vegetables are still undercooked! What’s wrong with this place? You can’t even get the simplest things right!”
“At some point and to some degree, we have all been that jerk,” Dowd points out. “It’s not that we’re bad people; it’s just that we get bogged down in the principle of the thing. That’s why, if you’re striving to be more compassionate, I encourage you to remain aware of how your behavior might look to an outsider. If an observer might say, ‘That guy needs to get over himself,’ you should probably tone down your response.”
Step in to help. If you encounter someone who’s stressed, worried, overwhelmed, or going through a rough patch, don’t turn a blind eye. Ask yourself what you can do to make that person’s day a little better.
“This can be as simple as giving a coworker a word of encouragement before a tough meeting, helping a mom with energetic twin toddlers carry grocery bags to her car, or providing a listening ear to a friend whose relationship just ended,” Dowd says. “I’ve found that asking myself how I would like to be treated if I were in the other person’s shoes usually makes the path forward clear.”
Stop thinking like a victim. When you have a victim mindset, nothing is your fault—and you believe the world is out to get you. If that’s your attitude, Dowd points out, you’re automatically casting others in the role of villain. And who wants to show the bad guy (or gal) any compassion?
“When you change your victim mindset and start to give others the benefit of the doubt, you’ll probably start to see that other people aren’t out to get you—they’re struggling with their own stress and problems!” he explains. “Often, that realization gives you the emotional space you need to choose empathy and compassion, instead of automatically lashing out to protect your own interests.”
Remember when people gave you a break. We don’t always get what we deserve—and sometimes that’s a good thing. Have you ever made a costly mistake at work, only to be given a second chance by your boss? Have you ever been pulled over for a minor traffic infraction, only to be let go with a warning?
“Take a few minutes and remind yourself of times when other people have showed you compassion,” Dowd instructs. “Reminding yourself that you aren’t perfect—and that others have treated you kindly despite your mistakes—will have an immediate impact on how you respond to other people. Yes, even when they ‘deserve’ a harsh response.”
Go easier on yourself. If you’re like many people, you set high standards for yourself—and you beat yourself up relentlessly when you don’t live up to them. The next time you slip up, Dowd encourages you to examine the mental dialogue going on in your head. Would you berate a friend as harshly as you’re berating yourself? Would you condemn his mistake and highlight every little component of what went wrong? Or would you offer that friend comfort and sympathy?
“Don’t forget to be compassionate toward yourself, too,” Dowd reminds. “If you lack self-love, your unhappiness will manifest in how you treat others, whether you’re aware of it or not.”
“I’ll be honest: At first, treating others with compassion will probably get you a lot of strange looks and ‘Are you serious?’ reactions,” Dowd shares. “But that’s okay, because you’ll be surprised by how many positive connections you will make and by how good you feel.
“Plus, reacting with compassion is actually a smarter choice for your short- and long-term emotional and physical health,” he continues. “Science is beginning to prove that regulating our emotions through positive social behaviors like compassion and giving, along with adding well-being practices like meditation, yoga, exercise, and good sleep, can have an enormous positive effect on long-term heart and brain health. For example, choosing compassion can release stress, allowing better sleep. And science has now shown that we really need eight hours of sleep to combat Alzheimer’s. More and more studies are emerging showing that positive social behaviors that regulate our emotions can add years to our lives!
“And don’t forget: What goes around comes around,” he concludes. “Showing compassion now, especially when you don’t have to, can make a big difference in how you’re treated down the road.”
About the Author:
Author-speaker John Dowd Jr. is the author of Heroes, Mentors, and Friends: Learning from Our Spiritual Guides. He is a veteran 30-year on-air broadcaster and program director with experience in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, and Hartford. Currently, you can hear John’s music show on SiriusXM ’70s on 7 weekdays from 12-6 p.m. On weekends John’s talk show, Heroes, Mentors, and Friends, airs around the world on iHeartRadio.com
To learn more and to contact John Dowd Jr., please visit www.johndowdjr.com.