Compassion is the recognition of, and the desire to alleviate, someone’s suffering.
Research on small babies has shown that they spend just five seconds looking at the harsh and cruel Punch in a typical Punch and Judy show, and 35 seconds looking at a compassionate and kind puppet instead. We are innately wired to prefer compassionate kindness.
Unless our brain has been damaged or we have had severe negative conditioning in childhood, we all have the innate potential to be compassionate towards others.
Men tend to have been less socialised to be compassionate, though fortunately it is learnable at any age. People trained to be more compassionate will then easily reach out to those who are suffering.
When we feel compassion for someone, we become more deeply connected to them. At those times our own needs step into the background, and make room for our courage and altruism to step forward.
Compassion primes the motor circuits of the brain and makes us ‘ready for action’.
Being compassionate also makes us even more ‘emotionally intelligent’ - which has been shown to have significant benefits to several aspects of our lives and is regarded as being more important to us than academic intelligence.
If we take responsibility for shifting our thoughts and feelings from our predominantly negative default position into an intentionally positive state, we can change the ways in which our brain and body function.
We can then also perceive our inner and outer world more clearly and accurately too.
Our brains are built for change and are shaped by our thoughts, feelings and beliefs. MRI scans have found that areas of the brain (temporal lobe/parietal lobe, as well as the Insula cortical region of the frontal cortex) were very strongly activated during meditation upon the expression of compassion.
These brain areas affect the visceral organs and thereby set up the mind-body connection with the sense of compassion.
It was found that just seven hours of compassionate thought and practice was enough to make new neurons fire and wire together and to re-shape the brain accordingly.
The positive emotions of compassion (and love, care and appreciation) have also been shown to lead to a more healthy coherence of the heart, to which the brain then also responds.
Having coherent heart rhythms then activates more of these pleasurable emotions in a wonderful feedback loop (research findings from the Institute of HeartMath).
It is said that the greatest challenge to compassion is the brain’s vulnerability to define the ‘self ’ by the boundaries of the skin—as being singular, separate and isolated.
Self is plural. We are all made of the same stuff. We all feel, need, want, dream and aspire, and we all deserve compassion for our inevitable struggles along the way.
Focusing upon others with compassion enhances your own well-being - as does focusing compassionately upon yourself too.
People treat you badly because they are suffering themselves, and realising this helps us to become more compassionate towards them - no matter how annoying or hurtful they are.
They just don’t know any better … yet.
Being kinder and showing compassion to such difficult people actually makes you stronger in spite of them.
Interestingly, there is a recognised physical expression of compassion - with oblique eyebrows, lips pressed together, a softer voice, a moving forwards towards another, and high activity in the Vagus nerve (a long and far-reaching nerve in the head and body).
“Each of us in our own way can try to spread compassion into people’s hearts. Western civilizations these days places great importance on filling the human brain with knowledge, but no one seems to care about filling the human heart with
compassion. This is what the real role of religion is.” HH Dalai Lama
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” HH Dalai Lama
We can feel and express compassion both for others as well as towards ourselves. The former is often easier for most of us.
Having compassion for yourself could save your life- or at least elongate it!
The inner stress we create by not treating ourselves with kindness and compassion affects (amongst many other things) an enzyme in our body called Telomerase—which in turn shortens the ends (telomeres) of our DNA strands and thereby reduces our life-span.
If there was ever a reason to change the relationship you have with yourself surely this is it!
When we are self-critical this activates our Limbic/emotional brain region - because we are under emotional and psychological attack. We then expect more threats to follow, and our brain becomes inhibited as we prepare for these.
Self-kindness recognises that your ‘inner critic’ is only a part of your early childhood programming and consequent Life Script. As such it is really only trying to keep you safe and ensure that you don’t do anything wrong - for fear of the consequences of shame, ridicule or rejection.
It is vital to find a kinder way to keep safe than by criticising yourself- even though you may have been doing this bad habit since childhood.
Self-compassion taps into the care-giving ‘mammalian’ part of the brain resulting in reduced levels of the stress hormone Cortisol, and increased levels of the feel good neurotransmitter Oxytocin (which is mainly produced in the Hypothalamus and then either enters the blood stream via the Pituitary gland; or it can affect other parts of the brain and spinal cord—where it binds to receptors to positively influence your body and behaviour).
The Parasympathetic Nervous System is primed for ‘thrive’ mode. So when we behave compassionately towards ourself we create feelings of safety, and of being valued and nurtured. Our mind and body respond as if we'd actually heard a gentle, calming and soothing voice and enjoyed a loving sensitive touch.
Compassion and will-power share the same systems—the cardio-vascular and nervous systems—and these then support one another.
Greater self-compassion results in better self-esteem as we then feel of value and worth.
It is not related in any way to self-indulgence or narcissism which are concerned instead with defending a fragile and inflated ego. Self compassion is higher than the base needs of the ego.
“When you have compassion for yourself and know yourself to be worthy and someone who wants to be of use to someone else; then the right events and people will come your way, and you will go where your heart calls you—to allow you to be there for yourself and others.” Dr Jean Houston
Maxine Harley (MSc Integrative Psychotherapy) MIND HEALER & MENTOR
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