Browsing the archives for the compassion tag.
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How Do You Forgive People Who Won’t Admit They’ve Done Anything Wrong?

States of mind

In recent posts like “3 Keys to Living Effectively: Attention, Calmness, and Understanding” and “You, Me, and the Dalai Lama” I’ve talked about some of the things I’ve been learning and contemplating from listening to recorded talks by the 14th Dalai Lama after having the good fortune to see him speak in person last month. At the end of his talks, he generally takes questions, and one of the questions that seems to come up pretty frequently is how to forgive someone who won’t admit they’ve done wrong.

When relationships in our life are disrupted or hurt through some past or present trouble, it can be a constant drain. In some cases the problem can be solved–or at least mostly solved–by cutting ties: friends who mistreat or lie to us, for instance, are sometimes not friends worth having, at least not if we’re trying to lift ourselves up by keeping company with people we admire.

In many cases, though, cutting ties is either not an option or too drastic an option, for instance when immediate family members do something (or a lot of things) that we find harmful. Even when it’s possible to stop communicating with a family member, the problem can still fester, and of course cutting off a family member creates its own problems.

So another avenue is to have a heart-to-heart discussion with the person who has done the harmful thing to try to understand and forgive. Of course this approach is a big improvement on simply cutting ties, and it’s likely to bring more peace.¬†But what if the other person doesn’t want to be forgiven? What if the other person doesn’t even agree that there was any wrongdoing? For that matter, what if the person keeps doing the harmful thing?

A situation like this begins to make it clear what real compassion and forgiveness are. For us to feel compassion or forgiveness toward another person, that person doesn’t have to act according to our preferences or beliefs, because there is a difference between the person and the action. We can and should condemn actions that we think are harmful or unjust, but even while doing that we can accept and feel compassion toward that person. We can even feel compassion toward people we oppose.

I admit, this isn’t an easy thing to do, but at least the steps are clear. All we have to do is say “I condemn what you’ve done, but I support you“–and mean it.

There’s another piece of this, an important one: forgiveness and peace of mind are matters that happen within ourselves, not outside us. If we want peace of mind, we have to take complete responsibility for it ourselves. If we let even a small part of our peace of mind depend on what other people do, then we open ourselves to being disturbed and angered and made unable to act and think as we wish based on things other people do, things outside of our control.

In the same way that we can release anger that might come up from, say, getting cut off in traffic by reminding ourselves “I can’t make other people drive the way I want them to,” letting go of any feeling of possession about other people’s wrongdoings is necessary to feel peace of mind in troubled relationships and to offer compassion and support even to people whose actions we condemn.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

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Why Happiness Is Key

States of mind

As we wrap up 2010 and look toward all the new things that will come around in 2011, I’d like to offer a goal for the coming year: happiness.

Pursuing happiness might seem frivolous, or selfish, or distracting, but there’s a good argument for it being the single most important thing to seek in life. Happiness is more important than beauty, because what use is it to be beautiful but miserable? For the same reasons happiness can be seen as more important than wealth, success, recognition, and pleasure. To put it another way, it doesn’t much matter what we have or which of our wishes are fulfilled if our possessions and fulfilled wishes don’t make us happy … since in that case what good are these things?

Even health is arguably less important than happiness, since living a long, miserable life appears to be less rewarding than living a short, happy life.

To take a pot shot at my own argument, though, it’s true that sometimes our possessions, abilities, and advantages can be used for other people’s benefit. For instance, money can be used to buy food, clothing, a home, and better education for children. This same argument can be widened to the question of helping others in general, and to compassion: surely it’s not good to be happy if happiness makes others miserable or prevents us from helping others?

However, I would point out that in most cases happiness makes us more able to reach out, improves our influence on others’ moods (see “How Other People’s Happiness Affects Our Own“), and provides a means to improve our willpower (see “Willpower as Caring About Lasting Happiness“). It’s also true that doing good works for others is one of the most powerful ways to make ourselves happy, as shown in numerous studies. For example, in one study it was found that people were better able to increase their happiness by spending money on someone else than by spending the same amount of money on themselves.

So compassion and helping others may or may not be more important than happiness, but since they tend to go hand in hand with happiness, it’s not particularly important to choose between helping and happiness.

With all of that in mind, why not make happiness your number one priority in 2011? I don’t necessarily mean pleasure or fun (see “The difference between pleasure and happiness“), but true happiness: satisfaction and joy with your actions and choices and life.

Or to put it another way: have a very, very happy New Year!

Luc

photo by Dawn Ashley

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How to Not to Get Into an Argument

Handling negative emotions

If you ask people what their favorite thing about the winter holidays is, one of the most popular responses is “family.” But if you google (for instance) “worst thing about Christmas,” one of the most common complaints–right up there with overcommercialization and the stress of having too much to do–is also “family.” Holidays sometimes throw us into difficult, uncomfortable, or undesired situations, and they sometimes provide a perfect setting for everyone to regress and get in arguments.

But arguments and other clashes with family and non-family alike are mostly avoidable Taking a few pages from Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s time-tested and surprisingly practical system called Non-Violent Communication (as described in his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life), here’s a nutshell version of a way to stop arguments before they start.

Only one grown-up needed
You might very reasonably have the concern that no communication method will help if the other person is acting like a nincompoop. If so, you may be relieved to know that non-violent communication can help solve problems regardless of how emotionally mature the other person is acting. Anger, fear, irrational accusations, complaining, and depression are all perfectly OK for the other person to present, as long as you can swing being the grown-up in the conversation.

Listening with compassion
Heading off arguments begins by listening a different way. It’s easy and natural to listen to what people say to us–especially when they’re talking about us–and to think of their words as being about ourselves. If someone says “Why do you always try to run everything?” or “Didn’t you even stop to think how he would feel about that?” or “I can’t believe you made me another stupid sweater!”, the obvious thing to do would be to think of what those things mean to us and respond with something like “If you ever got off your butt and helped, I wouldn’t have to run everything!” or “Don’t my feelings count too?” or “I slave over this gift of love for thirty hours, and this is how you repay me?” If you respond this way, unfortunately, you are then in an argument.

My mother used to always say “It takes two to fight.” Skipping right over my smarmy childhood comebacks, I’d like to point out the usefulness of this statement: one person can shout, threaten, insult, or complain, but if the other person responds compassionately, then there is still no argument. In an argument, two or more parties go back and forth, each saying things that add fuel to the fire. If either person takes another approach, the argument eventually gutters out.

Here’s how to listen compassionately: accept whatever the other person says–even if it’s unkind, unfair, or untrue–as an offer of information.

What you’re trying to find out–the information you’re trying to glean–is these two things:
1) What emotion is the other person feeling? (Be careful what you consider an “emotion”: this list can be useful to sort true emotions out from false).
2) What essential thing does the other person need? This doesn’t mean what they want or are asking for, necessarily, but rather what deep-seated need is being brought up.

When you think you may have figured out the answers to those those two questions in conversations, try to say them back to the people you’re talking to so that they understand they’ve been heard. If you need more information in a particular conversation, ask questions to get that information.

Don’t worry about guessing wrong about someone’s emotional state or needs: generally speaking, if you offer a kindly-meant attempt at understanding how someone feels, they will automatically correct you if you’re information’s wrong, giving you exactly what you need to defuse the argument.

Sometimes people will keep spouting negative comments or repeat the same point over and over in a conversation even when you make it clear you understand where they’re coming from and care about their needs. This generally means nothing more than that they have a backlog of anxious feelings about the topic at hand, and/or they don’t feel confident that they’ve been heard. Patiently continuing the process we’ve talked about should in most cases eventually allow these situations to wind down.

I’ll continue this topic in my next article with some examples.

Photo by Peter Gene

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