How compassion benefits us all
Leslie Brownbridge, MA,
How we can be better, kinder, more connected human beings with ourselves, our families, and our communities? Have a mindful New Year!
Whether or not we compose a list of resolutions, the start of a new year tends to lead us to ponder behaviours we would like to improve upon. Often, this internal inquiry can lead to asking how we can be better, kinder, more connected human beings with ourselves, our families, and our communities. How can we be more connected with the world at large?
The science of compassion
Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have proven what some of us may already know: our happiness is inextricably entwined with those around us, and compassion is an integral component to our own health and well-being.
These studies indicate that emotional connectivity is not only inherent, but neurologically measurable. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, conducted a study investigating whether compassion could be generated.
Utilizing fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), Davidson’s team studied both those individuals who consistently practised compassionate meditation and those who did not by using generated scenarios designed to elicit an emotional response.
The team not only witnessed positive changes in brain activity, but also showed that, with practice, people can cognitively develop skills that promote compassion. Davidson feels that studies in brain plasticity prove
we can train beyond respective set points to enhance
This view is corroborated by Dr. Dan Siegel, a mindfulness expert and professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. Siegel concludes that we have the power to enhance our tendencies for empathy and compassion through mindfulness meditation and that the practice of extending loving awareness to others and the impact this has on the brain are only now becoming more scientifically understood.
Not only does compassion strengthen happiness within our physiological makeup, but social scientists have discovered it can boost immunity and improve emotional responses to stress.
Practising mindful compassion also seems to have a compound effect: the more we practise it, the easier it becomes, and the more integrated and happier we are.
A compassionate response may be easily offered during times of crisis or loss in our loved ones’ lives, but how can we cultivate this practice in smaller ways, with those whom we interact with daily?
Start with self
There is a saying that one cannot fill another’s cup from an empty vessel, and this is true for compassion as well. The more kind and self-nurturing we are, the greater our capacity to extend this on a wider spectrum.
Like a stone tossed in the midst of a tranquil lake, the act of compassion ripples outward. Kindness in the form of nurturing and positive regard for the self is the foundation of this practice. In being more in touch and gentle with our own challenges and sufferings, we can better recognize and empathize with those of others.
Pause and evaluate
When we’re overextended we have a tendency to live with the lists in our heads that can often obscure what is happening to another person right in front of us. If we can take a figurative step back from ourselves long enough to really “see” another, we are more likely to respond from a place of patience and tolerance instead of irritation and frustration.
That small pause can often be enough to remind us that each harried clerk, demanding relative, or irate driver is also coping with their own lists and struggles. When we stop personalizing the behaviour of others, we are in a better position to respond in a more expansive and kind manner.
Being mindful with an act of compassion does not have to be a grand gesture. Often, an understanding smile or listening with genuine interest can make a world of difference. Smaller steps of loving-kindness can be relayed by greater patience and tolerance and by being more genuinely responsive and less dismissive with each other.
The loving-kindness meditation
There is a beautiful four-step practice called metta or loving-kindness meditation. While there are variations of this practice, the format is to begin with generating loving-kindness first, for the self.
Wish yourself harmony, happiness, and peace with words such as “May I feel joy and peace” or “May I let go of stress.”
Then, imagine a beloved figure in your life who easily elicits feelings of warmth and positive regard, and repeat the same generous mantra toward them.
Next, extend thoughts of loving-kindness to a more neutral person, someone you are not generally close with, who may be an acquaintance.
The last component can be the most challenging and includes someone you are experiencing difficulties with. Note any resistance that may arise can be met with compassion, to which you can add, “May I be free of any tensions toward this person for the greater good of all.”
As innate as compassion may be, practising it has a profound impact on generating empathy toward others and strengthens within our own biological systems the more we use it, as discovered by Helen Weng, a lead researcher for the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.
Weng believes that, like weight training, a systematic approach to practising compassion allows us to build up our “compassion muscle” so we can respond with care and a desire to help those who are suffering.
We might never know the impact the smallest kindness in the form of a smile might have on another person’s day, but thanks to science, we can now see
the beneficial manifestations of the practice of it within ourselves.
According to the Dalai Lama, “If you want others to be happy, practise compassion. If you want to be happy, practise compassion.”