Growing up, Jim Doty had many strikes against him: an alcoholic father, a mother with depression and a family living in poverty. In his book, Into the Magic Shop, he recounts how he managed to overcome those very big obstacles. Dr. Doty is now a clinical professor at Stanford University. He founded the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), where the Dalai Lama was a founding benefactor. What propelled him from a life that offered little chance of meeting his basic needs for safety, health and positive role models to one that is full of well-being, happiness and provides inspiration to others?
Mindfulness combined with compassion.
Seeds of wisdom
The foundation of Buddhist philosophy is the intersection of mindfulness with a kind regard to our own suffering and that of others. What happens for some people, particularly those who are driven to think, work, produce and achieve results at breakneck speed, the practice of mindfulness without compassion can actually promote the qualities of a competitive, ruthless individual. In this highly technological era, those ways of moving through life, as if it were a game to be won, are encouraged by profit-driven corporations of all kinds. Competitiveness can often show up when we catch ourselves comparing how many meditation retreats we have completed, how many great teachers we have encountered, or how often we sit for meditation. The goal is not to accumulate points in meditation, but to loosen the threads of ego, not reinforce them.
Jim was born into a background of poverty and, as a boy, he felt a sense of emptiness. It was his belief that money and acquisition of status objects might offer him a sense of control, but ultimately, money and prestige held only emptiness as well. Intuitively, we all know that caring and nurturing each other is not only necessary for survival, but it is also necessary for thriving. The need does not go away when we can walk and talk, it remains for our lifetime.
What is compassion, exactly?
Compassion is the recognition of suffering and the desire to ease suffering in ourselves and others. Jim teaches his resident physicians that even in the highly sophisticated specialty of neurosurgery, compassion is necessary. It helps calm a patient’s nervous system, raises the immune system response, lowers blood pressure, improves heart functioning and lowers stress; all which promote wound healing and decreases the severity and length of disease. The research on attachment, the level of connection that someone feels to another, as in a doctor/patient relationship, has an influence on them physiologically. A good attachment promotes good health while a poor attachment has a detrimental effect on health, both physically and mentally.
The connection of compassion and addiction
Addiction can be seen as an attempt to connect with something that eases stress and reduces pain. Much of the daily stress we encounter comes from living in a world that lacks the daily minimum requirement of compassion and minimizes its value while glorifying money and power. By connecting with someone in a compassionate way, the pain of disconnection is eased and the seeds of addiction remain dormant.
Compassion down-regulates harmful genes
The leading edge of research on compassion is compelling. There are genes that turn on and up when we act compassionately and turn down when we ignore suffering. Many of these genes are associated with inflammation. Inflammation is known as a precursor to disease of all kinds; the more we have, the greater the odds that disease has a chance to take hold. The less inflammation we have, the more resilient we are to disease. Compassion boosts our sense of connection to others and has a positive impact on our health. People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression and may be less inclined to relapse into addiction.
Cultivating compassion does not require years of study. Recent research has shown that even a seven minute intervention is enough to increase feelings of closeness and connection to the target of meditation both on explicit and implicit measures. Implicit measures cannot be controlled voluntarily, suggesting that the participant’s sense of connection to their target person or group of people during meditation changed on a deep, unconscious level.
Check out Kristin Neff’s book Self Compassion.
Visit her website for self-compassion exercises you can do now: http://self-compassion.org/