Embracing the power of ‘just like me’ through compassion
Editor’s note: This is the fourth part of an eight-part series chronicling reporter Pam Boyd’s journey through Compassion Cultivation Training. Look for additional columns in the Tuesday High Life health section and online at http://www.vaildaily.com.
“Just like me” is a simple phrase that can trigger a massive paradigm shift.
Working my way through the eight-week Cultivating Compassion Training course, the most recent sessions have been focusing on finding compassion for the difficult people in our lives and “embracing common humanity.” I have to admit that when I read that second phrase, I was a bit taken aback.
Actually, that’s not really accurate. My reaction was more along the lines of, “yeah, right.”
But the idea of common humanity isn’t really touchy-feely or New Age. It is something we intuitively recognize, once we cut through the prejudices that have colored our personal experiences. We demonize some people, idolize others and foster ties to a select group of humans — family, friends and those who we interact with regularly. Outside of our personal groups the world is filled with others.
But those others aren’t really as different as we like to think they are.
Cultivating Compassion Training instructor Mary Lou Keller is a great reference for the science that colors our perceptions of others, and there is significant research regarding this concept. One study out of Princeton was particularly revealing. In this work, researchers found that subjects reacted with similar levels of disgust to drug addicts and homeless people as they did to objects including overflowing toilets and vomit. The subjects didn’t like very rich people either, but they equated them to stacks of money and sports cars.
Embracing fellow humans
But here’s the thing, try acknowledging that “just like me” the homeless man on the street or the zillionaire in his penthouse want fundamentally want the same thing. Just like me they both want to be happy and free from suffering. Repeat that and feel the truth of the statement. That’s ground zero of embracing common humanity.
Try that exercise the next time you read one of the Facebook rants from someone whose political views oppose your own. Just like me, this person wants to be happy and free from suffering.
You see, when I started doing that this week, the vitriol I saw in the world was turned down. I haven’t changed what I think, and I am not giving up on my ideals. I am simply acknowledging the humanity of people I do not agree with, will never agree with and in many cases find reprehensible. But recognizing our common humanity, those people become people — not some label.
Right now the world is really tied up in labels. People spit out terms such as “liberals” or “fascists.” By categorizing people, we designate them as “other.” From there it is easy to see others as threats and we all want to remove legitimate threats from our lives. As humans, we are programed to react defensively to protect ourselves and those closest to us. As Mary Lou noted in class, trying to practice compassion with someone who is getting ready to rob you is a bad idea.
But is your world really as full of threats as popular culture would have you believe? Or, instead, is it filled with people who don’t necessarily share your political or personal views?
The mom who bags on your kid during a baseball game or the boss who is making your life miserable or the politician who champions causes you despise are not your enemies. Instead, as difficult as it is to embrace the idea at times, they are just like you.
Vail Daily reporter Pam Boyd is enrolled in an eight-week Cultivating Compassion Training course, developed by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. The local class is taught by attorney Mary Lou Keller. For more information, visit http://www.ccare.standford.edu.