A little on compassion

“If we hope to go anywhere or develop ourselves in any way, we can only step from where we are standing. If we don’t really know where we are standing… We may only go in circles…”  Jon Kabat Zinn,

…the waking up story involves hitting one’s own personal suffering and the suffering of the system…Tara Brach

I was making this drawing when I logged into the Radical Compassion Challenge series hosted by Tara Brach and I realised I was working on some of the ideas and experiences discussed in the podcast.   In this podcast, in response to Dan Siegel’s personal account of how he stepped out of medical school for a period of time because his clinical experience proved traumatizing and disappointing due to his teachers and supervisors’ inability to have mindsight, and also, feel empathic concern for their students and patients’ subjective experience, Tara Brach commented that the suffering of society can block institutions from feeling compassion and exhibiting mindsight. She also added that the waking up story involves hitting one’s own personal suffering and the suffering of the system, which completely resonated with me.

The discussion evolved around how empathic concern could be viewed as a gateway to compassion, which involves holding another’s suffering and taking action, even if only to bear witness. In order to be able to feel compassion, differentiation with the one suffering is required, so as to be able to remain emotionally present and not to shut down or over identify with the other person and become overwhelmed. We are wired to simulate other people’s physiological and emotional states. The bodily state of another can come up through the right anterior insular and the vagus nerve and make a map in our brain of what is taking place in the other person’s body. It is our medial prefrontal cortex that allows us to hold a representation of the other person without becoming overwhelmed. Our increased capacity to be mindfully aware of our bodily experience activates our capacity to attune to others, which increases our capacity for compassion. Dan Siegel says that we live inside each other and we activate each other. Integration and healthy differentiation prevent our merging with the other. However, excessive differentiation can lead to a sense of separateness and disconnection even from Nature and it is time for us to wake up from ‘the weird slumber of the delusion of a separate self’.

Compassion seems to be inherently based on our awareness at some level or other of the interdependence of all living things and of our being part of an infinite whole which we call the Universe.  Kristin Neff writes: ‘A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty’ (from The Einstein Papers, cited in Kristin Neff,  Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind)

We are wired for compassion. It is part of our human make up even if there seems to be a deficit in the world at the moment. Compassion, kindness and caring for others serve evolutionary purposes. If we had no capacity to care for another and to feel and display compassion we would probably have already become extinct. Jon Kabat Zinn says compassion is already there. It is a core universal emotion. Our task is to uncover and realize it.  In this short video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7E7FBSlB1U  he refers to this, and like Kristin Neff, he quotes Einstein who believed that we liberate ourselves from false beliefs about reality and who we are through broadening our circle of compassion.

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