I would guess that if all of us were given the option of experiencing the feelings that accompany fear or compassion in any given situation, most people would say that they would choose to feel the feelings derived from compassion. The feelings associated with fear aren't feelings we human beings crave by any means, in fact, we avert feelings of fear at all costs for the most part! On the other hand, we all generally enjoy the "warm fuzzy" feelings of compassion that are associated with altruistic acts. Whether it is donating to a charity, volunteering somewhere for the less fortunate, or giving a homeless person the spare change in our pockets. I think it's a safe assumption to say that not only are those on the giving end of the compassionate acts willing participants, but it is an emotionally fulfilling experience for them as well.
Going beyond my general assumption that it is a fulfilling experience for the "giver" in these instances, studies have been done on the brain by The Association for Psychological Science, and several universities, showing that the act of giving is just as pleasurable, if not more, than receiving, and has been proven to speed up recovery from disease and to lengthen our life spans! If compassionate acts indeed feel good, and there are positive health benefits backed by science, then why is it that every single day we often have countless golden opportunities to be compassionate in a way that costs us no money, and little physical effort, but we frequently pass it up and succumb to feelings of fear instead? The opportunity that we encounter every day, is the opportunity to truly listen to someone, and to give our attention. Let me explain.
In the dictionary, compassion is usually defined something like what is seen below:
"Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortune of others."
The above definition is definitely suitable for some of the more "acute" opportunities to be compassionate that I originally referenced in the first paragraph. Having said that, there's another definition I really enjoy that lends itself to a broader application, and particularly to the simple act of listening. Last winter, I was hosting what I call a "dialogue dinner" with a small eclectic group of friends at my apartment. At one point during the evening I asked everyone to define compassion in their own words. One of those in attendance, my friend Jessie, defined it as the following:
"Putting someone else's needs in front of yours, putting someone else first."
So simple and yet so profound! I immediately thought of how applicable that definition was to the act of genuinely listening to someone else. By genuinely listening, I'm referring to a type of listening that is a bit slower than what we're used to in our fast paced lives, and engages a part of us beyond the mind. William Issacs, a leader in the world of dialogue, describes it well:
"To listen respectfully to others brings out the 'intelligence of the heart,' through dialogue we learn how to engage the heart." -William Isssacs
It seems that most of the time, unfortunately, instead of really listening, to the point of "engaging the heart," what is happening can be better described as "waiting," waiting to speak that is. Conversations start to replicate a tennis match where each "player" in the conversation is trying to score points on one another, but instead of a tennis ball being sent back and forth, it's the perpetual reinforcement of one another's ego. By ego in this case, I mean the constant ambient noise, or voice, inside our head that is always tapping us on the shoulder to remind us of our self-importance, and relentlessly urges us to make it known. It could also be described as that constant reminder that "it's about time to interject and have our ME moment." A good example of this is when you're telling someone a really important story and before you know it, you've been cut off and they've hijacked the story and made it about them! Now that's not exactly putting someone else first right? Most of the time, the people doing it don't even realize it, because we're all so used to giving in to those familiar feelings of fear.
At this point you're probably wondering what exactly I mean by "fear." Actually, I think a better word to use might be anxiety, and it's the low-level anxiety we all feel when all the while that we're "listening" to someone, our "ego-minds" are jumping around in a constant state of "word and sentence scanning," looking for some way to make what we're hearing about us . Sometimes, once we've decided what that "thing" is, and we've attached to it, in a way we're done listening, because now we're waiting to speak. What if we let that thought go and surrendered our full attention to the person in front of us? Why can it be so anxiety producing at times to watch our thought, or the "point" we wanted to make, drift back into our memories?
What is this worst case scenario that our mind fears so much that attributes to that distracting ambient anxiety? That fear is derived from a belief that when that point, or comment, you had suspended in your mind drifts off into your personal sea of consciousness, and it is forgotten, you are losing part of yourself, and that you're losing the conversation. Is that reality though? I think not, we can all rest assured knowing that this is simply an illusion, you don't become less of you, and in fact, by bringing your full attention into the present moment through compassionate listening, not only do you not lose, but you win. Compassion tends to yield compassion, it is the gift that keeps on giving.
Having an ego, or sense of self, that is continually reinforced is a necessary part of the lives we all live to a certain extent. Whether its our job, certain relationships, or our family, we all take on different roles, which come with labels, so it is inevitable to establish an ego of your own. When it comes to being completely present in conversation with others though, it can be of great benefit to suspend the ego, and not give into its needs and wants. Spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle describes this well:
"A genuine relationship is one that is not dominated by the ego with its image-making and self-seeking. In a genuine relationship, there is an outward flow of open, alert attention toward the other person in which there is no wanting whatsoever." -Eckart Tolle
So how can one work on this and stop the ego from creeping into conversation? It's not as much a matter of "stopping" it, but just becoming aware of it, and moving into a more conscious state. The alternative is the unconsciousness state when we think we're listening, but we're really just waiting and reacting. Eckart Tolle happens to have a very applicable quote that applies to this as well:
"The moment you become aware of the ego in you, it is strictly speaking no longer the ego, but just an old, conditioned mind-pattern. Ego implies unawareness. Awareness and ego cannot coexist." -Eckart Tolle
It can definitely be a challenge to break long time habits that we've all developed, especially something like conversational patterns, but like many things in life it is a practice, and it can be done. The moral of the story is that when you choose to recognize that seemingly important ambient noise, fear, anxiety, or pressure in your mind as a relatively unimportant illusion, and surrender to a more present and compassionate state of listening, everyone wins. Like I mentioned earlier, It might even lengthen your life too!