The Canadian rock group, Rush, is certainly among the pantheon of the greatest rock bands of my youth. One song, whose lyrics are particularly poignant and more relevant today than ever, is Closer to the Heart. In it, Rush asserts that regardless of who one is or what one does on this planet, our job is to do it in a way that brings us closer to our own heart and to care for the hearts of others - actively. It is an exhortation to us all to be more compassionate towards others.
I have long believed that the purpose of life is to leave the place better than the way I found it. I don’t think this means that we all need to be making an impact in the world at the Nobel Peace Prize level. But that should not minimize or trivialize the effects of touching the hearts of the people in our lives, at home and at work, one at a time. The beautiful and simple Starfish Story by Loren Eisley illustrates my point:
One day a man was walking along the beach, when he noticed a boy hurriedly picking up and gently throwing things into the ocean.
Approaching the boy, he asked, “Young man, what are you doing?”
The boy replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up, and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die,”
Don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make any difference!”
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said,
“I made a difference to that one.”
This story never fails to touch my heart and is a wonderful display of the boy’s compassion contrasted by the resignation and apathy shown by the adult.
What is Compassion and Why is it Important?
Unlike sympathy or empathy, compassion is an active state. Compassion is the heart’s response to suffering. Compassion is an innate part of human response to suffering, which is comprised of a three-part experience of noticing another’s pain, feeling with another, and responding in some way. Compassionate action needn’t involve some grand gesture. It might be as simple as listening or being with another who is in distress.
This simple yet powerful act is wonderfully expressed by Conor Oberst, who said:
“I came upon a doctor who appeared in quite poor health. I said, 'There's nothing that I can do for you that you can't do for yourself.' He said, 'Oh yes you can. Just hold my hand. I think that that would help.' So, I sat with him a while then I asked him how he felt. He said, 'I think I'm cured.'”
Never doubt the power and impact that your compassionate acts have on people. Numerous scientific studies suggest there are physical benefits to practicing compassion. People who practice it produce 100 percent more DHEA, which is a hormone that counteracts the aging process, and 23 percent less cortisol — the “stress hormone.”
But there are other benefits as well, and these are emotional, relational and spiritual. The main benefit is that it helps you and others around you to be happier. In addition, research has repeatedly demonstrated that those who witness or observe acts of compassion are as positively affected as are those individuals who are the direct recipients of compassion. Experiencing or witnessing acts of compassion lift people up into positive spirals and releases beneficial, “feel good” hormones into our brains. Performance, productivity, creativity and innovation thrive under these conditions. Experiencing or witnessing compassionate acts also has profound effects on creating and sustaining ‘Pro-Social’ environments in our homes and workplace. More on this in a future blog.
How do we practice compassion? Here’s one exercise to try:
Compassion Practice: Imagine Someone Else’s Day
· Pick someone with whom you work or live.
· Close your eyes and imagine their day from when they get up in the morning until they go to bed at night.
· Imagine what they see, hear, think, and feel. What are their hopes and concerns as they go through their day?
· Who are the people that they see and care about?
· What are their stressors or worries?
· What is important to them?
· Be as specific as you can as you imagine their day, as if you were watching a video tape.
· What did you notice from this exercise?
· What surprised you?
· What things did you wonder about, or notice that you really didn’t know or couldn’t imagine?
· How might you seek this information from them?
The Dalai Lama states that “Compassion is the radicalism of our time.” If we agree that it is a common aim of each of us to strive to be happy, then compassion is one of the main tools for achieving that happiness. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we cultivate compassion in our lives and practice compassion every day. Like the starfish metaphor above alludes, if each of us were to practice compassion more regularly, maybe compassion wouldn’t be considered to be a ‘radical act’!
If you would like to learn more about cultivating compassion in your life and the lives of those around you, please give me a call. Remember, change begins with a conversation. Start one that matters today!