Why Compassion is so important

Why Compassion is so important

sad childI am currently busy with my  MSc in Consciousness, Spirituality and Transpersonal Psychology.

My most recent assignment requires a group of us to produce a presentation and paper on one of the lectures available on the Science and Medical Network. We chose lectures by Professor Paul Gilbert who is the Head of the Mental Health research unit at the University of Derby. His research into the processes that underpin shame has led him to incorporate compassion meditation in the treatment of his patients. His lectures on compassion were so interesting, that I felt compelled to translate his knowledge into this blog.

An evolutionary understanding of the brain

To understand the human brain, we have to start five hundred million years ago with the beginning of life on this planet. Our brain has evolved from that time and has gone through many adaptations to become the functioning mass of grey matter that it is now. This has a profound effect on how we experience and relate to ourselves, and our environment.

The first life forms were reptilian and they were driven by survival. The fight or flight instinct originates from this period. Then one hundred and twenty million years ago, mammals enter the picture, bringing with them the next psychological adaptation which involved caring for offspring and forming group alliances. Two million years ago, the frontal lobe underwent dramatic change and brought about meta-cognition, including symbolic thought and the idea of a self identity. The next step was taken with the onset of caring for the sick and elderly and being looked after.

So here we are today, with a brain that is incredibly complicated and has adapted to accommodate all of these psychologies, which sometimes conflict with each other. Furthermore, we have inherited archetypal desires and motives, e.g. forming attachments, friendships, belonging to groups, avoiding rejection, achieving status and respect and sex. We have imagination; we fantasize, reflect, and ruminate. We also react to threats, even imaginative ones with fight or flight. This is often a recipe for disaster.

Emotions and how they affect us

Life is hard, we don’t choose our brains or our upbringing and both have a profound impact on our experience of life. We are all in it together and it is tricky :-). We are constantly bombarded by our emotions and the emotions of others.

Human beings have three types of emotional systems that constantly interact with each other.

  • A self protection/threat system that detect and responds to threats

  • A resource system that is designed to give us pleasure and excitement and drives us to do things and pursue achievement

  • A soothing system that is designed to give us feelings of contentment and peacefulness. When we are not under threat or needing to achieve anything, this system helps us to feel affection and kindness.

What is important to understand is that the default position is the threat system. If you go on a shopping spree and nine out of ten experiences are wonderful, but the tenth one is horrible with a dreadful shop assistant, that is the one that you will remember and retell. The threat system very quickly activates feelings of anxiety, anger, disgust and shame. To oppose the threat system, we need to activate the soothing system. The thoughts, fantasies and ideas that you entertain can stimulate any one of these three emotional systems, which in turn has a physiological affect on your body.

The power of the mind

The images and thoughts you create in your mind have an impact on the chemistry of the brain and vice versa. Let’s just say that you are lying in bed at night and feeling a bit lonely. Your imagination starts going and the next thing you know, the images that run through your head have stimulated your pituitary gland and your sex drive. The same applied to images of food. Anyone who has been watching Masterchef can attest to the impact it has on your stomach. :-). It can stimulate an area in your brain as if you are seeing and smelling the real thing.

Just think of what happens to you when someone upsets you. Your thoughts and emotions go off in a tangent reliving all the bad memories and experiences you have had with that individual and similar experiences with others. Considering that images stimulate chemicals in your brain and have an effect on your body, just think about what dire effects being stuck in the threat system must have on your physical health.

The importance of being social

We are social creatures and our minds are designed to change and grow through interpersonal connections and relationships with others. Professor Gilbert refers to numerous researches done with infants and their mothers, which all point to the reality that we are highly sensitive to kindness. Babies and children who come from a loving supportive environment have a huge advantage in that their neural pathways are developed to include others in their experience of safety, love and support.As an adult, this fortunate individual, when put under stress, will turn to others to help him cope, he will ask for help, because his neural pathways are such that he relates to the other as kind, caring and supportive. Juxtapose this with an individual who did not benefit from a loving upbringing. When he gets stressed, his fight or flight system kicks in and he either beats, bullies, or victimizes others, or withdraws into himself and breaks down (or eats too much or smokes too much, etc.).

When under emotional stress, a socially adapted individual will turn to her friends or family for support, but the pathological individual will be trapped, unable to break this cycle. It is vitally important to realize that we can overcome this self defeating and paralyzing behavior through the power of the mind and imagery.

The Buddhist approach

You can let your garden grow, but weeds and flowers will grow together, it will be messy and out of control. Or you can tend to your garden and choose which plants you want to cultivate and how you want it to look. It is the same with your mind. You can reorganize it and cultivate an approach that works for you, not against you.

When Professor Gilbert treats a patient, the first thing he brings across is that your behavior and feelings are not your fault. You did not choose it for yourself; you are a product of your design and circumstances. BUT, you need to take responsibility for yourself. Moving from blaming yourself and/or others to taking responsibility for yourself is a huge step in psychological health. This allows you to take ownership of your thoughts, feelings, behavior, and responses. It moves you to a space which is proactive, not reactive. In this way, Professor Gilbert uses the compassionate meditation to move his clients from a constantly activated threat system to a soothing system, using imagery which has a powerful effect on the body’s physiology. This is far more effective than any verbal efforts to induce change.

The Compassionate approach

The research done on compassionate meditation and the benefits it has are numerous. The activation of the soothing system induces a boost to the immune system, neural pathways are created which replace non-existent or incorrectly formed pathways. A change in the relatedness to the other is achieved and social skills improve. Rebuilding the soothing neural pathways, releases endomorphins, oxytocin and allows you to feel lovable. This in turn will enable you to oppose the threat system by turning to others to help you.

There are three types of compassion:

  • compassion for self

  • compassion for others

  • compassion from others

Compassion is not about being nice or kind or spiritual. Lots of people have an idea that compassion is an upward movement away from the feelings and emotions, into a spiritual space. Self compassion is about caring enough for yourself to help yourself overcome neurotic behavior. The compassionate individual will confront his fears with courage. Professor Gilbert’s perspective is that compassion is about going down, into the gutter, into the mud and transforming what lies there. The compassionate individual has been there and done that, he knows suffering; he engages with the difficult and painful areas in his mind. He is mindful and able to choose his path forward.

Fear of compassion

Some individuals have great difficulty with compassion. Their threat system is activated when they are asked to participate in compassion meditation. They feel that compassion is a weakness, or self-indulgent, or it triggers feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. This creates a huge barrier to overcome before they can even begin to explore compassion and affiliative emotion as a route to healing. And generally, the individuals who would really benefit from compassion therapy are exactly those that would resist it. This has obvious implications for therapeutic interventions. The fears that individuals experience in relation to compassion and affiliative emotions have a profound impact on their ability to engage with the self soothing emotional system.

Typical responses from someone who is depressed would be that they are their own worst critics; they don’t like themselves, that they can’t be kind to themselves or forgiving towards themselves. People who suffer from high levels of depression and anxiety will also tend to have a fear of happiness.

These individuals would typically feel the following negative emotions in relation to the various forms of compassion:

Compassion for others:

  • People will take advantage of me

  • Others will be become dependent on me

  • I can’t tolerate other people’s distress.

Compassion from others:

  • If I need them to be kind, they won’t be

  • They want something from me when they are kind

  • I immediately put up a barrier when people are kind to me

Compassion for self:

  • I will become someone I don’t want to be

  • I will be weak

  • I will be overcome with grief

These emotions have to be addressed in order for the individual to move into a space where they can self-generate and receive compassion.

How does it work

Generally when the threat system is activated, the internal critical voice is also activated. For some individuals this is totally paralyzing. Their thoughts and emotions are trapped by the critical voice and they feel helpless and useless. The compassionate mind meditation allows us to separate the parts of ourselves and reflect on them individually. An important idea to graps here is that images have a profound impact on the brain’s chemistry, much more so than discussing or talking about something.

Professor Gilbert approaches the meditation from two perspectives. The first being the experience of being compassionate towards others, and second, the experience of others behaving with compassion towards you. What images comes to you when you think of compassion?

Here are some guidelines to develop this idea:

  • Think about yourself and when you are at your best. Which human beings around you bring out a true caring in you. Think about how you feel around them: you care, you are selfless, wise, loving.
  • Also think about what type of person you would like to have around to be kind to you. Someone who is wise, loving and strong. Someone who cares for you with no hidden agendas, whose very presence embrace you with love, warmth, support and kindness.

Here is a simple exercise to explain the approach of the meditation:

1.      First relax. Relax your facial muscles, your body, breathe deeply.
2.       Think about a recent disagreement you had with someone. Not too serious a disagreement!
3.       Think about the angry part of you: what thoughts did/does this part of you have, how does it feel in your body, and what does it want to do?
4.       Think about the anxious part of you: what thoughts did/does this part of you have, how does it feel in your body, and what does it want to do?
5.       Think about the sad part of you: what thoughts did/does this part of you have, how does it feel in your body, and what does it want to do?
6.       Now, focus on relaxing again. Especially your facial muscles, your forehead, jaw, cheeks.
7.       Imagine that you are a compassionate being, wise and strong and calm. You at your best. Start to smile in a compassionate way, comfortably compassionate. Feel the wisdom, kindness, and supportive aspects of compassion coursing through your veins. Become this person.
8.       Look at the argument from this perspective. Consider the other parts of you mentioned earlier. The angry part, the sad part, the insecure part.
9.       Reflect on the difference in your experience. Were you able to look at all of the other parts, validating each part’s feelings? Did you feel caring towards yourself? Did you change the way you viewed the other person’s experience?

The above exercise is an example of how you would train yourself to think differently. Most psychotherapeutic treatment involves a process of addressing your emotional reactions to experiences and assessing their validity and affect on your psyche. The compassionate mind employs the use of imagery which has a powerful affect on the physiology of the individual. Mindfulness meditations, like compassionate meditation and loving-kindness meditation focus on reflecting on your thoughts and emotions. The idea is to look at what is going on within you, your feelings and thoughts, the way your body responds to these; and reflect on it instead of falling victim to them.

Compassionate qualities and skills

Professor Gilbert identifies the following qualities in compassionate individuals:

  • Motivation to be caring towards ourselves and others.

  • Sensitivity to our own feelings and that of others.

  • Sympathy, being moved and being in tune with our own feelings, distresses and needs for growth.

  • Learning to tolerate difficult feelings (positive and negative), memories and situations.

  • Understanding and insight into our minds, feelings and thoughts.

  • Accepting a non-condemning and non-submissive orientation towards ourselves and others.

He also identifies the following compassionate skills we need to learn:

  • Deliberately focus our attention on things that are helpful and provide a balanced perspective, i.e. a compassionate sense of self.

  • Training our minds to think about things from a balanced perspective.

  • Becoming aware of how your mind thinks and reasons.

  • Planning and engaging in behavior that acts to relieve distress; lessen the safety behavior to allow us to move forward towards our goals and flourish.

  • Develop courage.

Compassion is a tool with which we can help us to move from a threat based emotional response to the soothing emotional system. The benefits are numerous. We improve our health, physically and emotionally, create better and more sustaining relationships and improve the quality of our lives. It certainly is worth giving it a go.

I hope you found this article enlightening. Please check out the following links if you would like to know more:

For information, training and (much) more information go to Professor Paul Gilbert’s foundation website www.compassionatemind.co.uk.

Here is a link to a talk available on youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZp5-AHHx4k&feature=youtu.be

Until next time




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  • Elizabeth Reply

    Thanks – enlightening, especially about the 3 emotional systems, how they can interact and the effect of images. Comes at just the right time for me. Though I found the actual described meditation pretty difficult!

    June 22, 2013 at 5:28 pm

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