Saturday, 25 July 2015

A Short Course In Mindfulness - 7 - Sympathy

I showed you over the last few of these posts how to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Most people can do this if they try. It might take some time, it might be two steps forward and one back, and it is most likely you'll never be completely free of negative thoughts, because humans are like that. But, with practice and determination, almost everyone can improve their thought processes to a level that is truly life-changing. People who embark on this journey reach a point where they notice that difference. Then they rarely look back.

What I'm saying is that if you choose to do this, you'll be glad you did. But I'm not pushy about it for the simple reason that it truly must be a personal decision.

When I talk about it I often run into considerable resistance. Most of it is fear of change. But I also, surprisingly often, run into those who simply don't see a need for it. They are quite content to be negative, or even downright cynical and pessimistic. It may only be on certain points, or in certain ways, for example they are positive about their own family and dearest friends, but utterly negative about the rest of the planet. It's as if they can only keep it up for so long. That is to say they have limited or selective positivity.

There's a saying that goes around "If he's nice to you, but not nice to others in front of you, then he's not nice". It's a bit of a sweeping statement, and as a one-off incident it may not mean too much, but it's worth bearing in mind. Even if you hate the word "nice". It means kind, essentially. The point is that someone who is selective in their kindness probably needs to really consider why.

Now, there's an actual psychological theory behind this, which goes right back to our ancient ways. It suggests that early humans had a genuine need to put family first, then the tribe, and others really didn't matter. At some point civilization created more levels of this, and in fact in some cultures the tribe comes first. But the idea of treating complete strangers as equally important to kin is still considered a bit weird, except in the most enlightened people. It's more instinctive to put those you love first. I don't think anyone would even object to that.

It doesn't mean that you have to actually be cruel to everyone else, and yet for some that is indeed what they do. They are rude or even spiteful to people not in their inner circle. Why?

Sympathy is a funny thing. It's easy to care about those we love, it may be automatic. To do it for everyone requires a bit of thought sometimes. Mindfulness does that. But which comes first? Is sympathy a step on the way to mindfulness, or vice versa? There are differing opinions on this. I suggest it is a spiral upwards, that both lead to the other more and more.

What I have found, is that the more naturally sympathetic a person is, and the broader their sympathy, the greater the chance of them seeking or discovering mindfulness. Naturally sympathetic people are good candidates.

Being sympathetic appears to be part of the innate human character. Even the greatest cynic seems to recognize that, even if it suprises them. It has certainly surprised those studying it.

But you see - it's USEFUL. Useful traits in any species tend to stick around - that's how evolution works, after all.

The Chinese philosopher Meng Tzu decided, well over 2000 years ago, that humans are natually "good" if they given the opportunity. In this, he answered the other question, is it nature, or nurture? In other words, if a child is raised by sympathetic people, taught to be sympathetic, and lives in a culture that encourages sympathy, the chances are he will be sympathetic. Simple as that. If circumstances turn him otherwise, well, then he could be "derailed". Because humans also have an ability to be selfish. It comes from self-preservation, but it can literally take over if the person is damaged.

Luckily sympathy can also be taught. So, even a child with everything against him, cynical or even cruel parents etc, can learn to be sympathetic with enough good influences in his life. In fact that is why it takes a village to raise a child. It's not just that he needs extra discipline - he also needs extra sympathy. The two go together. That's what guidance is.

Why then, do we get adults from loving families who are limited in their sympathy? That's the tricky one. What fails to happen there?

I believe it is CHOICE. Really, quite a simple choice. No necessarily an easy path to follow, but a choice of paths at least. I believe this because I've seen it. Over and over. In those with easy lives AND those with hard ones. I've seen it in the young, and the old. I've seen it in people of all social classes and all levels of intellect. And when it was my turn to make that choice, I knew I was in good company.

Sympathy is one of the few things that I believe works as "fake it 'til you make it". There may be times that the kindness shown is truly an act.....done with gritted teeth. That's no different to "professionalism" as in customer service etc. But just like all positivity, if you replace the unsympathetic thoughts with sympathetic ones, everything changes.

So, if you are the one who finds yourself being sympathetic only to those closest to you, perhaps you would benefit from trying to extend that. Remember, mindfulness is a win-win, not only does it help others, it helps you.

And if you are the person watching the person with limited sympathy, remember to give him sympathy too. He needs it.

1 comment:

  1. Another aspect to consider is that sympathy is a balanced thing. So many people 'refuse' sympathy on the grounds that if they are perceived as being sympathetic, that it is an "all-in" type of agreement being made, when this is not necessarily the case. I may be compassionate toward another person, while not necessarily agreeing with them. Using that same 'customer service' mentality of the customer always being right (no matter how miserable, irate, or unhappy they may be), as the 'other person' it is a blessing to be kind to them in spite of their dis-ease. I may sympathize with people in another family/tribe, state, country, or political party for much the same reason--that we are all in this together. ~ Blessings! <3