The Utility of Compassion
Recently during a radio interview, I was asked about the mission of Cypress Counseling Center. I had the opportunity to articulate my vision for providing the highest quality mental health care consistently motivated by compassion. For me and for Cypress Counseling Center, compassion is the essential driving force since it is this emotion that promotes the kind of precise, attuned presence and relating that facilitates healing and growth.
For many people, the word “compassion” conjures images of a touchy-feely emotion that is of little or no practical good. Many people do not want to be pitied and so are averse to the idea of pitying others. Karen Armstrong, author of “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” suggests, however, that compassion is not some kind of “uncritical pitying” or “feeling sorry” for someone. In reality, compassion is a much more personal, engaged interaction. Simply put, compassion is “feeling with” another person in a manner that inclines us to be helpful. Armstrong asserts that compassion is at the core of every religious tradition. The golden rule--that is, treating others the way we would like to be treated--is fundamental to all religions.
Neuroscience & Health Benefits
Compassion is not, however, a mere religious duty. Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence,” points out that our natural tendency as social creatures is to help. Studies have demonstrated that we are powerfully connected to others and feel better when others do whether or not we are the ones providing assistance. Mirror neurons in the brain enable us to feel and experience what another is feeling and experiencing. This biological inclination toward compassion is part of what accounts for why the improvement of another’s well-being pleases us. And in addition to the positive emotions that compassion generates, there are significant physical benefits. Being compassionate is a buffer against stress, it enhances the immune system and may help us live longer.
Barriers to Compassionate Living
Given that compassion is an intrinsic human quality and we get healthier by practicing it, one may wonder why it is not more pervasive. It seems there are competing variables challenging our ability to prioritize the well-being of others. Research suggests that two primary barriers to feeling more compassion are fear and hurry. When we feel threatened, we understandably protect ourselves; when in a hurry, we are focused on where we are going rather than the people along the path that takes us there.
While we need a “fight-or-flight” response to survive, sometimes this mechanism is triggered when we are not in danger. And just as we may experience more fear than is useful in a given situation, we are often prone to feel rushed even when we’re really not in a hurry. These tendencies undermine our ability to pay attention and accurately discern what we and others might need.
Compassion for Me
Something that is often more difficult than being compassionate with others, is being compassionate with ourselves. It is pretty common for us to treat friends and acquaintances with kindness, while reserving our harshest feelings for the person looking at us in the mirror. This can be related to our insecurity or our misunderstanding of what compassion is. Compassion is not the elevation of others to our own detriment. Instead, the energy we have for giving and sharing with others is cultivated by the love we feel toward ourselves. Karen Armstrong suggests the golden rule requires self-knowledge. We must know what we want and need in order to give to others what they want and need.
Compassion for the World
Compassion is crucial for any possibility of a bright future for the inhabitants of this planet. Mindfulness practices and compassion meditation are a couple of ways we can more fully connect to ourselves and to the world around us. Having the courage to--in Gandhi’s words--”be the change that [we] wish to see in the world,” is no small task. However, if we can glimpse the freedom that comes with overcoming one fear at a time and we can slow down just a bit to notice ourselves and others, compassionate living becomes more within our reach.
Armstrong, K. (2010). “Twelve steps to a compassionate life.” Random House, Inc., NY.
Goleman, D. (1995). “Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ.” Bantam Books, NY.