We humans are gifted at finding fault. Buddhist teacher Tara Brach teaches us how we can connect to compassion instead.
Evolution has rigged all of us with a negativity bias—a survival-driven habit to scan for what’s wrong and fixate on it. In contemporary society, a pervasive target is our own sense of unworthiness. We habitually fixate on how we’re falling short—in our relationships, work, appearance, mood, and behaviors. And while self-aversion is our primary reflex, we also fixate on the faults of others—how they’re letting us down and how they should be different. Whether we’re focusing inwardly or outwardly, we’re creating an enemy and imprisoning ourselves in the sense of a separate, threatened self.
From the wisest, kindest place in your being, try to offer what’s most needed.
While negativity bias is a key part of our survival apparatus, when it dominates our daily life we lose access to the more recently evolved parts of our brain, which contribute to feelings of connection, empathy, and well-being. What can decondition the negativity bias? How do we shift from limbic reactivity to “attend and befriend”? Here are three ways that help us awaken our full potential for natural presence and caring.
Look for the Vulnerability
First, look toward the vulnerability, starting with ourselves. When we’re blaming ourselves, we can ask, “What’s really going on here? What has driven me to behave this way?” Perhaps you’ll see you were afraid to fall short, and that fear made you act exactly how you didn’t want to act. Or maybe you’ll see you wanted approval because you were feeling insecure, so you ended up betraying yourself and not acting with integrity. When you begin to understand that you’re hurting, you’ll naturally shift out of blame and into self-compassion.
When triggered by others, first bring a kind presence to your own feelings of vulnerability. Once you’re more present and balanced, try to look through the eyes of wisdom at what might be behind their behavior. How might this person be caught in their own sense of inadequacy or confusion? If you can see how this person might be suffering, you’ll reconnect with a natural sense of tenderness.
Actively Express Compassion
When compassion arises, the next step is actively expressing it. This is what brings compassion fully to life. If you’re working on self-compassion, look to the vulnerable part of yourself to sense what it most needs from you. Is it forgiveness? Acceptance? Companionship? Safety? Love? Then from the wisest, kindest place in your being, try to offer what’s most needed. Either mentally or with a whisper, you might say your name and send a message of kindness to yourself. Perhaps place a hand gently on your heart or cheek, or even give yourself a hug as a way of conveying, from your more awake heart, “I’m here with you. I care.”
If you’re working with compassion for others, it’s powerful and healing to communicate your recognition of their suffering and your care. We all know that when we’re with somebody we love, if we actually say the words “I love you” out loud, it brings the love to a new level. If you want to reverse your negativity bias with someone—to reverse your habits of blaming or distancing—look for their vulnerability and then, either through prayer or in person, offer them understanding and kindness.
Include Those Who Seem Different
Part of our negativity bias and the cause of much racial, religious, and other domains of violence, is we assume potential danger—something wrong—associated with those who are different. A practice that evolves us (and our larger society) toward inclusive loving is intentionally deepening our relationships with others of difference. When we communicate on purpose, trying to understand, it opens us to the larger truth of our interconnectedness.
While our brain has a flight/fight/freeze mechanism, it also has a compassion network, which includes mirror neurons that allow us to register what it’s like for another. We can sense that others want to feel loved and loving, safe and happy. When we feel that connection, it enables us to act on behalf of each other, the relationship, or larger community. But unless we purposefully take time to pause and listen to others of difference, we won’t automatically engage that part of our brain. To have these heart-awakening dialogues, we need to intentionally create safe containers.
In the same way we train on the cushion, we can train in conscious communication with each other and gradually widen the circles to connect with those who may be more notably of difference. There are many effective practices, such as insight dialogue, nonviolent communication, and circles of reconciliation, which offer formal structures for communicating. Importantly, we need to practice in our close relationships. A couple of times a week, my husband and I meditate together and have a period of silence where we reflect on inquires such as “What are you grateful for right now?” and “What is difficult for you right now?” We also ask “Is there anything between us that’s getting in the way of an open, loving flow?” The other person listens with a kind, accepting presence, and we each get to name what we’re experiencing.
What about those who aren’t willing to engage in conversation with us? Fortunately, our capacity to feel connection isn’t hitched to their capacity to connect to us. Of course, it’s easier to feel it when there’s mutuality, but we can offer kindness from our hearts regardless. It’s possible to do this in every situation, with every person we meet.
I have a morning prayer that’s really simple: “Teach me about kindness.” When I move through the day with that informing me, the moments become filled with presence, tenderness, and aliveness, even when I encounter challenging people, myself included!
It’s natural that in the face of hurt, injustice, and deception we feel fear, hatred, and anger. But the negativity bias can lock us into being at war with ourselves and others. It’s important that we pause, be with ourselves and each other, and open fully to the feelings that arise. When we honor those feelings, we can get beneath them, down to our human vulnerability and the care that’s really our essence. It then becomes possible to respond to our world aligned with our hearts.