Compassion comes from the heart. It is soulful and meaningful and encourages us to care for others. It is so powerful that even a portion of the brain lights up when someone cares for others. It has a nurturing effect on the body and causes the release of oxytocin, which in turn causes a release of dopamine (lighting up the reward center of the brain) and serotonin (which reduces anxiety).
Now too much compassion from witnessing repeated pain, distress and even death can cause an overload of the nervous system. Some experts refer to this as ‘compassion fatigue” while others refer to it as “empathy fatigue.” However you refer to it we must keep in mind that we need to look after ourselves and be self-compassionate as after all we cannot look after others if we don’t look after ourselves. We can witness this overload to the point of burnout at all levels within the medical profession as they deal with the devastating effects of COVID.
This article does not deal with ‘compassion fatigue’ or ‘burnout’ but looks at compassion from a different perspective, that of developing greater compassion within ourselves – compassion can be learned and developed if we allow it to happen. Here are four ways to strengthen our compassionate muscle.
1. Animal Therapy: Animal therapy is often used as a way to teach people about compassion. It can be used with those who have the most hardened of hearts with those who just want to grow in compassion. Sometimes people don’t like to use the term ‘animal therapy’ in the course of everyday language. Let’s just say animals as pets can teach us something about unconditional love.
When it comes to animal therapy however, there are plenty of experiments where animals have helped individuals come to terms with serious relational difficulties. One of my experiences included working within a Correctional Centre where I learned about the effect dogs had on hardened criminals. The unconditional love of dogs began to slowly thaw their hardened heart. It taught them to care for others and in turn these men received an unconditional response of gratitude and affection. Something that they had never, or very rarely received, in their past.
Animals have long been used to help individuals with various mental and physical illnesses because they have an uncanny sensitivity to the human condition. However even if you are not ill they will show you their affection and care. Having an animal as a pet may just be what you need to nurture your compassionate heart.
2. Spiritual Reading: Reading and reflecting on how others have expressed a compassionate outreach causes us to ponder on our own behaviour. These giants of compassion can become role models for us to emulate. Find biographies about men and women who care for others and reflect on how they have lived compassionate lives. Many people come to mind: Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Socrates, Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus the Christ, Buddha and Jane Goodall (see also this post)
Spiritual or reflective reading is not something one does quickly – it’s not novel reading, although many novels may cause us to ponder and wonder about our own spirituality and compassionate outreach.
3. Living With Your Pain: I have always been struck by people who have experienced much pain and suffering. I marvel at how they have turned their painful experience into an inner peace and joy and then found ways to extend a compassionate outreach to others. A friend of mine was like that. She was seriously injured in a car accident which left her in a wheelchair and a life of pain and suffering. Every time I visited her, she never once dwelled on herself but always greeted me with a smile, kindness, joy and compassion. She genuinely cared for others from the core of her being. She had worked through her own pain and suffering to ‘suffer’ with others.
We all experience pain and suffering, maybe not as great as my friend but we have physical and mental bumps and bruises along the journey of life. We can approach them as ‘poor me’ or accept them as lessons on how to ‘suffer with others.” After all isn’t that what compassion is all about taking on the mantle of ‘suffering with others’.
This is not an easy task as we are asking ourselves to accept our condition and turn it into something else – or use it as a lesson to help us care deeply for others. It is all the more difficult when we are in the throes of pain, and it is precisely in that state when we have the potential to subjugate our own pain and suffering so that we can relate in real ways to the suffering of others. (Another blog dealing with the same subject can be found here.)
4. Reflective Prayer: Sometimes those of us who are privileged lose sight of those who are less fortunate. We don’t need to have a lot of money to become blind. We just forget to look and listen to the pain and suffering around us. Reflective prayer softens our hardened hearts. Reflective prayer touches a spiritual core both within us and beyond us. It teaches us how to ‘suffer with others.’
How so? In silence we look deeply within and recognize that pain and suffering is all around us, if we but look. And if we are honest we can even find our own pain and suffering as mirroring those of others.
There are those who are homeless, hungry, poor, destitute, lonely… we can find them on our streets, in schools, at foodbanks, in care facilities, hospices, hospitals, and workplaces. Reflective prayer asks us to open our eyes and ears to look at them and hear their cry. It urges us to do something to alleviate their suffering – it moves us to action.
Reflective prayer is active silence - a silence that moves us to action. It usually has four steps:
From silence we move to compassionate action.
Reflective prayer can be used by anyone as we all have a spiritual self. Those who don’t believe in a higher power, a God, can turn inward using the same four steps. Those who believe in a higher power or God recognize that their spirit is born out of a shared Love and that shared love must extend to others.
In conclusion there are many ways in which we can strengthen our compassionate self. This article explains four, Animal therapy, spiritual reading, working through pain, and reflective prayer. The real question individuals need to ask is, “How do I grow my compassionate heart?” or more importantly “How do I extend myself to others in a compassionate way?”
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As always folks, keep well, stay safe, and continue becoming the best version of yourself.
Thank you for reading,