As research on compassion meditation has shown, when we see someone suffering our natural response is to want to help. Awakening Joy speaker Rick Hanson, (www.WiseBrain.org) and author of Hardwiring Happiness, speaks about the physiological basis for compassion. Rick defines empathy as feeling and understanding how it is for another person. This means stepping outside of your own, limited view to see through another’s eyes or stand in his or her shoes. Mirror neurons activate empathy upon seeing what others are going through. There are two specific areas in the brain that are the seat of empathic response: the insula and the cingulate cortex. These are involved when we see—or even just imagine—other people suffering. Our brain automatically generates a virtual experience within ourselves similar to what the other person is experiencing. We are physiologically wired up for compassion.
We All Affect Each Other
How we respond to suffering also has a profound effect on those around us. In an eye-opening article, “We Are All Bystanders,” by Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, the authors look at research studies exploring the factors that influence bystanders to act or not. In one study, a subject was working on a task in a room with another person, a “confederate” who was in on the experiment. They both heard a crash next door and cries of distress. When the confederate suggested that it was either a tape or probably part of the experiment only 25 percent of the subjects got up to see if help was needed. When the confederate said, “That sounds bad. Maybe we should do something,” 66 percent acted. When the confederate suggested that they go into the next room to check things out every single subject got up and tried to help. So our compassionate action has a rippling effect. It activates the caring in others as well. According to Sharon Begley, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, showing our caring and support to another can have a profound impact, potentially helping even those who’ve been victims of abuse to learn to trust others. Perhaps you can think of someone in your life whose care and support you received when you were lost and the significant effect that had on your life.
Priming Compassion through Meditation Practice
Meditation, especially compassion meditation, is one of the most direct ways to activate and strengthen those areas in the brain that increase our capacity for empathy. This practice inclines our minds to consciously plant true seeds of compassion. Like the loving kindness practice, we visualize someone as we repeat specific phrases, sending our caring towards that person. Below are compassion meditation instructions that you might practice. You could include this in your meditation/quiet time for a few minutes each day and see what effect it has:
1. Sit quietly settling into a relaxed, peaceful space. You can use your breath to do this.
2. Bring to mind an image of someone you care about who might be going through a hard time. Feel the connection and caring you share.
3. Say either of these phrases— I care about your suffering (John) or May you hold your suffering with compassion—while getting in touch with the meaning behind the words. Project those thoughts and feelings toward the person.
4. Repeat this slowly for one or two minutes, staying in touch with the feeling as much as possible.
5. Direct those thoughts towards yourself, then towards another person. Notice how it feels to send compassion to yourself and another.
Converting Thoughts into Deeds
Cultivating compassionate thoughts, though positive in itself, is not nearly as impactful as expressing them in action. Angeles Arrien, the wise cultural anthropologist and author who recently passed away taught, “Action absorbs anxiety.” In times of collective stress, instead of asking, “What is going to become of me?” we can turn our thoughts to “What do I have to offer others?” This does more than relieving our stress. We feel the full power of our compassion when we put our caring into action and addressing the suffering around us. You might try this as an experiment: When you feel a caring impulse, act on it and be very present for the uplifting feeling that accompanies the wholesomeness of your action. Without pride or conceit, tune into how good it feels when you contribute to somebody else’s welfare. Pause for a few moments to bring your awareness to the feelings and sensations in your body and mind. Make sure that you are coming from a place of abundance rather than depletion. If you’re feeling the latter, then your compassion practice needs to start with nourishing yourself.
Julia Butterfly Hill, the dedicated social activist, is often told, “Oh, Julia you’ve really inspired me!” Her response is, “That’s wonderful…inspired you to do what?” (I highly recommend her 2 CD set called Spiritual Activation.) Here are the two moving short video clips of Julia talking about compassionate action coming from care and love from a previous Awakening Joy course: “Anger vs. Love” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZMPMmuK20M and
“Fierce Compassion” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iX-FIm0e-gA.
As we express our caring, it’s important to not identify with the role of being the helper. Thoughts along the lines of “I’m someone doing such good things for this poor unfortunate person” turn the other person into the helpee. Ram Dass, in his classic book, How Can I Help? describes this as helping prison. Helping prison disempowers the other. Instead, see yourself simply as an agent of caring. Caring doesn’t belong to anyone. We may be the one in the position to extend support right now. At other times, we’ll be the one on the receiving end. Of course, it feels good to help. But if you’re looking for strokes or acknowledgment, you cut yourself off from the purity of action that leads to genuine joy. As you open to the feeling of caring, the wholesome quality of the pure action brings gladness. Without taking ownership in an ego-centered way, you can be touched by your own goodness. You can awaken joy by being present for the gladness of heart that comes with being there for others.