Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Compassion: The Best Kept Secret

Have you ever awoken, cringing over a heartless comment you made the day before? That was me this morning. How could I have said that? I'm usually so nice...!

Let's face it, it's not easy to keep our hearts open in a healthy and balanced way, especially for those of us who are empaths. And what's the difference between compassion, altruism, empathy, sympathy, and pity? Are some of these healthy, and others not? The following explanation comes from the web site Greater Good: the Science of a Meaningful Life:
Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn't always motivated by compassion.
I really like this definition, because compassion, as an energy, does hold a maturity and wisdom that empathy, sympathy, and pity do not. Compassion seems to have a deep evolutionary purpose.

Buddhism and other spiritual traditions have understood the power of compassion for centuries, but lately science has taken an interest in understanding the "measurable benefits" of experiencing compassion. Recent studies have linked compassion with the following:
  • improved general health and well being
  • reduced risk of heart disease (by slowing heart rate)
  • lowering stress hormones in the blood and saliva
  • strengthening the immune system
  • sharpening mental focus, and calming the mind
  • strengthening relationships (of all kinds)
  • being more socially adept, thus less vulnerable to loneliness
  • being better parents (raising kinder, more peaceful children)
  • advancing the evolution of our species  
The other cool thing research is showing is that compassion is not something that you either have or you don't. It can be cultivated and strengthened through targeted exercises and practice. In fact, compassion training programs, such as those out of Emory University and Stanford University, are revealing how we can increase feelings of compassion in ourselves and others. 

Please join me here next week as we discuss the "hows" of becoming a more truly compassionate person.