“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” Dalai Lama
Over the holidays last year, we were visiting my older son, Hoby, and his family in Park City, Utah. The snow was deep and thick. The skiers loved it, but some of us were worried.
Friends were supposedly coming for dinner, but the hour had passed when they were to arrive. Hoby was not there either. He wasn’t answering his cell phone.
Suddenly, the door flew open. Four, out-of-breath, beaming young men, including Hoby, swooshed in. What just happened? Bad news? Good news? Both.
When Hoby and his friends had neared the house, they noticed that a car had slipped into a deep ditch. All the guys stopped, assessed the situation, heaved, and hoed, and finally were able to free the folks; send them on their way to celebrate the holidays at a heightened level.
No surprise that the freed folks were exuberant afterwards. But why were Hoby and his friends bordering on jubilant? Researchers tell us that human beings are wired to feel compassion, to want to help, and to feel good when they do.
Compassion is a complex and fascinating phenomenon which has been more rigorously studied by academics in the last few decades. We will undoubtedly learn more. After reading hundreds of definitions and descriptions of compassion, the following synthesis of what happens when we are compassionate makes the most sense to me. But wait.
Why is it important for us to understand the how compassion works? It’s not just because we want to be able to precisely describe it, but more importantly because we want to learn how to be better at it. But wait one more time.
Why do we want to be better at being compassionate? It’s not because compassion is such a nice, fuzzy, warm thing, but because our very survival as a species - certainly our ability to thrive, depends on how skillful we are at being compassionate. The work is urgent.
Believe it or not, none other than Charles Darwin wrote about this in his book, The Descent of Man. Darwin said that those who have more compassion will be the key to survival. You see, for one thing, we have these big-headed little babies who are born completely helpless. Unless we have the motivation to be concerned about them, to care for them, our species dies out.
Compassion comes about when we notice that someone is suffering. We emotionally resonate; we empathize with their suffering. We can feel what it must be like to be in their shoes. We have a sense of comradery as fellow human beings – it could have just as easily been us who slipped into the ditch. Maybe we do have a sense of distress at the situation, but our sense of nurturing allows us to tolerate the distress and push on. Last, we feel compelled to do something to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings.
These thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are associated with the compassion process cause various parts of our brains to activate. Pleasurable and motivating chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine are secreted. All this ends up optimizing our immune system as well. Bottom line. Compassion is good not just for the people you pull out of the ditch, but for you and me. We are more emotionally and physically fit when we are skilled at compassion. I’m not Buddhist, but I think the Dalai Lama captures this idea well in his oft quoted words: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
Fortunately, necessarily, compassion is innate to our species. What? Time out. I understand if you want to scream out in protest that you are not seeing evidence of that.
Compassion can and does go wrong sometimes; it can get blocked and stunted. Perhaps we didn’t get the best of parenting, perhaps we see so much suffering that we fearfully tune others out. What can we do to be these compassionate creatures we need to be… and are when we are at our best?
Many ideas have been suggested. Seems to me that the best, the easiest, high reward, low risk ideas start by getting us back in touch with ourselves as naturally compassionate beings. We can experiment by:
1. Setting aside a couple of minutes (daily or weekly) to reflect on times we have been compassionate to others or others have shown compassion to us. You can also include thinking about compassionate stories you have heard or seen out in the larger world. Catch those compassionate stories; spread them. Your mind may wander off to problems you had being compassionate. That’s okay, refrain from judging. We are all works in progress. Gently bring yourself back to considering when you’ve heard or seen compassion show up. Let your chest area warm as you recall these instances.
2. Notice other behaviors that seem to unblock our best selves – petting dogs, reading kindness stories, hiking in the woods. One way I unblock my compassionate, best self is by looking at a picture of my granddaughter, Sophia. Sophia is hugging a friend’s dog, Louie. Louie suffers from many maladies including old age. Sophia’s look and embrace epitomize compassion for me and warms my heart. I also have a couple of pics from my niece of her children seemingly receiving love and compassion from their canine friends. Compassion for and from animals can be powerful openers to compassion for many of us.
People often think of December as the time to work on our compassion simply because it may be the only time of year we think much about it. That’s a shame. Compassion isn’t good for us only one month a year.
I recently read a research summary of various happiness interventions. The paper ended by noting the link between self-transcendence and physical and emotional well-being. Compassion (along with gratitude and awe) was proposed as the ultimate path to the good life. Funny. Seems like somebody said that about two thousand years ago.
How might you get back in touch with your compassion and Journey to The Good Life?