11/26/2013 12:59 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

The All Too Secret Path to a Happier and More Meaningful Life

You know you're on this path when you feel a concern for the well-being of others or a warm swelling in your heart when you think of a loved one. It's the sense you get when you see a child wasting away in the wake of a storm, a father receiving a folded flag, a mother sharing that everything her family owns was taken by a tornado, but her family is alive and that's all that matters.

The path is compassion. We all have it, but it's difficult to remember to use it in our race through the challenges of getting through the day, the month, the year. When life isn't fair, when someone special turns on us in anger, when a serious illness blindsides us, when our bank balance takes an unexpected hit -- then we're more apt to become absorbed with our own fears and anxieties rather than having compassion for ourselves, let alone others. It simply doesn't occur to us in the middle of this kind of storm.

In March of this year, Tim and I arrived in Hawaii, ecstatic about a two-week vacation to celebrate his retirement. Our first morning we hiked to the top of the island, inspired by the forest, the beauty and the fun we were having together. However, that evening painful spasms started in my back and shot down my left leg, keeping me from putting weight on it. I wasn't worried, telling myself it was just sciatic problems. I'll do my stretches, have a massage and be okay.

But I wasn't. When we returned home, an MRI revealed a ruptured disc that was pushing on the nerves in my back and leg. Sitting or standing more than a few minutes was impossible. "What," I said to myself and anyone who would listen, "does one do all day if you can't sit or stand?" And that, my friends, is the reason I haven't written here for the past eight months.

Compassion for Yourself
I'm grateful to be able to say that I'm now on the mend, feeling far less distracted and able to sit on my meditation cushion for 35 minutes at a time. During this period, I've tried hard not to whine, complain or make life miserable for those around me, and I have done my best to have compassion for Tim, who has had to take on many of the tasks that were mine. Yet not once did it occur to me to have compassion for myself, to give myself a break, or to look upon on myself with empathy and understanding.

Recently I've heard that practicing compassion for oneself is the first step on the path because in this way we become familiar with how to practice loving kindness for others. But in the process of taking that lesson on board, I've been surprised to discover how really difficult it is for me to have compassion for myself. Compassion is too much like taking myself off the hook, having pity for myself, being weak, being "all about me," not being responsible in the way I've worked so hard to be. For me it seems much easier to have compassion for others than for myself.

But I'm determined to learn how to have more compassion for myself because in those moments when I loosen my judgments of myself, have concern for what I've been through, and radiate compassion for Jinny, I'm filled with such a sense of relief. I slow down, become quiet. I know this is what I've been longing for, this is what eases the pain in my heart, and this is what helps me to let go of resentments and regrets. And as a result my compassion for others is naturally increasing because I know they long for the same.

Compassion for Others
With the distractions in our world and the load we carry, it's all too easy to harden our hearts in order to protect ourselves from all that's flying at us. We have to be tough enough to take care of things, get them fixed, put things back the way they need to be, get well, provide for our families. We can't be tough and compassionate at the same time, can we? Compassion is a sign of weakness, isn't it?

No, it's not -- far from it. But in order to understand and appreciate the power of compassion, it's necessary to practice. Learn to put yourself in others' shoes, imagine why they act as they do, and be sensitive to the pain they've been through that you know nothing about. Remember the difference it's made to you when someone has shown compassion toward you at times you were suffering. Pay it forward, pass it around.

According to the Dalai Lama, having compassion for others, "automatically reduces our desire to harm or to exploit others."

That's my experience. At times when my true motivation is to help or support others -- even if I don't say a word -- the atmosphere gradually becomes calmer and more positive. Compassion is returned to me, and it radiates from the person for whom I have compassion. Having warm feelings and positive intentions for those around us creates a friendlier, safer environment for our families, our friends, and those in our work life. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it simply and well, "What comes from the heart goes to the heart."

The path of compassion is natural -- it's within each one of us. I invite you to spend more time on the path of compassion, and I promise to do the same. Start with a few simple steps:

  1. Write your responses to the statement, "I have compassion for myself because... "
  2. Practice more compassion for your family with the intention to create a safer and more loving environment.
  3. Practice more compassion at work and notice what happens.
  4. Stretch to having compassion for someone who has really who hurt you.

The world needs our compassion -- now more than ever. And that compassion begins with you and with me. Start by practicing compassion for yourself and those closest to you. Be kind to yourself, have empathy for others, and by doing so you'll stay on this path to a happier and more meaningful life.

I've been inspired by watching a recent video of the Dalai Lama speaking with middle and high school students in Kentucky about compassion. I invite you to do the same.

Please leave a comment below or write to me: I'd love about your travels on the path of compassion.

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