Martin Summerhayes (martinsummerhay) wrote,
Martin Summerhayes

How does Empathy & Compassion play into Mindfulness

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” ― Leo Buscaglia

Since I was educated as an engineer, my approach to topics is normally to get a definition first before understanding them. This approach has changed over the past few years as I have deliberately stepped out of my comfort zone and approached things ins a completely different way. Acceptance firstly, of what is there, gaining insight and then finally, seeking to understand the deeper concepts. In effect turning my approach completely around.

For this article, I thought I’d start off with what are the three concepts of Empathy, Compassion and Mindfulness are; their definitions; before finally, understanding their inter-dependencies.

So, lets start with the definitions and concepts of each one and where they tie into Mindfulness:

Definition: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. The imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself.

Concepts: Empathy is a building block of us as human beings. It is one of the many attributes we have that help distinguish us as a species, it helps if we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It is also a key ingredient of successful social group relationships because it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others within the group.

Empathy is linked to helping to reducing tension and issues in marriages and long term relationships; bullying amongst children; prejudice and racism; improves engagement amongst work colleagues and friends.

Some of the key aspects of developing empathy include:
# Focusing your attention outwards, mindfully aware of your surroundings, especially the behaviours and visual and vocal expressions of other people. This also means that you have to be able to see their emotions, but not let them impact you, another aspect of mindfulness.

# Putting yourself in someone elses shoes by imagining what others are feeling. However, you must not jump to conclusions when you do this, by presupposing what someone is feeling or the emotions they are experiencing. Research points to fact that people who practice mindfulness, are much more likely to be able to be outwards thinking - mindfulness in action!

Definition: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” It is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.

Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion. Research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people.

Some of the benefits of compassion include:

# Compassion makes us feel good: Compassionate action (e.g., giving to charity) activates pleasure circuits in the brain, and compassion training programs, even very brief ones, strengthen brain circuits for pleasure and reward and lead to lasting increases in self-reported happiness.

# Being compassionate and tuning in to other people in a kind and loving manner, can reduce the risk of heart disease by boosting the positive effects of the Vagus Nerve, which helps to slow our heart rate.

# Brain scans during Mindfulness, suggest that, on average, compassionate people’s minds wander less about what has gone wrong in their lives, or might go wrong in the future; as a result, they’re happier.

# Compassion helps make caring parents and can help make better relationships and being supportive.

# Compassion helps make better friends and less vindictive toward others.

# Employees who receive more compassion in their workplace see themselves, their co-workers, and their organization in a more positive light,

# Finally, compassionate people are more socially adept, making them less vulnerable to loneliness.

Definition: a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.

When we let our mind run wild with fear or worries in response to someone else’s pain and reflecting the possible impact on me, the classic phrase “What if that happens to me?, we prevent the biological systems that enable compassion and empathy. The practice of mindfulness can help us feel safer in these situations, facilitating compassion and helping to develop the empathy we need in our daily lives.

I have noticed in myself that through the practice of mindfulness, my normal speech has changed. I am more aware of how I am talking, reacting to conversations and pausing more often before reacting to a situation. That to me is the power and benefits of Mindfulness. It not only changes the way we think about ourselves, but also how we think about the work. It then enables us to change the way we engage - positively, thoughtfully, with empathy & compassion.

I leave you with this simple thought

“for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” ― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

For further insight on empathy & compassion, why not visit the University of California Great Good Council web site.

Tags: altruism, compassion, empathy, mindfulness

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