It’s extraordinary the number of positive changes that come to us as we begin to connect more fully to an expression of compassion and kindness. I don’t mean only compassion and kindness towards others, but also self-compassion and feelings of compassion and kindness towards ourselves that enable us to live openly and freely. As we move through our day-to-day activities we have a tendency to operate through a series of what the British economist Michael Allingham called unconscious contracts. Unconscious contracts are systems of rules, regulations, and expectations that we unconsciously set for those in our immediate sphere and subsequently expect them to follow. Unconscious contracts that we set with others, for instance, might be that one should not block the aisle with their shopping trolley or that parents should raise their children in a certain way. But the most important thing about unconscious contracts is that these are fundamentally systems of power that we apply to others without their understanding or awareness.
We also form a complex network of unconscious contracts with ourselves. We might, for instance, have created an unconscious contract with ourselves that we must never be wrong, or that we must always be perfect, or that we must always be the first to speak, or that we must never speak in a large group. If we don’t begin to identity and question the unconscious contracts we have set with ourselves that might limit certain behaviours or overemphasise behaviours that are not supportive to us and those around us, we begin to lose sight of our own compassionate connection to ourselves and can find it increasingly difficult to move through our lives freely.
In order to bring positive change in the world around us, one of the first things that we must do is enter into a compassionate relationship with ourselves by identifying ways in which we might begin to dismantle the power of these unconscious contracts with ourselves. And in the same way that self-compassion can be further developed by recognising the unconscious contracts that we have developed, so too are we able to develop a more positive, compassionate and kind relationship to others by recognising the unconscious contracts that we have set with them. Compassion toward others begins with compassion toward self.
Martin Buber, the great twentieth-century philosopher, writes about ‘I and thou’ relationships. Very often we operate from a position of ‘I and it’ relationships where we view the other people as an object, but in ‘I and thou’ relationships we’re speaking from our highest self to their highest self rather than applying unconscious rules and expectations to either them or to ourselves. Through stripping away all of the challenges created by unconscious contracts, we’re able to bring about more positive changes in our own lives and in the society around us.