Naming what is important: Compassion

Last Wednesday, in the middle of the night with a fierce thunderstorm in full flight, a middle-aged man leaves the safety of his home in a Perth suburb. He runs through the storm, wakes the occupants of a nearby house to tell them that their house is on fire. He risks his own safety for the safety of others. The family is saved. The house is destroyed. This is a great example of action that is both altruistic and compassionate. Compassion can be described as empathy plus desire to support others. And of course, acts of heroism are only one kind of compassionate action. Often compassion may simply be a non-judgemental listening that lets somebody know their pain has been recognised.

Compassion

We all know those stories about people on their death bed. It seems that what matters to them most are not the possessions (even Lamborghinis) or that they worked hard (big office overlooking the city notwithstanding) or the dollars in the bank. Rather what matters are relationships, living in line with one’s values, service to others…

So, what stops us from putting our feet where our heart is and acting on the human instinct for compassion? “Wait” I hear you say, “are humans really compassionate?” Well, like all qualities, there is a wide range in how compassionate people are. But the research into compassion suggests that compassion is just as hard wired into us as competition. The benefits shown in the research indicate why compassion is described as a positive emotion. The science tells us that:

  • Babies/toddlers have compassionate inclinations
  • Compassion makes us feel good
  • Compassion is good for our health (lowers stress hormones, improves immune system, and it even lower levels of heart disease!)
  • Compassion in the work place increases employees’ commitment
  • Compassion in society (caring for those most in need) increases levels of happiness in the population

Opposing this caring human instinct, there seems to be an increase in messages that tell us we need to compete, concentrate on our own needs and get ahead, come what may. These messages feed into our underlying fear that we aren’t good enough already. They keep us focused on self-interest and stop us realising that when everyone is doing well we all benefit. Human wellbeing isn’t a zero sum game. Not getting sucked into those messages takes clarity of values and an intention to live those values. Not always easy. So I repeat: developing compassion is of benefit to you and to your community.

Interestingly, compassion is not only significant for how we treat others. It is very relevant in how we treat ourselves. Over the years most of us have internalised a pretty mean and punishing inner-critic. When we slip up, we are quick to judge and condemn. “You stupid idiot” is a common example of self-talk. Finding compassion for ourselves at those times when we are in a tricky situation has its own long list of scientifically established benefits. Here are some. Self-compassionate people:

  • brood less about their problems
  • have lower levels of anxiety and depression
  • are able to psychologically adjust to the challenges of life
  • are more self-motivated.

Bringing a bit of kindness to yourself in difficult times also helps if you want to be kind to others. Research with couples shows that partners who are more self-compassionate are described by their partners as more caring. They have relationships which are more satisfying.

One easy way to strengthen your capacity for compassion is to never let an opportunity to practice compassion go by without acting. If you feel that desire to alleviate the suffering of another, act on it. Another way is through courses, programs and retreats. A One-Day Retreat Cultivating Compassion is coming up 12 March.

If you are interested in following-up some of the research into compassion:

Go kindly.

Kathryn Choules (PhD)

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