As the co-founder and former CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, I helped craft SIYLI’s vision and mission statement, which is: “All leaders in the world are wise and compassionate, thus creating the conditions for world peace.”
When creating this statement, the SIYLI board felt that it was important to aim high (very high!) and to articulate an audacious vision and mission that might even appear impossible.
That seems fitting for the audacious and impossible times we live in and for teaching practices of mindfulness and emotional intelligence. However, I’ve sometimes seen people roll their eyes and dismiss such an impossibly naive, aspirational statement. Indeed, given the track record of human civilization as well as the existing state of violence, conflict, and wars around our planet, can you blame them? Where are these wise, compassionate leaders? How can any individual ever foster conditions for world peace?
The practice of “connecting to the pain of others” is what gives me hope.
The practice of “connecting to the pain of others” is what gives me hope. For instance, a highlight of the Search Inside Yourself 2-day mindfulness and emotional intelligence program takes place at the end of the morning on the second day. In many ways, the first day and a half of the program are preparation for this moment: creating a safe environment, teaching participants to sit with more stillness and focus, and to practice listening without interrupting. By now, three emotional intelligence competencies have been introduced: self-awareness, self-management, and motivation. At this point participants are ready to take a deep dive into the practice of connecting to the pain of others. In particular, we practice two core skills: seeing similarities and offering kindness.
The exercise has two parts:
- Part I focuses on seeing similarities
- Part II on offering kindness
In workshops, people are paired up and do this exercise while sitting and facing each other. If you decide to do that, I recommend asking someone you trust and are close to, and to have them read this post so they understand the context and goals of the exercise. However, this exercise can also be done virtually with another person (such as over the phone or via video conference), and it can even be practiced alone: Simply imagine sitting across from whoever you choose, whether a real or imaginary person, and imagine them speaking the script below.
Part I: Seeing Similarities
Begin with a few minutes of settling, or mindfulness meditation. Bring attention to your body and breath, and let go of the busyness and activities of the day.
Then become aware of the person sitting in front of you. Take a moment to look at this person. They are a human being. . . just like you. Notice your connection as human beings, and notice whether you feel comfortable with this thought or whether it raises some discomfort. Feel free to maintain eye contact or not.
Then read each of the following sentences, either speaking them out loud or saying them silently in your head. Take your time and consider each statement as it’s spoken.
- This person in front of me has a body and a mind . . . just like me.
- This person in front of me has feelings and thoughts. . . just like me.
- This person in front of me has experienced pain, sadness, has been angry, hurt, and confused. . . just like me.
- This person in front of me has experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering . . . just like me.
- This person in front of me wishes to be free from pain and suffering . . . just like me.
- This person in front of me has experienced many joys and times of happiness. . . just like me.
- This person in front of me wishes to be healthy, loved, and have fulfilling relationships. . . just like me.
- This person in front of me wishes to be happy. . . just like me.
Part II: Offering Kindness
Now practice offering kindness. Allow good wishes to arise. Before you begin, take a moment to look at this person again. They are a human being. . . just like you. Then, either speaking out loud or silently in your head, read the following statements, taking a pause between each one.
- I wish for this person in front of me to have the strength and the resources to navigate the difficulties in life.
- I wish for this person in front of me to be free from pain and suffering.
- I wish for this person in front of me to be happy.
- Because this person is a fellow human being. . . just like me.
Next, extend your wishes to others, to all others you can think of, being as bold in your generosity as you can be. If you want, name specific people in these statements, or name other communities you want to include.
- May everyone in this room, building, or house be happy; may they be free from suffering, may they be at peace.
- May my family and friends be happy; may they be free from suffering, may they be at peace.
- May my coworkers and colleagues and all the people I work with be happy; may they be free from suffering, may they be at peace.
- May all beings in the world be happy; may they be free from suffering, may they be at peace.
- Finally, I remember to include myself. May I be happy; may I be free from suffering, may I be at peace.
When you finish speaking, bring your attention to your body and breath. Let go of any thoughts and feelings. Notice that you are breathing in and breathing out. When you both are done and ready, allow a few minutes to bring your attention back to the room.
This exercise can build understanding and create bridges, even between those who are meeting for the first time or who misunderstand or may be in conflict with each other. I believe that one way to create a more peaceful world would be to create a safe space and then do this exercise with the people who feel disconnected and separate from one another.
These two practices, seeing similarities and offering kindness, are incredibly rich in terms of building inner resources and incredibly valuable for loosening our fears and biases and allowing us to see that we are all one tribe, one family — the human family.
Marc Lesser is internationally recognized for pioneering work in mindful leadership, creating exceptional business cultures, and supporting profound well-being. He has led mindfulness and emotional intelligence programs at many of the world’s leading businesses and organizations including Google, SAP, Genentech, and Kaiser Permanente, and has coached executives and led trainings in Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, health care, and government. He is the author of 4 books, including Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader: Lessons From Google and a Zen Monastery Kitchen.
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Dear Marc, what a happy surprise to meet you here! And thank you for this elegantly and respectfully offered practice. I’ve often wondered about my tendency, when I’m feeling alone or lost or even “weird”, to calm my myself by believing I am not likely to be the only being suffering in this particular way, that I can’t be THAT unique. I have been less likely to go on to offer the calm and kindness I feel then to my fellow beings. Thank you for this help in completing the circle of connection. Sara Bragin
Dear Marc, thanks for the clear offer to prevent me not to tap into my traditional traps – instead offering and instructing whats instead could be applied to keep mySELF upright in my integrity and vitality – to be the one who protects/nurters life force within mySELF – and others.
Thanks for your note. It is Dogen, the founder of Zen in Japan (13th century) who encourages us to know ourselves and go beyond ourselves…
Dear Marc, thanks for deepening the roots of our ancestors and reference to it. Isn’t it amazing if we are becoming aware that we are built on the shoulders of the “Giants” before us. It helps me to be grateful and build on the fundations they created. Thanks again for your Steps/bridging from that end (13th Century) into the NOW of todays’.
Thank you so much for this. It will help me so much as I’m going through a difficult patch with an old friend. It will help me not to get drawn into who is ‘right’.
Marc, I just love this! It is so inspiring and beautiful! A wonderful reminder and a great help in everyday life in seeing people and recognizing our similarities instead of judging them(which I honestly so often do!) and to offer kindness. Thank-you, Marc and bless you.
Peace, Sheila ?
Sheila, thanks for your note. Sometimes in the Zen world we say that we are committed to “saving all beings” and that “there are no beings” — that is, the aspiration is to go beyond any idea of separateness or idea of other. The ongoing practice, is to keep asking – how can we do this… Warm regards, Marc
Thank you so much for this activity. As often with the content on the website I came across it by chance. But the words and activity helped so much today address an issue that has consumed me all week. Thank you.