There is a great breath based compassion course on my website which is free for you to access. It looks at what compassion is and how to build and grow it in your life.
The course creates a clear and useful distinction between sympathy, empathy and compassion, and why this distinction matters. I’m pleased to see the latest research backing up these distinctions, too.
First however, current research suggests how compassion helps us – the selfishness of compassion as it were, even though that is not technically possible! It is more the unexpected personal side-effects to compassionate action.
Basically, when we evidence compassion, we stay well. Compassion in action leads to enhanced mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. When we give, our own pleasure centres are activated even more than when we receive.
Not only that, but the current evidence suggests that compassionate action and the compassionate instinct is natural. Rats, chimpanzees and young human children all act to help others in need, automatically – in fact, they even go out of their way to overcome obstacles to do so.
Think of our species, not much fur to keep us warm (unless we take it from other creatures), no big teeth or claws to defend ourselves. Yet, we are highly populous, seven and half billion of us and growing. How come we have survived, and the creatures with fur and big teeth and claws are dying out?
Because we work in teams, we support and help each other out. Naturally.
The selfish instinct is largely learned. If you read Sue Gerhardt’s fabulous book Why Love Matters, which talks about the neuroscience of growing a baby’s brain well, and in connection you can see that we grow brains and therefore the future.
Her second book Selfish Society, looks at when we create selfish brains through particular approaches to childcare, those brains then create selfish societies, where compassionate actions and the compassionate instinct is overridden.
Yet, as we said – compassion is good for us, all of us – the one giving and the one receiving.
Is there any wonder that the culture of separatist, materialistic, individualism that has been crafted through two millennia of western psychopathic feudalism, and pre and post industrial culture, has such a high level of stress, stress related diseases, depression, anxiety and a host of ailments and conditions all related to the stress of this construct. And, it is a construct. Individualism is a misunderstanding, it is ignorance, Independence is ignorance.
Breathe in… your breath is 18% oxygen, all made by plants as they photosynthesise. Feel your respiratory muscles and wriggle your fingers. Every movement you make is fuelled by the sugars made by plants in this same process of photosynthesis.
Yes, it has also come through food, that other people grew (most likely), that was shipped to your locale. Everything that enables you to be alive is the web of interdependence. Interdependence is real. Independence is a lie.
Self made men don’t exist, every one of them came out of a womb, breathed, ate and received social and emotional nourishment of some kind. Yet this dream is foisted onto us as if it were true. We are taught to look up to such ‘individuals’, none of them being individuals, every one of them being the result of a web of causes, conditions, effects and consequences – in an infinite web of connection.
Another really useful book to read is Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which looks at prominent individuals and how their success was actually a result of a host of interdependent factors.
Emotion is what binds us mammals, the neurochemicals of emotion connect or divide. Oxytocin, the bonding neurochemical that is so prominent in birthing and breastfeeding, in cuddles and connection, is actually cardio-protective, it is stress reductive.
When we hug, help and share stories, we are protecting each other from stress, heart attack and the diseases of separation, isolation and fear.
Oxytocin has a shadow side, it makes us like faces like our own, that is necessary in Mama and baby bonding and connection. Yet, if people grow up in isolated communities, with cultural monochrome and toxic stereotypes and stories of the ‘other’, it can actually enhance racism. Yet, making this transparent we can work with it. We can create communities of cultural care and connection.
Sharing stories also has a shadow side if we overshare, over tell our stories of pain and suffering and groove them into our brains and into our relationships, we can destroy the health sustaining elements of shared stories and instead create a sense of toxic othering and start a war.
The good thing is that despite the modern world’s illusions of separation and individualism, the reduction of the compassionate instant and the creation of selfish societies, compassion can be re-learnt.
Practices like the Breath of Compassion on my website really do work.
When I was practising a Tibetan compassion practice called Tonglen, with the great teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche – he talked about the need not just to do the practice, but to take the practice into action – hence compassionate action. We have to do the thing that makes the difference, not just feel good about feeling good.
This brings us back to the distinctions.
Sympathy is feeling the pain and suffering of others from a slightly superior perspective, a kind of pity. It has no active response, except perhaps a slight uprising of the lips in disgust and a sense of withdrawal.
Empathy is really feeling someone’s pain, suffering and joy along with them. It is purely affective (of the world of emotion), feeling based, and leads to no action. It is a mirroring, a sense of connection, but leads nowhere else.
Compassion is the same as empathy except it spontaneously leads into action that seeks to do something about what is felt. It is active, it makes things better for all concerned. Compassion is centred in our own wellbeing – it emanates outwards.
Sometimes people in caring professions don’t care for themselves and yet care for others as way of identifying as a caring person. It allows a kickback of feeling good, and righteousness about feeling good and helping.
Compassion is not like this. First love everything about your existence, and now love everyone else the same. In the immortal words of Jesus, “Love thy neighbour as thy Self”.
This is why we pay attention to the stories we share, are they helping us? Are they helping others? Or are they creating neural grooves of toxicity and attachment to suffering?
Sharing stories can be compassionate, knowing when to stop is also compassionate.
Another affective response to human pain and suffering, and to the pain and suffering of other creatures is altruism. Altruism is where people put themselves at risk to help others. This is a powerful and spontaneous response to situations, where others are seen as at risk, and people jump in to help.
If we look at some of the slightly passé genetic theory of the selfish gene, we could say altruism is looking after genes like yours. However helpful this theory is, it does not account for intra-species altruism, cross-cultural altruism or the continuity of mitochondrial DNA that we all share.
Genes as individuals are not selfish, genes exist as facets of a pool of DNA that we call a species. Species only arise as part of an interaction with environmental conditions and other species. Bees and flowers coevolved and everything is in coexistence. A lion is 100% recycled antelope, and antelope is 100% recycled grass, grass is 100% recycled sunlight, water and carbon-dioxide.
Compassion is an evolutionary trend that arises out of this kind of wisdom. It is a step towards a future in which we take responsibility for our world, steward our planet and take the time to deepen in the evolutionary arts of communication, compassion and care for all.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said “The future must enter into you a long time before it happens.”
The future is not some far off, distant occurrence – it begins now in what we do, how we behave and feel. We co-create culture, future and evolve our species consciously or unconsciously.
What do you choose?