When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you. — African Proverb
Although I am in the business of hope through understanding, hot meteors of negativity break through the atmosphere of my serenity and occasionally derail me. I am jealous, angry or judgmental, or sometimes indifferent or overwhelmed.
But more often than not these uncomfortable feelings are not meteors at all. They aren’t streaking across my mind and crashing into my psyche. Rather, they are a thick, murky fog of thoughts and feelings that slowly but steadily eclipse my optimism. And that’s only half of it. Then I feel bad for having the thoughts. This makes it worse. Now, regardless of the form they come in, the conflict moves to an inner theater. I’m aggravated at whatever got me going in the first place, and I’ve gotten myself in a headlock. I am a one-man wrestling extravaganza clinging onto these feelings while simultaneously attempting to break free of the crummy thoughts about others and myself. So the real enemy is inside me.
Mindfulness meditation is designed to help. The research on the impact of this meditation is fertile, and convincing. The contemplative awareness of meditation seems to be at the core of what can heal us. But wait. What is this that is in and around and alongside and embedded in this research on mindfulness? It is the Four Immeasurables. In addition to developing a practice of mindful awareness, Buddhist teachings encourage the cultivation of love, compassion, joy and equanimity: The Fab Four, I’d say. By immeasurable they mean unconditional. But don’t tell a scientist the thing he wants to understand is immeasurable.
Two groundbreaking books — The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh, and Jeremy Adam Smith and Born To Be Good by Dacher Keltner have much to offer about understanding compassion. The research informs a perspective that compassion is part of our biology and is necessary for human evolution. We must cultivate compassion for ourselves and for others for our survival. Or, as the Dalai Lama says:
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
There are also some intriguing studies from developmental psychology that set the stage for understanding the role compassion plays in our lives and in evolution. Psychologist Jack Nitschke found that mothers looking at pictures of their own babies reported feelings of compassionate love, but more than that, the mothers’ brains showed patterns of activity linked to positive emotions. This does not happen when the mothers look at others’ babies. Compassion, it seems, has direct evolutionary value. It is activated in a mother’s brain by their offspring.
Caring for your child is what allows a connection to be made, and the species to continue. Nancy Eisenberg, Richard Fabes, and Martin Hoffman found that children who were better adjusted and more helpful to their peers had compassionate parents who used reasoning and induction, and Pearl and Samuel Oliner found that parents could teach by example. It makes sense: Compassionate parents have children who will be more altruistic. There is also a difference in the capacity for compassion between children who are securely attached to their parents and those who are not. Everett Waters, Judith Wippman and Alan Sroufe found securely attached children had sympathy toward their peers by the time they were three and a half years old. Not surprisingly, Mary Main and Carol George found children with physically abusive parents had children with less empathy. There are also physiological changes in both children and adults when they feel compassion for others. Rather than fight or flight, their heart rate goes down to prepare to approach and calm the other.
Other studies show that people who lean forward or generate a friendly smile or hand gesture produce more oxytocin, the same chemical generated by breastfeeding and eating chocolate. Being compassionate toward others makes us feel good, which makes us want to be more compassionate. Yummy. But the study that intrigued me most was by Dacher Keltner:
In my experiment, I put two strangers in a room where they were separated by a barrier. They could not see one another, but they could reach each other through a hole. One person touched the other on the forearm several times, each time trying to convey one of 12 emotions, including love, gratitude, and compassion. After each touch, the person touched had to describe the emotion they thought the toucher was communicating. Imagine yourself in this experiment. How do you suppose you might do? Remarkably, people in these experiments reliably identified compassion, as well as love and the other ten emotions, from the touches to their forearm. This strongly suggests that compassion is an evolved part of human nature—something we’re universally capable of expressing and understanding.
Okay, so we are wired to be nice. But how does this help me when someone cuts me off on the New Jersey Turnpike? The answer, for me at least, was in a 2005 article published by the American Psychological Society by Mario Mikulincer and Phillip R. Shaver on attachment security and compassion. This research was linked to the idea that if children feel securely attached they are able to have more compassion. Other studies demonstrated that adults with a securely attached disposition had more compassion, but these researchers were able to experimentally activate representations of attachment security. They had subjects imagine feeling loved, safe and secure, or had them read loving stories. By doing this alone the participants felt less negativity, less threatened, and less discriminatory. Subjects in these studies also demonstrated more compassion, sympathy, and tenderness. I’m feeling better already.
Perhaps a moment or two of allowing yourself to feel the feelings of being loved can change your disposition when it is in need of a change. The (other) Fab Four from the 1960s were right: All you need is love; or memories of love, or even a few good stories. In fact, they hit it right on the head. As the Beatles professed, you can learn how to be you in time – It’s easy.
World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassion. — Dalai Lama, 1989 Nobel Laureate in peace