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The Amen Effect And Beyond

A couple of months ago John and I were listening to The Amen Effect by Rabbi Sharon Brous. According to Brous the human longing for connection and awakening to our shared humanity is what she is calling the Amen Effect. She told many stories, but one stuck with me the most.  In an ancient Hebrew text Brous found a practice that hundreds of thousands of Jews did several times a year in Jerusalem at the temple.

Everyone would walk up the steps and enter its huge plaza and most would turn to the right, circling the plaza counterclockwise.  However, the broken-hearted, the grieving, the lonely and sick would turn left and circle in the opposite direction.

As people circling from the right encountered someone in pain who was circling from the left, they looked into their eyes and asked: “What happened to you? How does your heart ache?”

Brous offers what the suffering might have replied, “My father died”; “my partner left”; “my child is sick.” Even in some cases the suffering person might have been one who had been ostracized by the group and isolated on the margins. Curiosity and listening was even extended to these outcasts… those pushed out from the tribe, those who had harmed the social fabric of Hebrew society.

Then those circling from the right would say something like: “May the Holy One comfort you. You are not alone.” And so on with the next person.

The idea was that we acknowledge and embrace being on the same human journey.  This time I circle right, next time, I may be circling left. Today I hold your pain.  Tomorrow you may be holding mine. We are in this together. I see you. You see me. Amen.

Brous adds that this is such an important notion – the idea of not sitting at home with our breaking hearts, not going it alone.  Step toward those who will hold us.  And for those of us in a position to do the holding, at least sometimes… on a good day, when we can breathe; we go toward those who are suffering and allow them to tell us about their sorrow. Amen.

I recalled this practice as I was listening to world-renowned physician and writer Gabor Mate.  He mentioned research indicating that experiencing trauma, being overwhelmed, and not telling others about it is hugely associated with chronic sickness.

On the same day, I read research about the importance of offering a listening ear or an act of kindness to another. It gets us outside ourselves and allows us to experience more meaning in life.  It’s a win-win for everyone – this reciprocal vulnerable sharing and compassionate presence unless…

We hear someone’s story and we get stuck in it.  We become emotionally distressed imagining the horror of what they have experienced. 

A friend was telling me recently that she had heard an awful story that she could not get out of her head.  A young man had tragically run over a ten-year-old.  She imagined the details - questions and thoughts kept rolling around in her head: Why had the boy not looked where he was going?  How would the young man ever get over killing this boy?  How devastated the parents of both must be feeling. We have all been there.


To get out of this empathic pain, we must remember the solution the Hebrews used. Offer the second part of the Amen.

Offer some sort of blessing, prayer, kind word, “May the Holy One comfort you.” And a reminder… “You are not alone.” It switches us out of distress into a helpful state of compassion.

When Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard (who also happens to have a PhD in molecular genetics and is also informally known as the happiest man alive), was studied (by neuroscientist and researcher Dr. Tania Singer through functional magnetic resonance imaging), something very interesting emerged. Singer asked Ricard to imagine various scenarios of people who were suffering. When Ricard experienced pure empathy – imagining how they must feel, a certain part of the brain associated with pain activated. 

Over a period of time, Ricard was an emotional wreck.  He begged to be allowed to switch from experiencing empathy to experiencing compassion.

Compassion activates totally different areas of the brain including areas associated with positive emotions, maternal love, affiliation.  Compassion practitioners send intentional messages of kindness to those who are suffering.

This is important because those who experience a lot of empathy burn out.  They feel overwhelmed, discouraged, distressed, exhausted and fatigued. They want to get away from the suffering.  They are of little help.

We need to be people who can experience empathy – it helps us identify with the suffering of another, but then we need to switch to kindness, to compassion, to be able to keep helping for longer periods of time. 

When those who are “circling right,” as a metaphor invoking the Jewish practice Brous described, are allowed to hear the pain AND extend a blessing, then empathy and emotional distress are transformed into kindness and compassion. We can go on to help the next person.

This is an excellent way to deal with our collective pain our "thorns"…with a little empathy and a lot of compassion. 

But let’s just suppose you and I honestly feel at various times in our lives that we have no one to turn to in our suffering, what can we do?  Self-compassion.  Not pity, not self-indulgence, not self-centeredness, but self-compassion. 

Self-pity can bog us down.  Just like being emotionally overwrought by another’s pain and suffering can undo us, so can wallowing in our own suffering. Instead, we can offer ourselves compassion…say to ourselves something like, “This is a moment of suffering (a “thorn”), of challenge, of difficulty, of pain, of loss.  I, like all humans, experience setbacks, loss, and pain. May I find joy where I can, and may I use this suffering to become wiser, stronger, kinder.”

It's extremely important for our health and well-being according to people like Dr. Gabor Mate and self-compassion researchers like Dr. Kristin Neff, to NOT suppress our painful (not only sad, but also mad) feelings, but to acknowledge them, understand them, send kindness toward them. Just as it’s important not to get carried away with our pain imagining that we are the only people in the world who suffer.

Now let me backtrack a moment.  Did you notice that line I put in the paragraph above the last one, “May I find joy where I can?”  That’s a line I just picked up from an acquaintance I saw a couple of days ago. Here's where we go a bit beyond the Amen Effect to finding connection with others' joy and connection with joy wherever we can find it. Showing up for the whole shebang.

This acquaintance, this man, has, for the last 25 years or so, been an almost constant caretaker for a son with a rare form of muscular dystrophy.  The son at this point is mostly confined to bed.  He has bedsores that get infected, tissue that must be surgically removed.

Despite this, the father, is an amazingly upbeat fellow.  He looks strong and healthy.  He gave John and me an update on his son.  Some good news that the son might be able to get some help (for the bedsores) at a good hospital in a few weeks. Then he said with his soft eyes, “We take our joy wherever we can find it.  And we just had a new granddaughter three days ago!” This guy sees life.

That’s a good arrow to put in our self-compassion quiver – take our joy wherever we can find it - new babies definitely qualify in my book.  And…that started John and I looking around in new ways.  It’s a pretty eye-opening experience.

John attended our little town parade which circled the block three times. Five hundred people of all ages showed up to cheer for firetrucks and motorcycles. Big fun. A young relative just achieved his dream of professionally playing Canadian hockey. John was over the moon.

Then John woke up awed as he pondered the pine seed that got lodged in a bit of soil on a rock a few years ago.  That little seed is now a pine tree growing right out of a rock.  It’s so powerful, it has split the rock.  That image uplifts me. It reminds me of the power of a little seed… of joy, of compassion, of kindness. And for spiritual people and their stories like Rabbi Brous, Matthieu Ricard, ancient Hebrew practices, and researchers like Kristin Neff and Tania Singer, and all those who are willing to show up for each other, for all this connection to each other and to pain and suffering and to life itself, I say... Amen and Amen and Amen.

How might we journey together to the Good Life… pulling more Amen into our lives learning from our spiritual teachers, scientists, and our friends and acquaintances how to more skillfully practice compassion so that we can show up for each other and even for ourselves and for life?







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