Compassion is an emotional response to another person’s suffering combined with a genuine desire to help, but not everyone experiences it. Compassion is a brain function that is often not activated in people who do not feel safe. A person who experiences trauma in childhood, that could be someone who grew up in a war zone, or experienced anything that led them to be constantly vigilant (fearful, anxious, hostile), can unconsciously become habitually focused on self-preservation. Their thought patterns reflexively think about what has happened, what might happen, or could or should happen.
Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism. Empathy is feeling another person’s emotions, you might cry with a friend when they tell you about some problem or sadness they are experiencing. There have been numerous scientific studies which show that empathy is a natural response that begins in babyhood but this response may not develop as it would in most children if the parents were focused on achievement, or if the child was subjected to neglect or abuse. Altruism is doing something for others and it is a strong human trait but it too needs to be nurtured so that people feel free and safe to respond this way automatically.
So when we realise that some people have only been taught to hate, protect themselves, or lash out at others, it becomes easier to let go of judgement. Letting go of judgement is very much like forgiveness, it never means that we condone a person’s actions, it just means we stop judging the person for acting the way they do. Judgement disconnects us from others and we need to connect, even with people who act in the most despicable ways if we want them to change.
We also need to demonstrate through our own behaviour ways people can be more compassionate and point out the benefits to be gained from acting in this way. Compassion activates the pleasure circuits in the brain and creates a bias to being more positive, which in turn helps people become more successful.
We can activate the portion of the brain which makes us compassionate through mindfulness and you do this by placing your attention on the present moment and what you are doing four or five times a day. You need only do this for a few minutes at a time but such a simple habit can reduce stress and improve your brain function.
And last but not least is one of the most powerful way of all, participating in a loving kindness meditation daily. Meditation changes the structure of the brain and the loving kindness meditation, which is Buddhist meditation, increases patience, kindness, compassion and acceptance. As well as this it reduces cortisol (a stress hormone) and increases the production of oxytocin (a feel good hormone).
You can find a script for a loving kindness meditation as well as an audio you can download at: http://palousemindfulness.com/docs/lovingkindness-med.pdf.