Connecting with Compassion

(This is long, I know. Hope you don’t mind.)

Now that we know our brains are plastic, it’s almost as if we have no excuse for not engaging in the practices that lead to greater well-being for ourselves and, importantly, actually can contribute to growing a calmer, more sane, more caring world. We have the provable means to affect our consciousness, to shift our brains in the direction of more compassion and kindness, to cultivate our capacities for more inclusivity and considered responses. And as we do this inner work, we change the air (the narrative) around us. We infuse the culture with a healthier attitude.

While that might seem too optimistic a statement, as it turns out, there is research happening in the social sciences to help us understand these natural tendencies of our human experience to “other” as well as research exploring alternatives that activate different circuitry in our brains to make connecting responses more possible. This past fall I completed an 8 week course in Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT)** that exposed participants to some of this research and I wanted to mention a couple interesting things that came up for me as I was taking this class.

One of the first steps in cultivating compassion depends on cultivating recognition of the basic sameness of self and others. We were offered a simple way to practice a version of this that has helped open me to those for whom I have negative feelings or reactions. For a brief sampling of this:
you might take a moment now—-
inhaling deeply, relaxing a bit —-
and bringing to mind someone with whom you have a mildly negative relationship, someone you just don’t much like. Imagine them as clearly as you can in your mind’s eye. Maybe it’s a relative on your partner’s side or a neighbor or a co-worker who is hard to get along with. As you hold this person in your mind, silently, slowly, say these phrases to yourself:
Just as I do, this person wants to be happy.
Just as I do, this person wants to healthy and free from suffering.
Just as I do, this person wants his or her loved ones to be safe and well.

Just as I do, this person wants to be happy.
Just as I do, this person wants to healthy and free from suffering.
Just as I do, this person wants his or her loved ones to be safe and well.

Underneath whatever else is on the surface of this person whom you’ve just imagined–whether different political views, different ways of mowing the grass, different ideas about how to treat people there is behind or underneath that surface, the same human needs and wants as you have–to be happy, healthy, to be seen, to be heard, to matter. I have found that spending time with that reflection, saying those phrases with sincerity (that’s important)–has begun to shift my feelings; I have softened towards, let go of some negativity towards–at least one disliked person in my life. This is a simple practice for calming a divide, a separation.

One of the ingredients in this kind of reflection is the cognitive skill of imagination. We don’t often use the word imagination in the context of mindfulness, but in the CCT program, we learned that one of the focuses of social science research is “Imagined Contact.” Imagined Contact is a strategy for promoting tolerance and positive relationships among different, not necessarily friendly groups of people. A review of 70 studies of this strategy showed that imagining a positive interaction with what was labeled an “outgroup member” reduced prejudice and encouraged positive intergroup behavior. One such study involved British subjects–and their ‘outgroup’ members?–the French! But what seems to be especially promising to me about this research is that the imagined contact effect was stronger for children than for adults, supporting the proposition that imagined contact is a potentially key component of educational strategies aiming to promote positive social change.

So–using our imagination to activate positive associations with those who are not within our typical circles of inclusion has potential for reducing the automatic biases that our protective brains can stimulate. Sounds simple doesn’t it? And this is exactly the basis for loving kindness meditations that have proven to predispose research subjects to acts of compassion. This is also at the heart of Tonglen meditations during which the meditator is instructed to breathe in the suffering of others and breathe out peace and wishes for the relief of that suffering. These practices not only soften and expand the heart but also employ the mind to direct its energy in beneficial directions.

So we have practices available: recognizing our similarity to others, imagining positive contact as well as loving kindness and compassion meditations–all of which counter those mental habits related to separation and disconnection.

And one last comment seems to fit here:

John Lewis, veteran civil rights worker and congressman from Georgia, speaks of the power of this kind of imagination in another way. While envisioning a different, beloved human community, he asked himself “what if the beloved community were already a reality” and he simply had to embody it until everyone else could see? He says that “you have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward is already done. It’s already happened…And you live as if you’re already there, that you’re already in that community, part of that sense of one family, one house. If you visualize it, if you can have faith that it’s there, for you it is already there.”***

“Culture changes when a small group of people find a better way to live and other people begin to copy them.” David Brooks, NYTimes, 2/18/19

**CCT was developed at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education

***from Becoming Wise, Krista Tippet

Insight Timer; Head Space; Calm: apps with loving kindness and compassion guided meditations

11 thoughts on “Connecting with Compassion”

  1. Thank you, Kay, for this reflection that is both hopeful and so practical. I’m touched by the quote from John Lewis as well. All of what you shared is so important for us to hear right now.

  2. Thank you also, Kay. Very timely, concrete way to deal with polarization in our country these days. David Brooks’ quote reminds us that what we do in our small spot in the world can have a far broader impact. Molly

  3. Beautiful Kay! Thank you especially for the tool for cultivating an awareness that underneath all the “stuff,” we all have the same hopes and dreams. I would love to see world leaders using this each day! I can hope, can’t I?!

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