Compassion is in the air this week as the Dalai Lama turned 80. Talk is hitting the airwaves as the Global Compassion Summit July 7-9, 2015, brings together major thought leaders on the topic. You can catch the programming here and photos of His Holiness.
As founder of BodiMojo, I feel truly blessed to have seen the Dalai Lama last fall at the Mind & Life conference. What I couldn’t get over in an audience of hundreds of people was his gentle manner and humor. He exudes compassion. When he speaks, one can’t help but be moved to tears and inspired to take action. I’d like to think that our virtual coach, Figg, embodies the serene sensibility and empathy of His Holiness. After all, kids need many role models and ways to practice compassion.
What is compassion? In the simplest terms it means to suffer together. The dictionary defines compassion as:
Compassion = Deep awareness of the suffering of another accompanied by the wish to relieve it.
It is derived from Latin compassiō (fellow feeling), from compatī (to suffer with), and from Latin com- with + patī (to bear, suffer).
Self-compassion is similar when a person directs tender feelings toward oneself when suffering. Think of a break-up, loss of health or job, a personal failure or post-traumatic experiences. It’s often easier to feel compassion toward another but not when it’s you.
Yet, as fallible as humans are, we are wired to care.
Daniel Keltner, PhD, author of Born to Be Good, suggests that we are a “compassionate species” with a complex system in the brain that promotes compassionate instincts. After all, we need to get along and care for one another in order to survive. The vagus nerve, in particular, plays an important role as it is involved with breathing and being calm. He also suggests that kindness is contagious among humans. In the presence of the Dalai Lama, I attest this to be true. Keltner also has observed in his studies that people who are encouraged to only identify with one group tend to have weakened vagus nerve response diminishing the capacity to embrace a sense of common humanity across groups. Finding ways to broaden people’s capacity to care is key to living in a happier and healthier world.
Interestingly, Dr. Keltner points out that there are “people who have really strong vagus nerves—‘vagal superstars’… We find that these folks have more positive emotion on a daily basis, stronger relationships with peers, better social support networks. Fifth graders who have a stronger vagal profile are the kids who intervene when a kid is being bullied. They’re more likely to cooperate, and will donate recess time to tutor a kid who needs help on homework.”
Of course there can be a downside. Compassion fatigue happens when people care too much or work in settings where there is high stress and capacity for caring diminishes, which can happen among nurses, first responders, mental health professionals and others on the frontlines of human crises.
One way to build resilience is to mindfully practice self-care and self-compassion. How? One can create a daily practice of compassion or even be trained in it. One compassion training program has been shown to help people become more resilient to stress and help lower stress hormones and strengthen the immune response. Dr. David Richardson’s group at Center for Investigating Healthy Minds offer a kindness curriculum for pre-schoolers. Start early, right? And listening to Dr. Kristen Neff’s self compassion mediations has been known to help women feel better about self-care and body image. The benefits of compassion are listed on Greater Good Science website.
We are wired for compassion. It’s all of our jobs to cultivate it!