All I want for Christmas is world peace, a healthy family, and a new ski jacket. We look forward to Christmas as a time when we can be happy and wish that others can be happy as well. What if our Christmas wish was even greater: to be able to have more compassion for everyone? It’s a little like wishing for more wishes, except in this case it’s possible.

For the last 35 years I have studied compassion and ways to train in compassion. It has made me think: Why do we have to wish we could be more compassionate? If we want to be more compassionate, why can’t we just do that? And if we want to include everyone, what’s stopping us?

Compassion can be defined as the desire to ease suffering in others, whether they are experiencing a momentary sense of frustration, a major illness, or a tragic loss. Our instinct is to think of compassion as being limited, something that we can only manifest in certain circumstances and for certain people. Otherwise, we feel like we will quickly wear out. But does it have to be that way?

We all have a natural compassion. What limits our compassion is not that we have a finite amount, but the fact that our own thoughts and emotions cover it up, making it less available. How do we know that’s true? We are more likely to be compassionate when our minds are relaxed. When would you want to ask someone for a favor, or a raise? When they are tense or irritable, or when they look relaxed and at ease?

How can we be compassionate toward those who are giving us a hard time, or whose views we can’t stand?

We can stop and think that maybe we are all the same in some basic way. We all want to be happy, and we don’t want to suffer. Some people go about doing that in a way that harms other people or makes them very unpleasant to be around, but deep down they do that because they think it will make them feel better. In order to have compassion for people like that, we need to train in compassion.

We can cultivate a greater capacity for compassion by learning to have a more relaxed mind, by training in how to let go of our own disturbing emotions and feel calm and at ease. Once we are calm, we can open up to more kinds of people in more situations, and even if it’s stressful to help them, we can learn how to let go of that stress.

Compassion can also make us happy. There’s an intrinsic satisfaction to helping someone who is suffering.

When we ignore others’ feelings and act selfishly it doesn’t feel good, even if we think we are right at the time.

If we accept those two notions — that helping others makes us happy and acting selfishly makes us unhappy — we can start to understand a beautiful Buddhist stanza that was written over 1,400 years ago that has inspired me for many years:

All the joy the world contains

Has come through wishing happiness for others.

All the misery the world contains

Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.

This holiday season is an especially challenging one. We want the pandemic to be over. We want to see others’ faces in public. We want our children to have normal school experiences. We want to travel. Compassion is the desire to relieve suffering in others, not just yourself. The fastest way to return to normal lives is to do all you can to follow sensible public health advice. We are all in this together, and we will always be in this together. Let’s celebrate this holiday season by wishing that we can help others more often. Wishes can come true.

Dr. David Shlim practices travel medicine in Wilson and is the co-author, with Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, of “Medicine and Compassion.” He has taught a class in Tibetan Buddhism weekly for the last 20 years in Jackson and teaches “Training in Compassion” online. Contact him via drshlim108@gmail.com. Each holiday season, the editorial board of the News&Guide gifts its space to a community leader who pens an inspirational message. Publishers Kevin Olson and Adam Meyer and editors Johanna Love and Rebecca Huntington join in wishing for a more compassionate community, this season and always.

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(1) comment

Raz Reinecke

Thank you for this refresing kind article. Reading it softened my heart and brought joy to me. I wish more compassion to enter all of our hearts.

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