Increase Compassion by Remembering the ‘Good Stuff’

Recently, I asked participants in a domestic violence offender group about how they would define compassion. Some connected it with sympathy, others with doing what others want you to do. The fact that for most of them the word was not part of their daily vocabulary did not mean that they had never been compassionate. Unsurprisingly, they could remember some ‘good stuff’ and doing so may also help you to feel more secure in your relationships this year.


The term compassion is not something we readily hear on the news; it’s hardly used in block buster movies. Although the word ‘compassion’ sounded strange to some men in the offender group, they were all familiar with acts of kindness that come out of concern for another person. They also agreed that there is a difference between feeling what another feels and acting upon this feeling.

Commonly, in psychology this distinction is made to distinguish between empathy and compassion. Empathy has been defined as the vicarious experiencing of an emotion that is congruent with, but not necessarily identical to the emotion of another individual, as well as the knowledge or understanding of another’s feelings tied to it (Eisenberg and Janet Strayer 1990). Compassion is more than that.

In broad terms, the term compassion refers to the ability to be touched by the suffering of others and the desire to alleviate their suffering. It has been associated with the vicarious experience of distress in response to another person’s suffering, a variant or blend of sadness or love, and as an evolutionary adaption that motivates helping behaviors for the sake of survival, reproduction, or both (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas, 2010).

The great news is that compassion also spreads. It reproduces itself because the recipients of compassion tend to become more compassionate themselves. Some researchers argue that higher “attachment security” is closely related to higher levels of compassion towards others and altruistic helping behavior (Shaver and Milkunicer (2004).

Attachment security or feeling valued, safe, and cared for in a relationship may be a result of your past experiences. It includes instances of having been treated supportively as a child, being involved in security enhancing close relationships during adulthood, being able to call upon mental representations of being cared for, being influenced by a security enhancing context, or a combination of these factors.

From this perspective, our human capacity to experience compassion is enhanced through trusting, secure, and protective relationships. While people with more attachment security are said to be able to show more compassion, little is known about the positive effects of compassion on attachment security and wellbeing in relationships.

In my own clinical practice, I found that even people who went through intense trauma, including many domestic violence offenders, “big” and “small” acts of compassion are common. Sometimes they are not seen as such and remain undervalued or not integrated into a coherent story about personal values and relationships.

For the men who had abused in the past, communication in the group provided a way to expand awareness about the benefits of compassion. In the past year, several had cared for sick family members, supported someone who struggled with everyday life problems, or intended to do so in the year to come. The group discussion provided them with a rare forum to develop a language around these act, to share and celebrate them.

In my opinion, one of the keys to cultivating compassion is to remember and become aware of the “small” compassionate acts we already perform. Once we value, understand, and enjoy them, we may create more possibilities to practice compassion – perhaps with the result of enhancing our own and other’s sense of safety and “attachment security.”

When I focus attention on the ‘good stuff’, I change neural pathways in my brain, a process called neuroplasticity. The term neuroplasticity is used to refer to our ability to change the physical structure of our brains throughout the lifespan (Siegel 2010). We can literally grow new synaptic connections through sustained and focused attention on compassionate acts. Is this going to increase your compassion? Try it out.

By reflecting and talking about past instances of turning empathy into action you may turn neural pathways into superhighways that inform future action.You turn something that is already present into the forefront and thereby make it more powerful. How have you acted compassionately lately?




So Dude!? Zen with Big Lebowski

“That’s just an opinion, man,” Bernie Glassman pointed out recently in his talk about the Zen teachings of the Big Lebowski. He urged his audience at the Sweetwater Zen Center in San Diego to be cautious of any notion of “truth” that is presented as fixed and universal. In his humble opinion, truth claims ultimately lead to war and genocide. In contrast the “dude,” protagonist of the comedy Big Lebowsky, does not have a fixed position. He simply “abides” or in other words waits patiently and accepts without harsh objection. This stands in contrast to the mantra of success, individual achievement, and competition that dominates American society in late modernity.

The Coen brothers knew little about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular when they directed the cult movie Big Lebowski. At least they did not have the intention to produce a piece about meditation. For Glassman this may just show how Buddha Nature can manifest virtually everywhere. The dude is a role model for patience and kindness. Although he can be upset, like when someone pees on his rug, he is not driven by anger and rather works from where he is in each new moment. From this perspective, the likeable outcast and anti-hero becomes an enlightened Zen practitioner and an expert for mindful relations.

Bernie talked about his collaboration with Jeff Bridges who so naturally embodied the dude. Together they wrote the book “The Dude and the Zen Master” to provide a philosophy that can be applied to being a dude in everyday life. No idea to what extent they are familiar with the religious movement called Dudeism that has emerged out of the Big Lebowski’s cult following. Everybody who vows to be easygoing and to keep the mind limber can become an ordained priest of Dudeism online and for free. In contrast, Glassman warns that passivity can take over when things are taken too lightly. For the Zen master abiding is about more than hanging or just taking the easy way out.

The dude was in search for his rug that “tied the room together.” For Bernie this rug stands for nothing less than “love” that can be found in the interconnectedness of all life. In his Socially Engaged Buddhism he does really dude things rather than taking it easy alone. In fact, by hanging and taking things lightly he wants to enter a place of “not knowing” that gives rise to spontaneous actions that benefit other people. This social engagement may fit the circumstances better than rigid plans and may even help to reduce the effects of trauma in conflict zones such as in Rwanda and Gaza.


Bernie Glassman provides Bearing Witness Retreats for individuals and families who have suffered from poverty, war, and genocide. These retreats seem to be motivated by love rather than expectations about change. He and other Zen Peacemakers are doing things for the sake of doing them with humor and compassion. With an inner smile I silently resonated with much of what was said at the Sweetwater Zen Center. At the end of the day, I felt an inner urge to participate in Bernie’s next retreat at Auschwitz. But as he pointed out, “My opinion is my opinion and if you have the same one, it doesn’t make either of us kosher.”