Finding Our Common Humanity

you are not the only asshole

So, the truth is…you’re not the only asshole. We’re all human! And we have a terrible tendency to make snap judgments. But we can’t help it? It’s ingrained in our instinctive nature toward self-protection.

Whether we realize it or not, we’re always asking: are you friend or foe?

Susan Fiske, renowned social psychologist most known for her work on stereotypes and prejudice, identified two universal dimensions are unconsciously used to evaluate others – warmth and competence. These simple factors lead us to move toward or turn away, sometimes in complete disgust, from others. Those who are deemed incompetent, without the necessary skills or abilities, AND cold or unfriendly (i.e. the homeless, drug addicts, mentally ill, etc) are placed into the dangerous lower left quadrant leading to dehumanization. We turn a blind eye to these people seeing them as “other than” rather than human.

universal origins of empathy

We’re all guilty of passing-by to preserve our limited energy, feeling as if what we do doesn’t really matter. Research on the bystander effect, shows we’re less likely to respond to those we perceive to be different than us.

Engaging in difficult situations is risky and exhausting. If we were to recognize every sorrow of daily life, we’d end up in an emotional tizzy? That’s because empathy activates the same regions in the brain as those associated with pain.

Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti, Italian neurophysiologist and professor, discovered mirror neurons that fire both when acting and observing an action, proving that witnessing something can be very much the same as experiencing it directly. By empathizing too deeply we run the risk of falling right off the cliff with the very person we’re trying to help in a state of empathic distress (a heightened emotional state felt in response to the suffering of another). Too much empathy is harmful to your health!

Good news: mirror neurons apply not just to empathy, but also to compassion. And there’s a distinctly beneficial difference between them. While empathy is linked to pain centers in the brain, compassion lights up the same areas as love (the Compassionate vs Empathetic Brain).

Compassion is the remedy to empathic distress. It enables us to see others who appear different and embrace suffering even when suffering is all there is and nothing can be done to “fix”, “change”, or “help” the situation.

This week in Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford we’re learning to cultivate a broader sense of compassion for strangers and for the difficult people in our lives. We’re “re-humanizing” those we dismiss and those who disappoint by acknowledging that “just like me” this person wishes to be happy and free from suffering.

king network.jpg

In a TED talk religious scholar and author, Karen Armstrong, calls for a return to the Golden Rule. Her Charter for Compassion asks that we bring the spirit of vulnerability and humility to our shared experience. Here are a few techniques to help in bringing our interconnectedness and common humanity back into view:

  • Look for opportunities to appreciate and thank someone you may have overlooked.
  • Look for opportunities to reinterpret your reaction to a disappointing situation.
  • Just listen!
  • Go further and employ the practice of radical listening as coined by, Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist, author, teacher and, founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication.
  • Look for the human in everything by observing all parts of day-to-day routines – from the barista to the coffee beans!
  • Stay curious and open-hearted.
  • Challenging stereotypes and seek to discover commonality.
  • Open up and be willing to be vulnerable yourself!
  • Remember “just like me…” all people wish to be happy and free from suffering.

In all things, give it your best to do unto others…in order that we may find peace.

Turn Toward Love

Embedded in every moment of suffering is a wish for peace, a desire for the situation to be met with ease, comfort, kindness, and goodwill. Compassion is a response to suffering. The source of it is love.

Love literally opens us, expands our awareness, and awakens otherwise unrecognized possibilities. Barbara Frederickson, author of Love 2.0, one of the most highly-cited scholars in psychology, and founder of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, is a leading expert on the science of love and positivity (find your positivity ratio – sadly 80% of U.S. adults fall short of the recommended amount).

vagus nerveLove has a powerful physical and biochemical basis in the body. The amygdala – the structure in your brain linked to emotional processing, oxytocin – a neuropeptide in the brain, and the vagus nerve – the longest nerve with the widest distribution in the body (running from your brainstem to your heart, lungs, and other internal organs) are the three central players. Oxytocin plays a key role in social bonding and attachment. Acting through the vagus nerve, it decreases cortisol (a stress hormone) and calms the heart rate, soothing our natural fight-flight response. It has the power to calm and connect us with others in a way that syncs our moods and bodies, as with infant and parent. The vagus nerve orchestrates your experience of connection by even stimulating facial and ear muscles to facilitate expression, eye contact, and vocal tracking.

Scientists can assess your capacity for connection, what’s called vagal tone, by measuring your heart rate in conjunction with your breathing. A higher vagal tone is linked with an increased ability to regulate physical and emotional responses leading to greater flexibility and resilience. The biochemical reactions in your body also alter the ways genes are expressed within cells.

Your body is constantly adapting to your internal as well as external environment! Positive emotions like love strengthen your mind-body connection and increase overall health. Research shows that behaving kindly to yourself and others raises your natural levels of oxytocin triggering a cascade of physiological and emotional benefits.

Love is the root of compassion and what we, as humans, yearn for at a deeply intrinsic level. It is a basic need. And thankfully, it can be found and cultivated from within.

To recap from last week, we began with self-compassion consisting of three main elements: self-kindness versus self-judgment, a sense of common humanity versus individuality, and mindfulness versus over-identification. Self-compassion leads to eudemonic (lasting) happiness and a sense of well-being rooted in self-acceptance.

This week in Compassion Cultivation Training, we hone in on self-love at the root of self-compassion and the practice of loving-kindness for oneself. Loving-kindness means:

  • Seeing the good: cherishing your skills, talents, and abilities, having gratitude and appreciation for your life, having a friendly attitude toward yourself – one that is warm, caring, tender and non-judgmental.
  • Embracing your desire for happiness: acknowledging and honoring your deep personal longing for connection, meaning, joy, and purpose in life.
  • Moving toward happiness: recognizing that which fulfills your innermost needs and desires and discerning between things that will bring lasting happiness vs. fleeting satisfaction.

Loving-kindness meditation helps us to recognize that we are not our thoughts and emotions. Our true nature is much deeper, and our daily life is simply the raw material for our personal development.

To tune into loving-kindness, we can ask:

  1. What do I really aspire to?
  2. What do I wish to develop in my life?
  3. If anything were possible, what would be my gift to the world?

If you’re experiencing negative emotions, dig deeper: Does what you’re feeling now get you closer to satisfying your highest aspirations? If not, what underlying need or desire is at the root cause of your feelings? In your heart of hearts, what do you want most?


To deepen the practice, take action:

  • Practice daily generosity: do something nice for yourself, even if it’s small.
  • Stop and take notice of the feelings of gratitude that arise in daily life.
  • Look for the good in yourself: think of three things that you appreciate about yourself at night before bed and in the morning to bookend your day with positive intention.
  • Ask others for help: ask eight people to e-mail you just three things that they appreciate about you and keep the messages in a “Kudos to Your Name Here” file (via e-mail, print, or some other method) to refer back to in times of distress.
  • Choose one of your top values and write about it for 10-15 minutes.
  • Reflect on the people in your life who’ve inspired you.
  • Repeat loving-kindness phrases in daily meditation: may I be happy, may I be healthy, and may I know peace.

Love is a capacity inside every one of us, a capacity for deep connection. Expressing loving-kindness for oneself increases our sense of purpose, social support, and satisfaction with life. This life-giving source of energy helps us develop natural qualities of goodness and compassion.

Colossians 3:14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Turn toward love to find lasting peace.

You Are Not an Asshole

Hey! Go easy, would ya? You’re not an asshole! You’re just human.

Our delicate self-worth is constantly under siege. By…guess who? Us!
There’s always someone smarter, prettier, better, you name it. We compare uncontrollably, and we engage incessantly in a barrage of self-judgment and criticism. And now, more than ever, we are drowning in antidepressant drugs just to cope with the insecurities of life. Our constant striving takes its toll mentally and physically, increasing stress and substance abuse.

The quest for self-confidence through self-esteem leads to quite the opposite. It’s a trap contingent on success at the expense of others and dependent on the world outside: on peer approval, acceptance, and physical beauty. The search ensnares pursuers into patterns of self-absorption, self-righteousness, prejudice, inconsiderate behavior, and so on. It even leads to bullying—a sense of feeling special, superior, and better-than.

It’s no surprise that researchers have labeled the modern emphasis on self-esteem, a narcissism epidemic. We’re taught that we can’t love others unless we love ourselves, yet we take self-love to an unhealthy and combative extreme. Where are YOU on the NPI (narcissistic personality inventory)?

Instead of trying to protect our fragile egos, how about extending a little self-care and self-compassion once in a while?

Compassion Cultivation Training Week-3 to the rescue! It’s not necessary to be right, better, smarter, or prettier to protect your ego. Self-compassion steps in when self-esteem lets us down to sooth the self-conscious soul.

“…unlike self-esteem, the good feelings of self-compassion do not depend on being special and above average, or on meeting ideal goals. Instead, they come from caring about ourselves—fragile and imperfect yet magnificent as we are.” – Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion researcher, author, professor, and founder of the Mindfulness Self-Compassion Program.

How self-compassionate are you? Take Dr. Neff’s self-compassion test to find out. Self-compassion consists of three key elements:

  1. Mindfulness – the ability to recognize and relate to disappointments and personal setbacks with care instead of criticism, without judging.
  2. Common Humanity – framing your struggle within the broader context of our collective experience; you are not uniquely flawed, unworthy, etc; we all suffer and suffering is part of the human condition.
  3. Self-mentoring – being kind to yourself, remembering and honoring your intention, and encouraging yourself to act in the direction of your most deeply held values and beliefs.

The simple acknowledgment of suffering is an act of self-compassion. And there are other techniques that you can practice to accept the good and the bad that is perfectly self-contained (in every one of us). The evidence-based practices recommended by CCT to cultivate self-compassion include:

  • Recognize suffering. Stop and ask yourself, “What am I experiencing right now? Is there any negative self-talk or self-blame going on?” Name the moments you are suffering, even the small ones. Suffering is anything that is ‘other’ than what we want it to be.
  • Construct and connect to a compassionate image to awaken the qualities of warmth, wisdom, strength, and love within you as a place of refuge and support.

    compassionate image
    In Morro Bay, CA over a dozen otters nursed their young swaying peacefully in the kelp beds as sunset reflected on three pillars of the old powerhouse, a symbol of strength and ingenuity. The peace this image consistently brings to me is awe-inspiring. I LOVE cuddling! And I’m overjoyed when I imagine the caring and protective mothers grooming their young pups while rocking gently side-to-side in the cool water.
  • Offer the kind of care and attention you would offer to a close friend or loved one!
    • Learn to be a friend to yourself! Laugh out loud at your mistakes!
    • Respond to negative self-talk with a physical gesture of kindness. Give yourself a hug, put your hand to your heart, to your cheek, or take a deep breath.
    • Confront your inner critic with ferocity; “Don’t you talk to my friend like that!”
    • Picture and connect with your childhood self in a loving way.
sick Kat
I was a sick kid and this exercise brought me to tears. My husband Eric burst through the door wondering what was wrong, as I sobbed at the image of my childhood self in the hospital.
  • Mentor yourself through dialogue and letter writing.
    • Offer words of loving-kindness and compassion – may I be happy, may I be free from suffering, may I know peace.
    • Express gratitude for the good things in your life.
    • Write an encouraging letter to yourself from the perspective of a friend or loved one.

Practice! You are the only one who can fill your punchbowl; everyone else sticks in their slurpy straws and sucks out the punch! The practice of self-compassion works even when we think we aren’t succeeding. With each small effort, we’re creating the conditions where compassion can take root, learning to see what’s under the surface and gaining greater mastery.

Self-compassion trumps self-esteem; it enables us to admit and accept that there are both positive and negative aspects of our personalities. Self-compassionate people are happier, healthier, less stressed, and less afraid to fail. In fact, research has shown linkages between compassion and procrastination. People who are self-compassionate are less likely to put off tasks; they tend to be more resilient. So go easy and don’t worry!

You are not an asshole. You’re just gloriously human and spectacularly flawed. Full of anxiety, insecurity, and all manner of doubt. We all are. You can’t be it all, do it all, support everyone, or be the best. It’s not possible, there’s no such thing, and that’s not the point. You can be all of you – the so-called good and the so-called bad. It’s already enough. It’s exactly what you should be. You don’t have to be a savior. There’s no need. You only need to recognize that you are human and that our fragile humanity is cradled in an infinite grace.                                                                                                                                             – Love, Kat

The Body Knows

Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and think of a friend or loved one. Imagine a pleasant time or experience that you shared with this person. Take a minute to sense how it feels to recall this memory. Where does it manifest across your body – in your heart, in a tingling sensation, a glow of warmth?

Scientists are mapping the physical signatures of various human emotions – how love vs anger feels in the body.


What manifests in the senses, often without our conscious awareness, can profoundly influence our actions. Anger is like a hot coal; when you pick it up, you are the first to get burned. We are the most immediate and direct recipients of our emotions, thoughts, and mental states.

Indeed thoughts and emotions give rise to action without intention, forming habitual aspects of our personalities that can become deeply ingrained. I’m reminded of a movie years ago called, What the Bleep Do We Know, perhaps the inspiration for a more recent animated film Inside Out presenting many of the same concepts: that chemical reactions in the body triggered by emotions are intensely powerful.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Dutch psychiatrist and author of The Body Keeps the Score is well-known for his work in the area of post-traumatic stress. He gained acceptance for the diagnosis in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) by demonstrating how trauma lives in the body and how it must be coaxed out in similarly tangible and physical ways in order for healing to begin.

Gavin de Becker, the author of the Gift of Fear and world expert on security and violence, tells listeners on the Waking Up podcast with Sam Harris, that intuition is your greatest strength in assessing danger. If you attend to your body, you’ll recognize how fear feels and be ready to take action. Go with your gut!

Stanford professor and MacArthur genius awardee, Robert Sapolsky changed the way we think about stress by comparing the health of animals in wild to that of humans in modern day life.

The flood of negative emotions we experience constantly degrade our immune systems and increase the risk of disease. We literally make ourselves sick with worry, anger, and fear.

It’s not all bad: Dacher Keltner, psychologist and founder of the Greater Good Science Center, describes a compassion instinct – how compassion evolved throughout our evolution promoting cooperation and social cohesion.

Compassion stimulates real physiological changes in the autonomic nervous system – a bundle of nerves, glands, and organs in the body – the same bundle that unconsciously regulates heart rate, digestion, and other bodily functions and controls our fight-or-flight response. Compassion releases oxytocin, a reward that motivates us to be even more compassionate. Recent research examined couples’ physiological states and found kindness to be the glue in marital relationships!

In Compassion Cultivation Training Week-2 we’re exploring the palpable sensations of kindness and compassion by noticing when kindness shows up in day-to-day life and how it feels. Also by noticing its opposites – like anger and disgust – and how they feel as well.

This week’s challenge is to cultivate an awareness of sensory experience, without judging. To be present with emotions as they come rejecting the belief that bad is wrong.

Denying the difficult is akin to abandoning life. In some cases, as Gavin de Becker shows, such denial may even increase the risk of threat and harm.

The skill of listening, feeling, sensing and fully recognizing ‘what is’ and ‘what isn’t’ opens a path to be fully present and engaged with all that life brings without being overwhelmed.

We can’t make ourselves BE compassionate, we need only to FEEL that we ARE and then get out of the way.

The Mind at the Heart

Stop! What’s going through your mind right now? Hold that thought. Wait, what was that again? Not surprisingly, our minds wander 47% of our waking hours.

mind wanderingI don’t know about you, but mine is always racing – occupied with a never-ending to-do list, searching for ways to optimize, to do MORE, scanning news headlines, making sure no e-mail is left unread, no social media like or comment is left unnoticed, always on hyper-drive, on high alert to respond to my family, my friends, my work, or the littlest of environmental stimulus to come my way.

It’s impossible to be ON all the time, yet we take pride in responsiveness, cradling our devices before bed and grabbing them at first light to start again.

We know this level of activity and attachment is unhealthy. Study after study shows that time spent in front of a screen leads to increased rates of depression, especially in teens with links to higher suicide rates. It turns out Facebook may make us feel less connected, not more. Multi-tasking actually decreases productivity. Busyness isn’t good for business. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. And mental distraction leads to rudeness, accidents, and worse. Bottom line: it’s impossible to be kind to ourselves, let alone others with a buzz of constant commotion draining our energy and attention.

How to stop the madness?

Just last week I attended the first in an 8-week series aimed at cultivating compassion through Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (C-CARE). The Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) program, established in part by his Holiness the Dalai Lama, increases compassion through meditation practices found in Tibetan Buddhism. The approach consists of six steps:

  1. Settling the mind and training it to focus
  2. Establishing compassion for a loved one
  3. Establishing compassion for oneself
  4. Establishing the basis for compassion toward others through the concept of our common humanity and interconnectedness
  5. Expanding compassion towards others
  6. Developing an ‘active’ compassion practice which involves meditation

dalai lama quoteCompassion begins with an awareness of suffering – in self and other. We can’t possibly begin to relate and respond to alleviate pain and distress without first understanding it, and ourselves. In this way, the mind is at the heart of our ability to be compassionate. And it can be trained!

So far I’ve bombed the homework for week-1: meditate for 15 minutes per day. My first attempt, I succeeded in avoiding the nagging urge to do ‘things’ for a massive 5 minutes, what felt like an eternity. My second attempt, after counting breaths up to 120, ended with an erratic movement of the kind one makes just before falling asleep. My third, well…

Needless to say, I need more practice! I’m the worst at slowing down. I live to DO and so much of my self-worth and esteem is based on how much I’m able to accomplish. It’s not just me, America is obsessed with winning; and our achievement mindset teaches that success comes at the expense of others. I win; you lose.

Enough already, I’m over it! Real winning is achieved in earning respect by service to others. We win!

I’m excited to see what the next seven weeks have to offer. Will I succeed in my attempts to meditate? Can C-CARE’s CCT approach help me be kinder and gentler to myself, but also, more compassionate, generous, and able to serve as a source of support for others? I certainly hope so!

The benefits of mindfulness and meditation are many – from enhancing attention and increasing performance, to reducing stress and boosting immune function.  The contemplative path also holds enormous potential to bring us back to our heart’s center. A calming of the mind changes the way we understand and relate to the world, allowing compassion to emerge.