Taking It In

And, for me…this is where it all fell apart…it’s taken a while to process and find my voice to share what came next. In Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) week seven we learned about Tonglen meditation.

What is Tonglen? It is the Tibetan word for giving and taking. Practiced for centuries exclusively in Tibet, it’s been widely known in the West for less than a decade. The idea (simplified) is to reduce suffering in the world, by taking it in (caution! but NOT taking it on) and then transforming it through your own inner well of limitless compassion and love. The transformation is highly visual and takes place in the rhythm of the breath. The suffering of self and others is absorbed slowly with the deliberate in-breath (perhaps imagined and inhaled as a dark cloud), and then, just as light immediately cancels out the darkness, the warmth of your heart (perhaps as a golden beam of light or burst of flowers) relieves the suffering you took in with an equally deliberate out-breath.

tonglen 3
Inhale suffering, exhale love and compassion. Simple, right? Are you picking up on my sarcasm?

Before you can effectively practice Tonglen, you have to be adept at tapping into the well of compassion inside yourself. But where does this limitless well of love and compassion come from?

And that is why I stopped. I wasn’t fully on board with the concept. And I realized that I’m all too often stuck in the empathy trap. The place where you’re taking on, and taking on wholly and completely (Warning! Warning!), then walking straight off the cliff with the very person you’re trying to help. That’s not helpful and may even be harmful to YOU, AND those around you! Sigh…

Do you prioritize others’ feelings over your own? If so, you might be in this mean little trap with me.

“Overly empathic people may even lose the ability to know what they want or need. They may have a diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest, experience physical and psychological exhaustion from deflecting their own feelings, and may lack internal resources to give their best to key people in their life. What’s more, unending empathy creates vulnerability to gas-lighting, in which another person negates your own reality to assert his or hers…Those who regularly prioritize the feelings of others above their own needs often experience generalized anxiety or low-level depression. They may describe a feeling of emptiness or alienation, or dwell incessantly on situations from the perspective of another.”
– Robin Stern & Diana Divecha, July 7, 2015 Greater Good Magazine

And so, the idea of Tonglen was not appealing. But I’m not alone, many people respond similarly upon introduction to the practice. They ask, how can I possibly take in and transform what already seems so overwhelming?

Then, an epiphany! I began to connect this foreign practice to the roots of my own faith.

I’m a Christian. I don’t profess it openly because I don’t subscribe to interpretations presented by “organized” religion, I don’t go to church, I happen to admire atheists like Sam Harris and Robert Sapolsky, I love science, and quite honestly, I’m ashamed of what most people do in the name of Christ.

But when I began to think of Tonglen as Jesus’ calling to be a light unto the world, I began to imagine myself drawing on the light of His suffering and forgiveness. I felt an opening of my own heart toward the possibility of freedom from the burden of empathy, the burden of feeling too much.

Empathic distress is real, but with faith, there is an endless well of love and compassion that never runs dry, a light capable of transforming the darkness.

In CCT we graduated through studies and practices of loving-kindness and compassion for self, others, strangers, and beyond. I’m reminded of a book I read in an undergraduate religious studies class, Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, an elegant study of the overlapping teachings of Buddha and Christ. This was the beginning of a personal spiritual journey. In college, I moved from a naive stance of reared Christianity to becoming a rebel skeptic and nearly nihilist, then later on to adopt a sort of a new age version of Christianity, and now, to professing my own authentic faith.

Christ is within. He is the infinite source of light to transform our suffering. The original followers of Christ were called followers of The Way. Unfortunately, the modern church has lost the way and the truth of Christ and Western Buddhist philosophy has risen up to take its place providing comfort in a stress-ridden world. I relate to the Buddhist idea that suffering is the base of our human experience. But taking it a step further, I know that the burden of sin is the source of our suffering separating us from the divine. This separation is the ultimate suffering.

Personally, I bear the guilt of being silent about my faith. As they say, we never really change, we only, perhaps slowly, become more of what we are. Pay attention to the moments of resistance in your life and what they may be telling you. For me, my Christian faith, which includes contemplative practice, is the source of a boundless compassion through Christ.

god of comfort

Widening the Circle

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his 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 enhance all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
— Albert Einstein

The problem is: if we perceive the universe to be an unfriendly place, we tend to also see unfriendly people in it. The media that dominates our culture reinforces the notion that all that is bad. It preys on sensationalism elevating emotions of fear and alarm desensitizing us over time. Our image of a depraved world, accurate or not, causes us to retreat to the small circles that we know and trust.

So how do we find and extend compassion to others, let along strangers, in a world filled with widespread fear, anger, and hate?

Through the lived experience of our own suffering.

In Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford, we learned first about the suffering that we experience in the cycle of our own self-concern.

Suffering is anything that is other than that which we want it to be and the root of suffering is our resulting psychological distress. We escalate it through habitual mental gymnastics, wishful thinking, woulda, coulda, shoulda thinking, and over analysis. By practicing self-compassion, we can shut down our default mode of blame, self-pity, and judgment.

Then we learned how to treat the self as a friend, expressing support and loving kindness.

Next we moved beyond the self toward a broader concern for others and the concept of common humanity – that “just like me” others wish to be happy and free from suffering.

In this way, our own suffering becomes the gateway to widen the circle of compassion for others. The suffering that we see and experience in the world can be a catalyst to do something meaningful about it.

Compassion is an understanding that suffering is the base of what it is to be human. It provides us an ability to engage with difficult situations as they are and respond with A Fearless Heart.

In a moment of suffering how might we gain the greatest peace? At times a fierceness is needed to combat the impacts of dehumanization. When we forget our common humanity, conflict and violence find space to emerge.

Compassion looks beneath the action to the actual person, acknowledging our humanity without endorsing bad behavior. Compassion does not condone immoral behavior. It is not blanket forgiveness. Nor does it always lead to reconciliation. It is not an unconditional acceptance or approval. It is simply an ability to be with the TRUTH of suffering without turning away.

Compassion brings our shared humanity back into view. Whether realized or not, there is a universal responsibility in our interconnectedness. Whatever happens to one happens to others. By living equally for ourselves and others we can find a more lasting joy and peace.

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.

The Compassion Contagion

Viruses are made up of core genetic material, DNA or RNA – the very same elements that make us human. They naturally invade host cells, getting inside and using the cells own machinery to replicate. Viruses exist to reproduce!

But what if this replication process applied to kindness? Imagine that an act of kindness witnessed by another could get inside that person, warm a heart, and inspire others to act in kindness as well. What if a compassion contagion grew around the world spreading loving-kindness through individual supportive acts and intentions?


It can, and it does! I just finished a 6-week online course through Stanford Continuing Studies with Kelly McGonigal on the Science of Compassion – covering everything from the definition of compassion itself to what happens when it goes wrong, compassion fatigue. The most inspiring part, to this unabashed optimist, was the part where we learned that doing good really does DO GOOD!

A large and growing body of research demonstrates that giving compassion leads to greater well-being for the giver, receiver, and ALSO for the casual observer! One study found that people who volunteer more frequently are both healthier and happier than those who do not. A number have shown how spending money on others or giving to charity vs. spending on oneself yields improved measures – decreased blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and greater connectedness. Yet another illustrated how witnessing a person perform a good deed elicits helping behavior in the observer.

The course gave a cursory understanding of how compassion manifests – in relationships, in our own bodies, and how to cultivate it and optimize its potential for healing in life.

Before we go any further, a quick definition: COMPASSION literally means to suffer with, it is…

  1. An awareness and recognition of suffering
  2. A feeling of concern for and connection to the one who is suffering
  3. A desire to relieve that suffering
  4. AND a willingness to respond

Compassion changes your perspective! When you activate your own intention to alleviate suffering, you change the way you see the world and your role in it – you now have something to offer! Experts coin this the helper’s high: that we are happier when we are less concerned about our own happiness. Another phenomenon is called moral elevation: an emotional state that individuals experience after seeing or hearing about a virtuous act.

The more we accept and reach out to greet suffering with compassion, the more receptive we’ll become to the compassion that is available in the world around us. In this way, compassion starts with the self, with an individual awareness and acceptance. Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion, urges us to give to ourselves the same kindness and support that we give to our closest family and friends. At her Center for Mindful Self-Compassion you can take a test to gauge your level of self-compassion. We are all too often far too unkind to ourselves.

As we forgive and accept our struggles, and offer support to others, support becomes available in a virtuous cycle where compassion provides strength, it can be a source of willpower. And where, as individuals, we can truly be a source of the good in the world that we seek!

Compassion motivates us to connect with others and help. It boosts immunity, releases stress, and reduces prejudice. It supports balance and resilience. In holding compassion, we begin to recognize that pain and suffering are part of the human experience, which allows us to share in a common humanity – a place where like me, all others desire happiness and freedom from suffering.

In A Fearless Heart, Dr. Thupten Jinpa recommends setting a daily compassionate intention, by asking:

  1. What is it that I value deeply
  2. What in the depths of my heart, do I wish for myself, for my loved ones, and for the world?

With this frame of mind, we enter a frenetic world with the intention of spreading joy and love, where positive actions can inspire and infect others to act in compassionate ways. Let’s start a compassion contagion in order  to interrupt anxiety and bring greater connection and collective purpose to life!

The Best is Yet to Come…

Tell me, where do you see yourself in the next 5 to 10 years? This has got to be one of the most annoying interview questions ever posed, right? Sheesh, I dunno?

Well stop for a minute and really imagine… imagine you achieved one of your most precious and ambitious goals? What emotions are you feeling? Who are you with? What do you hear? What are you wearing? Is there a smell in the air? What does this future look and feel like from all senses?

Billions of neurons communicate in rapid fire via tiny electrochemical impulses in the brain when we activate our imagination. In fact, the brain uses the same neural circuits for tangible perception as it does for imagination. The process of imagination takes place across a network of interconnected neurons ranging from areas in the visual cortex to areas related to attention and executive function.

These areas are activated together as the ‘mental workspace’ of imagination – a space where the mind consciously constructs images, symbols, and concepts that give rise to new ideas. Just like physical real-world practice, the mental practice of imagination can enhance confidence and increase performance, priming your brain for success.

Scottish scientist and expert on mind-body connections, Dr. David Hamilton, has authored a number of books on ways that kindness changes the brain, how habits and attitudes shape behavior, and even how the power of positive thinking improves our health. His blog cites a fascinating Harvard study showing equal brain activity in participants who practiced the piano as compared to those who only imagined practicing.

Other studies have demonstrated the ability to gain strength simply by mental exercise. With a background in the pharmaceutical industry, Hamilton has also studied the placebo effect and why some patients in the placebo control often improve as well. Can the mind learn to respond to a placebo?

imagination Einstein

Although the research is still out…there’s mounting evidence that imagination is a powerful tool.

Preeminent scientist, Albert Einstein knew it when he said, “Imagination is the preview of life’s coming attraction.”

His words make my heart sing! Several years ago, I began a practice of visualizing my own goals and desires by creating a vision board. I’ve always been a visual person. As a young girl, before the advent of digital photography, I would sit and scrapbook for HOURS!

My first vision board was created in very much the same fashion…I clipped words and images from magazines and pinned them on a cork board that hung in a visible place in my home office.

With the advent of Google images, the process has become even easier to search for just the right image, print, cut, and paste my hopes and dreams in a collage of possibility.

This year, for the first time, I put away the cork board and created a digital version of what I now call my “viz board.” It’s so easy to search, copy, paste, crop, manipulate, and voilà, here it is folks:

2017 digi viz board

This ritual of visualization centers me in the moment and a future of possible moments, setting a course to guide my journey. Of course, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail” Ben Franklin supposedly said.

I’ve also heard: “whatever you hold in mind, manifests in kind.”

Imagination forms new neural connections, so why not give it a try!

The best way to provoke imagination is to seek out new environments and experiences – take a walk, go to a museum, take a different route to work, let your mind wander in a quiet space.

I highly recommend taking the time to visualize and cultivate what you want in life. You might be surprised, just how the process helps you hone in on your dreams.

Truth is?

The weeks’ calamities began with an innocent white lie out of fear of confrontation. Not wanting to address the situation, I decided to wait and see…only just to see if it would resolve on its own. Days turned into weeks, a minor discomfort into personal agony, digressing further and farther from the desired outcome.

Does this story sound familiar? We’ve all been there!

Truth is…dishonesty is a slippery slope and according to neuroscience the more we lie the easier it gets. Too often, and increasingly, we are willing to set aside the truth to pacify the moment, avoid confrontation, or protect someone’s feelings.

Because what is true anyway?truth4

Modern society has come to celebrate a relative view of it – you have a truth, I have a truth, who’s to argue, who’s to say? The popular motto “live your truth” reinforces this view. But to what end? What happens when your truth comes into conflict with my truth? We are far too easily offended when another’s view doesn’t conform to our own.

Fixated on personal realism, truth then becomes a will to power. If I claim to have the truth and tell others who then believe my truth, I WIN the day. The more a false statement is heard the truer it begins to sound – this is called the illusory truth effect. And cognitively, the brain starts to give up when discerning truth from lies becomes too difficult. As a result, alternative facts become reality.

Truth is you are born and then you die with the space between amounting to struggle. Truth is…life is suffering. To seek truth is to overcome suffering as best we can; pursuing that which is honorable, just, and pure toward the best possible outcome – not just for me, but for you, for others, and for the world.

We must admit there are a vast amount of things that we know nothing about. Our individual grasp of the truth is limited by our fragmented knowledge. On a personal level, we believe something to be true, if it corresponds to what we observe in the world. Yet our observations are based on a narrow band of personal life experiences. There are truths of science and the known universe, but even these truths are constantly being challenged and tested as new information comes to light.

Truth is the light. It is the end of inquiry; the place where knowledge and beliefs converge. It is revealed through the seeking of it and the only way we can ever hope to glimpse the truth is through a willingness to share honestly and openly without offense.

Truth is elusive, but that does not mean we should abandon it. The only way to reclaim it is to adopt the values of honesty and integrity in our daily lives.

The micro-lies we tell ourselves and others, lead us farther from the truth. The worst thing you can do is lie to someone. Sometimes it’s better to be an asshole than to always sugar coat things.

There’s also danger in being too empathetic! Feeling others’ stressors can intensify the stress. And in that moment of shared stress, we are likely to say or do what’s needed to alleviate it, even if it’s dishonest.

Compassion doesn’t always lead to truth.
But truth opens a space for a deeper understanding and compassion to emerge.

Compassionate truth, a kind radical candor (to care personally, and challenge directly) – at work, at home, in our communities – is needed to get beyond the veneer of polite society and protect us from the assault of deceit.

By courageously listening and sharing honestly, in this space, we have the power to expand one another’s perspectives in order to gain a more complete truth of the situation and discover higher truths together.