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Compassion is the term we use for a complex emotion, that involves empathy, altruism and desire; where empathy is the ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another; altruism is the kind, and selfless behavior; and desire is the strong feeling of wanting to have something, or wishing for something to happen. To be compassionate, is to have “a deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it; a sense of shared suffering, most often combined with the desire to alleviate such suffering”.
Compassion is a powerful emotion in interacting with others, and may be considered essential to those professions related to helping individuals heal. These would include healthcare such as hospitals and doctors’ offices; private therapy like mental health and physiotherapy; and coaching practices including life coaching, as well as a more inclusive mind-body-spirit style of coaching, named ‘Soul Coaching’.
Soul Coaching, a bestselling book, and specialized coaching program by Denise Linn, reinforces the importance of compassion using a process that includes 28 daily exercises, designed to discover one’s authentic self. Each exercise is an opportunity to inspire a vast wellspring of self-compassion and inner joy within the seeker, through powerful self-learning experiences. Soul Coaching “takes individuals to their spiritual source, helping them to find meaning and sacredness in everyday life”. More than traditional coaching practices, the additional goal of Soul Coaching is to “align your inner spiritual life with your outer life”, helping one “clear away mental and emotional clutter, so the messages from within can be heard”. Soul Coaching “also helps to discover one’s purpose, so you can design a life that supports that mission”.
Linn’s Soul Coaching Certification Program was designed for those desiring to work with clients on a deeper level, and provides insightful training on how to take clients beyond that of business, or life coaching. With compassion for self, and others, being an integral part of Soul Coaching, it is important to explore the many facets of the act of compassion, in order that we may understand its power to heal.
This paper aims to examine many rich, and diverse interpretations of the emotion-driven act of compassion, and to highlight the many benefits in being compassionate with ones’ self, and others. Additionally, the research contained in this paper may be applied to Soul Coaching, in order that those led to this practice understand all that is involved in the compassionate exchange that facilitates successful client transformations on a soul level.
Many individuals have provided expansive insights into the complexity of compassion, but none more than historical and religious figures from all backgrounds and faiths. A complex topic, the meaningfulness of compassion has gained the attention of many on the path of spiritual growth, and enlightenment, thus we are provided with a rich tapestry of insight. The Holy Bible contains many versus that teach of us the sacred meaning of compassion.
Mystics and sages present somewhat of a different view of compassion. Caroline Myss, recognized as a modern-day mystic, looks at compassion in terms of being one of the seven graces, which have their origin in scripture. Corinthians 12:8-10 refers to the graces as “gifts of the spirit”. Myss believes that when one becomes “empowered with a particular grace, as opposed to just having an intellectual understanding or appreciation of it”, they begin to “radiate an energy that is uncommonly loving”.
In our modern day lives, compassion is key in many caregiving professions. Healthcare, for example, relies heavily on the compassion of caregivers in the healing process. Patients who are experiencing illnesses of all varieties, and on all levels of severity, are often vulnerable, and susceptible to the emotions of their caregivers, proving substantial need for compassionate care.
Scientists have also begun to study the biological basis of compassion, and propose that it has positive effects on the brain. For example, research shows that a compassionate attitude towards others’ suffering, activates the mesolimbic neural system. A 2011 fMRI study of caring versus self-focus, using induced feelings of compassion and pride “examined neural activation during the experiences of compassion, an emotion that orients people toward vulnerable others, and prompts caregiving; and pride, a self-focused emotion that signals individual strength and heightened status”. Results of 55 participants showed activation in the midbrain PAG (or periaqueductal grey) during the compassion induced imagery, that stimulated the release of the neuropeptide oxytocin, which is associated with the development of attachment bonding, caregiving of others, and pro-social behavior. These results verify a positive physiological response during compassionate interactions.
The depth of how compassion is defined can be derived by looking at views from a variety of sources including biblical references, the writings of mystical teachers, the role of compassion in healthcare, and scientific studies examining compassion.
Compassion holds a powerful energy, that when activated can evoke feelings of unconditional love, understanding and acceptance. Important religious figures throughout history have deeply contemplated the power of compassion. One such man was Jesus of Nazareth, whose teachings became the foundation of Christianity, and The Holy Bible.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan, delivers a heartfelt experience-based narrative, in order that we fully comprehend the depth, and meaning of compassion. In this verse, Jesus has a conversation with an ‘expert in the law’. The lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to achieve eternal life, and Jesus responds, you must “love your neighbor as yourself”. Wanting further clarification, the lawyer asks “And who is my neighbor?”Jesus responds by telling him the parable of the good Samaritan.
The story begins with a Jewish traveler, who was attacked by robbers on a lonely stretch of road; stripped of his clothing, beaten, and left half-dead alongside the road. A priest comes upon the man, and quickly passes him by. Next, a Levite discovers the man, and also continues on without helping him. Finally, a Samaritan happens upon the traveler, and even though Samaritans and Jews despise each other, the Samaritan stops to help the injured man by showing mercy. The Samaritan bandages the man’s wounds, places him atop his donkey, and takes him to an inn, where he pays the innkeeper to look after the injured man.
Immediately in this tale, our attention is drawn to the need of the man:both injured and helpless. The concept of need is an important component in the complexity of understanding compassion, as it defines both the need of the man who was injured, but also the need for the Samaritan to stop and help. The relationship of the needy and the needed are formed in acts of compassion, whereby both parties are compelled to act through deep emotions.
Jesus describes the potential circumstances of a calling to compassion, but also emphasizes our freedom of choice in responding to this calling. As a manifestation of love through the act of compassion, we are taught about loving others, and the importance of helping our fellow person, no matter whom they are.
Caroline Myss, hailed as a modern-day mystic and author, has written much about the importance of compassion for one’s self, and others. “Compassion, a fourth chakra emotion, and one of the spiritual energies contained in the sefirah of Tif’eret, is the strength to honor another’s suffering while bringing power back into one’s life”. Myss goes on to explain, that for a very long time our culture did not support allowing the necessary time to heal the heart, nor was the need for it even recognized. Now, as a society, we often overcompensate by failing to place appropriate time boundaries around necessary healing of the heart, and furthermore define healed only as the opposite of needy. Indeed, in taking care and having consideration when healing our wounds, we can then be more aptly sensitive, and available to the needs of others. The suggestion here is that compassion for others should not come at the expense of self, but rather it grows from self-compassion achieved by proper healing of one’s own heart.
Compassion, according to Myss, is considered one of the seven graces as “the force within the human spirit gives a person the capacity to endure or act with strength, that even surprises the individual”. The graces were essential to the Jewish Tree of Life as a necessary part of the characteristics that must be refined in ourselves, as they have great value to be recognized by each of us. To choose to awaken the grace of compassion is a powerful choice, and has the power to change everything in one’s life, in ways that cannot be seen; only perceived.
Caroline Myss teaches us that compassion requires two parties; where the giver is able to engage in the act of compassion for others more suitably, once learning to have compassion for themselves. We also learn that compassion is a significant grace, which we offer to others through choice, and courage.
For those working in a healthcare related field, compassion is considered an essential emotion when caring for people. Most healthcare workers enter these positions because they have a compassionate nature, and are passionate about caring for others. In a research paper written on compassion in palliative and supportive care, John H. Kearsley writes that “illness and medical management may devalue and depersonalize many aspects of a patient’s journey, but compassion revalues and revitalizes it”. Kearsley goes on to say that technological advances in medicine are taking a greater role in decision making affecting patient outcomes, and that the time has come for refocusing on whole person care.
Compassion in healthcare can be somewhat counterintuitive, with the potential of clinicians themselves experiencing either great health benefits. Henri Nouwen, who was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian, proposed that compassion is an “unnatural passion, asking us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish”. Although compassion may not be a comfortable response, it is inherently a most natural one. It is a feeling that is born on an intuitive level, and is fundamental to being human, and humane.
The act of compassion appears in response to whole person suffering, that is suffering on all levels which include the mind, body and spirit. When we are acting out of compassion in the service of others, “we actively develop a deep awareness of another person’s world, we actively attempt to understand the suffering of the other person, and we actively desire to play our part in the person’s healing” in order to inspire the healing process. It is not enough to give only that we feel we have:when it comes to acts of compassion, we must give one’s entire self in the moment, with no thoughts or feelings of how it may impact us, for compassion is a truly selfless act.
One could also posit that in order to be complete in the moment, we need to be mindful. Mindfulness, the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis, could be considered a crucial part of offering compassion. Being in the moment allows our compassion to be genuine in our engagement with others.
In order to fully understand the act of compassion, we must also contemplate the role of empathy. The relationship between empathy and prosocial behavior “operates on a series of nested evolutionary processes, which are intertwined with social, motivational contingencies, and also subject to contextual control”. For instance, in perceiving another experiencing pain or distress, a neural response is triggered. The physiological response uses empathy to prompt helping or soothing behaviors in order to reduce ones’ own discomfort in the situation, prior to the act of compassion. Therefore, the role of empathy is integral in the process of compassionate engagement.
A 2011 study examining the neuro-evolution of empathy, shows strong evidence that “empathy has deep evolutionary, biochemical, and neurological underpinnings” and that “even the most advanced forms of empathy are built on more basic forms, and remain connected to core mechanisms associated with effective communication, social attachment, and parental care”. Results of behavioral and functional neuroimaging studies showed that engaging empathetic and compassionate behavior “creates the release of dopamine through the projection of neural pathways from the brainstem to the nucleus accumbens”. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, responsible for signaling in-between neurons in the brain, and is associated with the reward system, and subsequent happy feelings, which provides a biochemical understanding of compassionate behavior.
When participants were shown videos, where patients were “in pain due to a medical acoustic treatment”, the response showed a bilateral “hemodynamic signal change in the amygdala”, with subjects reporting feelings of anxiety and personal distress. Next, participants were asked to imagine, rather than perceive, how the patient in the video was feeling, which resulted in decreased activity in the amygdala, related to revised feelings of sympathy, and compassion for the patient. These results show that humans have the ability to imagine what others are feeling, by putting themselves into the experiences of others, and it is on this level that compassion is fully appreciated. Measurable brain activity as a result of feeling what others are feeling, shows that indeed humans experience a physiological change during feelings of compassion.
Compassion is a complex emotion that has been defined in many different contexts, which include biblical interpretations, mystical understandings, and medical findings. The emotions found in the act of compassion include sympathy, empathy, altruism and desire. When we feel compassion for another, we often act with little or no regard to the deep emotional impact an event may have on us, making it a selfless act. We have discovered that being compassionate requires a decision to be courageous, and to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. Choosing to be compassionate towards others, allows them to retain their dignity even in the most difficult of experiences, and affects them on a soul level. Research into the study of our physiological responses during times of compassion, show neurological changes in the brain that verifies the idea that compassion is an important evolutionary process, and that indeed this powerful emotion bonds us to one another.
Compassion, as related to the practice of Soul Coaching, lays the foundation for the deep, intimate nature of the interaction between client and coach that is required in transforming the soul. Being heard, and understood; feeling loved, and cared for; and experiencing unconditional acceptance, are all part of the compassionate exchange that takes place. When a soul coach is able to “go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish”, this connection creates the power needed to heal.
Soul Coaching teaches us to be compassionate with ourselves, so that we fill our wells with the necessary acceptance, kindness, and love we need, in order that we can offer this compassion to others. One could conclude that acts of compassion are equivalent to “releasing one’s will to the Divine guidance, that may result in difficult experiences along the way with great insight”.
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