The field of mental health encourages compassion, but do you really know and fully understand what it is to be compassionate. There is often confusion around the word compassion and whether or not everyone is compassionate.
In our high tech and social media world, it often feels as though we live in a narcissistic, self-absorbed and selfish world, but research reflects otherwise. In fact, recent research has indicated that compassion comes in a variety of forms. David Rand, Associate Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Science at MIT suggests that human behavior instinctively encourages us to help others, make peace, and to avoid conflict. The Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology conducted research where they observed 56 two-year old’s who were divided into three study groups. The researchers observed the children’s reactions when an adult initially dropped one of two objects: either a can or a crayon; and that same adult struggled to pick it up. There was an observed increase in the dilation of the infants’ pupils when the adult was in distress and a decrease in the size of the infants’ pupils when the adult’s issue was resolved either by the infant helping the adult or someone else helping the adult. The research concluded that the infants’ level of stress was alleviated when the adult had his or her need met.
Would you describe yourself as a compassionate person? Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Compassionate individuals are neither seeking compensation for deeds done nor are they acting in a way to grab the attention of others. Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkley stated “Compassion and benevolence are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good.” There is an innate neurological response that occurs automatically triggering compassion for others.
Whether or not you would describe yourself as compassionate; you are probably compassionate at least some of the time. The compassionate individual can relate to other’s struggles and being down on their luck. A compassionate individual thinks about the needs and welfare of others. A compassionate individual is often socially and emotionally conscious. They are often aware of and responding to their personal surroundings.
So, what does it mean to be compassionate? If we are compassionate, then we have a deep connection to others. We not only empathize with the plight of the other person, but we often have an emotional connection to the burdens and challenges that they are carrying. If someone is struggling with an addiction, we may feel compelled to urge that individual to seek help or to provide them resources that help them deal with their addiction. Research has shown that a large majority of addicts suffer from past traumatic experiences and severe life challenges. Sadly, there have been past philosophies that taught that those who suffer from addiction need not compassion, but rather a stern and unapologetic steering into the right direction. Addiction is neither an issue of willpower or lack of self-control. It is not a weakness in the moral integrity of an individual. It is important that we understand that those who struggle with addiction are often compulsively and obsessively driven by the issue. We should not have a visceral response that often arises from deeply felt feelings, but rather a heart filled with compassion and the capacity to feel sorrow for another’s suffering.
COMPASSION BREEDS COMPASSION
We must have an unconditional acceptance and compassion for our own person. If I do not understand compassion, then how will I offer it unto another? Moreover, if I lack empathy for another or myself, then how will I be capable of showing compassion for others? Compassion is driven by the knowledge that we have within our own person. As individuals, we must be willing to have an unconditional acceptance and compassion for our own person. Furthermore, compassion is driven by experiences. Most individuals have experienced some form of compassion. We may have had a parent who showed compassion the first time that we fell down and skinned our knees. We may have had a compassionate teacher who encouraged us when we felt discouraged. Compassion often occurs when we least expect it.
Compassion is not simply having an understanding of another’s plight, or sharing in their feelings, but rather, it encourages us to take action and to engage the positive behaviors and pursuits of another.
TEACHING AND ENCOURAGING COMPASSION
Compassion can be learned. For those with young children, you teach them lessons of compassion by living a life filled with compassion. If they witness you leading a life of compassion, then they too will live a life filled with compassion.
Even an adult can learn to be more compassionate. As a volunteer firefighter I have witnessed the loss of life, goods, etc. and it has left a profound impression upon my life. A person who freely offers their time gains a lot from this experience. My own children have been encouraged to be volunteers from an early age. If you take the time to volunteer for the most vulnerable and those in need, it will most assuredly leave an impression upon your life.
A key to being compassionate is active listening. If nothing else, be attentive and engaged. Do not let your own worries and struggles overshadow those of another. If you are attending to the needs of another, resist the urge to cast judgement. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but sometimes, all a person needs is to be heard. It is okay to share your personal experiences when applicable, but avoid conveying the impression that you have all the answers. For many who are struggling, they are commonly feeling weak and vulnerable, try to avoid making them feel as though you are superior.
We must become a society filled with compassion. Compassion is not only about having a sympathetic ear to hear, or a shoulder to lean upon, but it is about embodying the fullness of empathy. Compassion must come from an unconditional state.
If I am compassionate to my own person, then I am much more likely to be compassionate unto others. Likewise, if I live a life of select compassion, then I am going to show my own person limited compassion. Compassion should not be shown only to those who deserve it. It should be embraced and shown to those who often are undeserving of it.
Compassion understands that we rarely have the whole picture. Often, people are struggling with a host of issues. It is important that you are unconditional in your approach. Be empathetic and be willing to meet an individual where they are at. Do not foreshadow an individual’s life or issues to come; allow the individual to live in the present moment and to learn from that moment. Compassion is about being centered, attentive, and it requires active participation. The Dalai Lama once said,” If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Compassion can be encouraged, influenced, and facilitated through a variety of avenues including: meditation, modeling, teaching, and active participation.
Research has clearly shown that the act of compassion has tremendous health benefits. It is well documented that when we give of ourselves in an altruistic way, we receive more pleasure, than when we receive.
Compassion is contagious; it encourages others to be empathetic. Dr. James Fowlerand Dr. Nicholas Christakis’research documented that small acts of kindness and generosity have a ripple effect triggering a tidal wave of positive behaviors. If we encourage compassion then we are ultimately going to have a more compassionate society. Carpe Diem!
References Provided Upon Request
Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S. Website: www.asadonbrown.com