Seven things I've learned about compassion

“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.” – “The Way of the Bodhisattva,” by Shantideva.

I consider myself lucky.

I’ve had a few “bad” experiences in healthcare, but they mainly stand out because they were so rare and antithetical to the high-quality professional care I usually receive.

In fact, most of us probably tend to remember the not-so-caring caretakers for the same reason. The doctor who never takes her eyes off the computer screen while talking to you about a painful issue. The provider who seems more preoccupied with meeting his patient quota for the day than answering your questions. The therapist who speaks condescendingly to you.

And yet you can’t blame them. Everyone has off days. Expectations – fee-for-service payment models, an increasingly complex medical system and insurance issues – have made it much harder for even the best-intentioned provider to deliver healthcare in a personal and compassionate way.

That’s why I felt so drawn to the presentation on compassion by Dr. David Shlim at last week’s Building Bridges conference.

Trained as a traditional medical doctor in western medicine, Shlim’s interests gravitated toward travel and travel medicine. He journeyed to Nepal specifically to study altitude sickness and, in the process, developed a connection with Buddhist lama Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. As he shared tea and wisdom with the great teacher, Shlim noticed a pleasant side effect: He was becoming gentler, kinder and more understanding with his patients.

He was becoming a better doctor.

Together, the two men wrote “Medicine and Compassion,” a book that offers advice from a

Tibetan Buddhist perspective on methods of training in compassion for health care professionals.

Although it’s not possible to cure everyone, or prevent accidents, and diseases entirely, we can try our best to ease the suffering of everyone that we meet.” – Dr. David Shlim

Shlim, who still practices travel medicine while conducting spiritual retreats from his home in

Jackson Hole, Wyo., jokes that the book didn’t land him on “Oprah.” Even so, it was a way to disseminate valuable information about a topic that is rarely discussed in western medical schools, yet is still so important to the provider-client relationship.

The good news: Buddhist philosophy maintains that the best way to find joy is to remove rumination on one's own thoughts and ego and to focus instead on relieving suffering in others. WIth that in mind, mental-health and health-care providers actually have great capacity for fulfillment and joy.

Here are 7 “A-ha!” moments I received from Dr. Shlim’s presentation:

  1. Everyone has compassion (well, almost). The Western view of compassion is that it’s a character trait – either you have it or you don’t. Shlim points out that almost every sentient being has some compassion, whether it’s a pack of zebras chasing away a predator to protect an abandoned baby elephant or a sociopathic murderer who tenderly nurses an injured bird who winds up in his cell block. (This was the one area where I disagreed, just a little. I maintain that there are born psychopaths who do not have the capacity for compassion – even if they know how to “act compassionate.”  But that’s just my opinion.)

  2. We are more compassionate to individuals vs. populations, and toward people who are more like us. We are more likely to show compassion when it’s focused in on one person or family, vs. a whole nation of people, and when the person suffering is more like us.  For instance, many Americans once thought of the Syrian crisis in only abstract, somewhat disconnected terms. But when the photo of a drowned Syrian toddler went viral, anyone could relate to it. Face-down in the sand, almost like he was sleeping, and with sneakers still on his little feet, 3-year-old Alan Kurdi was a true innocent and victim, who could have been anyone’s child. He was no longer one of “them.” He represented every parent's greatest fear. He was one of us.

  3. Everything will change.  One of the main causes of suffering is impermanence. It’s the realization that absolutely anything in our lives can change: our financial standing, our jobs, our relationships, our emotional health, our children’s physical health, our safety. This construct is especially difficult for western cultures, where we are taught that if we get educated, work hard and do all “the right things,” we can completely control

Shlim with Buddhist lama Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche

our destinies and be guaranteed a stable life.  Impermanence can also be hard on the helpers, because it reminds everyone how vulnerable we all really are, which can make it difficult to be present with others who are struggling through something so painful.

  1. We tend to view compassion as a limited entity. Another Western belief about compassion is that it’s selective, unstable and limited – like a rechargeable battery. You turn it on when you need it and it wears out over time – unless you take a break and allow your batteries to “recharge.” Operating on this philosophy, our “battery” of compassion wears out and can no longer hold a charge. This is commonly known as “burnout” or compassion fatigue, and it can be career-ending for someone in a helping profession.

  2. Compassion can be a way of being, rather than acting. What if compassion wasn’t fleeting and situational, or dependent on whether you like the person who needs comforting or not? A more Buddhist-style approach would be that we are already compassionate. It is naturally present state of our being and soul and is obscured only by our thoughts and emotions. Shlim likens our compassion to a blue sky – it’s bottomless, endless and omnipresent, whether or not it is temporarily obscured by clouds of doubt, emotion or thought. Someone who is living their true compassionate self will approach all humans with genuine warmth, openness and kindness, especially when they engage in practices such as meditation to control their emotions and thoughts.

  3. We don’t need to carry the weight of the world. This practice of compassion is actually less draining in the long run, Shlim says, because we don’t walk around basking in the suffering of others. We don’t carry the world on our shoulders while grieving over all of the horrible things that have happened. This does not help us be better helpers. We work to be fully in the moment with the person who needs our help, and easing their suffering in every way that we can while we are with them, but our most useful purpose is to move forward, be fully present and rain compassion on the next person who needs our help.

  4. There’s a way to find compassion for those who don’t ‘deserve’ it. During the Q&A section afterward, someone asked Shlim how to remain compassionate when the person you are trying to help doesn’t seem particularly deserving of it. He or she may be unpleasant, unreasonable, demanding, angry or difficult. His response: double-down on the compassion. See the extent of the suffering they are experiencing which has made them lash out to this extreme of a degree. Realize that their thoughts and emotions are out of control and still shine kindness on them. They may actually need compassion most of all.

You can find Dr. David Shlim’s book and study guide at .

By Tammy Swift, Communications Specialist, LSSND

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