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.

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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.

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?

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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!

Beyond Our Fractured Feminism

We’ve come a long way since Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1848 Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. Yet in the long view of human evolution and development, women’s liberties appear on the scene in a New York minute. For most of existence, women were protected by men. As a result, they were property of men, silenced by men, and worse.

we_can_do_itIn the United States, women were granted the simple right to vote less than 100 years ago (here’s a great timeline of women’s rights from the National Women’s History Project). Birth control became widely available in the 60’s. Title IX provided equality of education in the 70’s. While in Switzerland, women weren’t able to vote until 1980! And today, in many parts of the world, women continue to be abused and pushed aside.

In truth, there has never been a singular women’s movement. Women’s rights first emerged in the western world, but have slowly been given credence in other regions. Women all over the world have faced off against varied oppressors. The movement has witnessed peaks and valleys of second-wave, third-wave, and now a fourth-wave feminism. There’s liberal feminism, lesbian feminism, even ecofeminism – and what do you know, the word feminism was coined by a MAN! – 19th-century French philosopher Charles Fourier. We’ve been labeled, insulted, dissuaded, and beaten back. We’ve often disagreed, but that’s OK – disagreement spurs dialogue.

Remarkably, out of our disparate struggles and different experiences, arose the largest protest in U.S. history, the Women’s March – a passionate sea of more than 2.9 million men and women of diverse backgrounds gathered at sites around the world to send a message that we stand together for all rights!

And now it’s time to rise above the pussyhats, crude jokes, pop aphorisms, and biting criticism of the “other” side. This very radicalism is partly responsible for our deep divisions.

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The feminist movement is not a power struggle; it is a platform for justice. Lady Justice embodies divine order and moral courage. She does not slander; she does not shout from a megaphone and make demands.

We should NOT sit back and accept catcalls and blatant disrespect, but it’s dramatic to say that we live in a rape culture. We live in a highly sexualized culture. And there’s wisdom in a measured response so that when a more severe one is needed it can be taken seriously.

The gender gap is real, but we have to stop and realize that women have only been in the workforce in significant numbers since the late 60’s/early 70’s. It is up to us to Lean In to leadership (for heaven’s sake more men named John run large companies than women). More female voices in leadership and governance around the world are essential in order to have true equality of opportunity.

In all pursuits, it’s important that we find ways to Thrive.

Our passion is unmatched. Our spirit is unassailable. Our time is now.

Nevertheless, as we persist: may we strive for impartiality in our judgements, generosity toward others and the past, and a steadfast commitment to justice.

After all, our rights are human rights!