Understanding the Science of Compassion

In her presentation on The Science of Compassion during the Mindful Healthcare Summit, Kelly McGonigal highlighted the body-mind impact of compassion and compassion training. Over the past 10 years she has worked with the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in the capacities of researcher and educator. Kelly was a co-author of the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training [CCT] and has undertaken research into its impacts on mind and body.

The mind-body effects of compassion training

The research undertaken by Kelly and her colleagues highlights the effects of compassion training on the mind and body. Kelly summarised these effects as follows:

  1. The process of compassion starts in the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, which registers a form of “sympathetic stress”, experienced by the observing individual as sadness or suffering. At this stage a person can become overwhelmed, particularly where they become too identified with the person who they perceive as suffering in some way, e.g. through grief, chronic physical illness, relationship breakdown or mental illness. The person who is experiencing overwhelm may adopt flight behaviour by distancing themselves (mentally and/or physically).
  2. The next stage involves the pre-frontal cortex and other parts of the “midline structure of the brain”. Here the sympathetic sufferer, through a process of “social cognition”, can separate themselves from the perceived sufferer. They recognise the suffering of the “other” and understand that they have a relationship to that person (as part of humanity) but are quite distinct from that other person – they don’t take the suffering on-board or “own the suffering” of the other person. This ability to achieve separation mentally is critical for the balance and welfare of the observer and is foundational to their willingness and ability to act to relieve the suffering of others. Without this balance, the observer may experience what Richard Davidson described as “empathy fatigue”.
  3. When we actually take compassionate action to relieve the suffering of another, we experience the “reward system” – our brain releases dopamine which make us feel good, hopeful and courageous. It thus serves to strengthen our motivation to redress the suffering of others. It activates “the approach motivation system of the brain” – motivating us to act on environments that we experience as unjust or toxic.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassion meditation and compassion training, and take action to redress the suffering of others, we can experience an increasing capacity for compassionate action and strengthening motivation to act on unjust or toxic environments.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Stop Complaining and Whinging: A Mindfulness Approach

When we complain, we are expressing dissatisfacion with someone, something, or some event. When we whinge we are involved in repeated complaining. Complaining and whinging can become habituated behaviours that are difficult to change. Left unattended, these behaviours can become toxic for ourselves and those around us. However, they can be successfully addressed by a mindfulness approach.

Michael Dawson explains how he attempted to stop his own complaining and whinging behaviour. He decided that he would attempt to stop any form of complaining and whinging over an extended period of 21 days but found that it took him six months to achieve the targeted period. He found that the process of complaining and whinging pervaded his life – at work, at home and en route to various places. The first benefit of his focus on his behaviour was a growing awareness of how often he indulged in making a complaint or whinging – the beginning of mindfulness.

Why is it so difficult to stop complaining and whinging?

Complaining and whinging can very easily become an unhealthy habit. It can be reinforced by others around us. We can use it as a conversation opener – there is nothing surer to generate a response than to articulate a complaint about something. This behaviour is often unconscious and can become a constant part of our life without our being aware that it is happening – unless someone tells us that is what is happening. We can end up complaining about every aspect of our life – the weather, our boss, our life partner, our work, our location, our colleagues, and a former associate or partner. This fault-finding behaviour can become pervasive and very difficult to stop.

Another reinforcing factor is that complaining and whinging activate the negative bias of our brain. The result is that we see only the dark clouds, rather than the “silver lining”. We can develop an unconscious, negative bias that can be further reinforced by social media comments and caustic criticism. It can become hard to resist the temptation to participate in the negative commentary.

The effects of complaining and whinging

The preoccupation with what is negative in our lives can lead to depression. It creates a mindset that is unbalanced and blinds us to what is good, joyful and beautiful in our lives. It can become a deep grove that is difficult to shift because the associated neural pathways have been continually strengthened by reinforcement.

Complaining and whinging can negatively impact our relationships at work and at home. People around us will come to resent our negative bias and, where possible, avoid us or act aggressively towards us. Our negative mindset and its effects on others can lead us to slip into cynicism where we begin to distrust the motives of others, and this, in turn, can drain the energy of other people. So, we end up with a vicious circle, compounded by our lack of internal and external awareness. To avoid self-analysis, we will then begin to blame others for our deteriorating relationships.

A mindfulness approach to stop complaining and whinging

Michael described his mindfulness exercise to stop complaining and whinging in his life. However, any mindfulness activity designed to increase our awareness of our undesirable behaviour in this area can be a useful means to stop this habit.

If you regularly write a diary, you can make complaining and whinging behaviour a focus of your diary entries – recording how often these behaviours occur and what the catalysts are for your repeated behaviour. You might also reflect on an incident where someone you interact with regularly makes an observation about you such as, “you are always negative”.

At other times, you might meditate on a recent conflict that has occurred and explore whether you had engaged in expressing a complaint or whinging about something the other person has done or failed to do. The aim is to firstly raise your awareness of what you are doing and its effects on yourself and others and then progressively stopping yourself from engaging in complaining or whinging. You can begin to move from reflection-on-action to reflecting-in-action, developing the skill to stop yourself in the course of engaging in this negative behaviour.

If our complaints are directed at the clutter in our life, we can learn from Marie Kondo’s philosophy of developing a mindset focused on what brings joy to our life. In her book, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying, she identifies ways to develop a joy-oriented mindset through our approach to tidying our house. This requires reflection on what brings joy to us from amongst our collections of clothes, books, papers and miscellaneous items.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection, self-observation and guided sorting, we can become more aware of our complaining and whinging habit and develop the motivation to change our behaviour to improve our own quality of life and the richness of our relationships. By adopting a mindfulness approach, we can develop self-regulation, a sense of self-control and calmness.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.