The Circle of Love and Compassion
It is quite possible to lose one’s sense of being a separate self and to experience a kind of boundless, open awareness—to feel, in other words, at one with the cosmos. —Sam Harris
Lift up your armpit and give it a whiff. Go on, seriously. I’m going somewhere with this.
What do you smell? Odds are, nothing too dramatic. In fact, you’re probably detecting something borderline pleasant—the smell of minty fresh deodorant, floral cologne, or remnants of the shower gel you used this morning. Or perhaps all you pick up on is the sweet, succulent scent of your own awesomeness.
But if I’d asked you to sniff yourself in the same way in 1920, you’d have probably fainted. Because a hundred years ago, bathing wasn’t exactly a priority. Your breath would have reeked too. Did you know that in the early 1920s, only 7 percent of Americans bothered to brush their teeth?
That said, we’ve made quite a bit of progress in the last hundred years, haven’t we? Nowadays most of us are aware that hygiene is of the utmost importance. And when we shower and slap on some perfume, we’re not just doing it for ourselves—we’re also doing it in the name of other people’s olfactory delight.
So why is it that while billions of people rock up at work smelling like a jasmine flower, most of them haven’t given a second thought to their mental hygiene?
We wash our bodies daily. But we forget to wash our minds.
Many people, myself included, have woken up in the morning with feelings of anxiety, stress, or regrets from the day before. That’s okay, it’s human. But the problems arise when we choose to do nothing about those feelings. Because just like a bad smell, those states of being will also undoubtedly impact other people.
Whether you want to consciously or not, you’re probably going to take out your frustrations on the world. When we’re lost in an ocean of our own baggage, compassion goes out the window. We’ve set ourselves up for a bad day along with anyone else in the firing line.
Compassion: The Benefits
Compassion trains your brain to be kinder. And trust me, in today’s world, kindness is a competitive advantage. But more on that later.
Compassion brings about an infectious bliss that touches everyone we come into contact with. As well as feeling amazing while you’re practicing, compassion also helps prevent unnecessary bad juju from ruining your day, never mind anyone else’s. Mountains suddenly don’t have to be made out of molehills, because you get that, really, there’s no difference between you and your fellow human being. With the practice of compassion, you’re able to see yourself in others, and therefore you can more easily let things slide.
Like when the waiter gets your order wrong. You know the feeling. That sinking in your stomach, that oh for crying out loud drama that goes off in your head when your steak isn’t cooked the way you requested . . . sure, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s just plain annoying. You’ll be damned if you give them a tip.
Now, I’m famously known as a great tipper. And that’s not because I have an addiction to polishing my halo. It all came about as an unexpected side effect of engaging in compassion practices.
A few months back during a respite between pandemic lockdowns, a friend and I decided to hit a local café. And that was exciting because none of us had had the luxury of eating out in a long time. There was a queue of people just waiting to get in, and they were all happy to wait, smiling beneath their face coverings.
When we eventually were seated, I joyfully ordered a cup of coffee and a breakfast omelet with avocado from the waitress who approached our table.
Twenty minutes later, my coffee arrived. I took a sip. It was room temperature. And that, when you live in Northern Europe, means cold. My friend, fuming at this point, sat back and tutted as I calmly asked for a hot coffee. Apologetic, the waitress scurried off to make me a new one. Only she didn’t. She forgot.
Another thirty minutes later, my omelet was presented to me. But the guacamole side was missing. My friend turned to me, half laughing, half angry, and whispered, “The service here is awful!”
We carried on eating what we were given. When we were ready to leave, I smiled at the waitress and left her a twenty-euro tip.
“Are you nuts?” my friend asked, creasing her brows. “The service was ridiculous; why on Earth would you give her twenty euros?!”
I’d not given it much thought. Granted, the service was pretty abysmal. But it was a hell of a lot better than being stuck at home on my own eating a microwaved meal. We’d not set foot outside for three months. This café was a godsend.
And that waitress? I didn’t resent her. I genuinely felt for her.
That waitress was probably jobless for those three months that we were all locked down. All the restaurants and bars were shut down. As well as being painfully lonely like the rest of us, she probably had the added worry of where her next paycheck was going to come from. Maybe she had kids like me.
Then when she finally landed this job, she was told that she had to wear a mask over her nose and mouth for ten hours straight in an overcrowded, stuffy café. She could see the line of twenty people outside that she’d have to wait on straight after us. They were totally understaffed and all she could do was her very best to keep on top of the endless stream of requests . . . all the while living with the uncertainty as to whether she was going to lose her job, again, in the coming weeks.
So frankly, from that perspective, she was doing a helluva job. And maybe that tip, if nothing else, could buy her a well-deserved bottle of wine or a box of chocolates to unwind with that evening. Because if it wasn’t for people like her, working sporadically in hospitality during a global pandemic, we’d all go mad.
I explained all this to my friend. I got a polite nod of affirmation before we headed out into the rest of our day.
What I didn’t tell him is that that very same morning, I’d completed the 6 Phase Meditation. And it looked like Phase 1 had paid off.
That three-minute-long meditation had made me a less judgmental and more understanding person. The Buddhists would say I’d been injected with a shot of “loving-kindness”—the antidote to the human tendency of “attribution error.”
Fundamental Attribution Error: How We Misjudge Others and Make Excuses for Ourselves
You see, our brains are sneaky little self-glorifying devices that are precoded with this fundamental attribution error (an error that Phase 1 will free you from).
Let’s say you’re driving and somebody cuts you off on the highway. In your mind, you’ll immediately blame them. You’ll scream, “What a jerk!” (hopefully in your head, not out the window). In other words, you assume they have a character flaw: they’re rude, arrogant, inconsiderate, and selfish.
But when you’re the one who cuts someone off, in your head you’ll go, “Oh God, sorry, sorry, sorry!” Whether it was an accident or not, you’ll justify it. You’re still getting used to your new car. You were tired because you couldn’t sleep last night and you misjudged the space you had to overtake. You had to take your budgie to the vet. You had to get your daughter to school on time because it’s show-and-tell day and you didn’t want to let her down . . . fill in the blanks.
So when it’s someone else, it’s a character flaw. When it’s you, it’s just your unfortunate circumstances. You’re the gentle underdog of the story who just made a mistake.
I got called an asshole once.
I was twenty-four years old and I was running through an airport because I had literally four minutes to catch my flight to the most important conference of my life. I’d been working at the time for a nonprofit organization called AIESEC that focused on cultivating world peace. I got paid a pretty shitty salary, but its mission meant something to me, so I stayed. I’d chosen the cheapest flight I could to get to the conference, and lo and behold, they’d changed the time of my connecting flight.
So there I was, running as fast as I could, gasping for breath and desperately trying to lug my huge bag behind me. If I missed that flight, I didn’t know whether I could afford another, and I wasn’t about to charge a nonprofit for it. In my rush, I tripped over a guy’s suitcase. I got up and kept running, because every second counted.
As I soldiered on like a hero, I heard the words “YOU ABSOLUTE ASSHOLE!” resonate through the airport corridor.
It was the guy whose baggage I’d tripped over.
And this perturbed me big-time. I’m genuinely not an asshole. I’m a nice guy. It was just an accident. But admittedly if someone had booted my bag without apologizing, I’d have probably thought the same thing about them.
Copyright © 2022 by Vishen Lakhiani. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.