The Unknown Reason Compassion Sets Us Free – When Science Meets Ancient Wisdom

When I decided I wanted to major in dance many years ago, my mother must have thought I was delusional. I don’t blame her; I was nearly seventeen, I had no formal training, no long-term plan, just a deep desire to move like a dancer. What I lacked in ability (and sense of reality) I made up for in sheer determination and drive. I was the whatever it takes girl. Even if I had to practice in the morning, on my lunch break and on weekends. That also meant I had to work shifts on my days off to be able to afford the extra classes. Being at the bottom became my strength because it kept me motivated, disciplined and humble. The downside to those backbreaking days is that I developed an unusually high tolerance for fatigue, overwork and physical pain. I saw the body as a machine that I could control and place demands on, no matter how unreasonable. And if the results weren’t there, all I had to do was to push harder. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a relentless hard worker, but if there is something I have learned, it’s that if we keep running on credit, it’s only a matter of time before we crash. I had to learn that lesson way too many times. Nowadays, I move not to perform but because of the freedom, connection and joy it provides for me. That is the true gift. It took a long gruelling journey of self-discovery, failures, fall-outs and breaking points to get here but I am finally finding myself at peace with how much my body and mind can deliver.

But in a world that values achievement, appearances and material over health and happiness, how can we start to accept ourselves and our limitations? How do we become ‘’unstuck’’ from our own self-destructive patterns? I know this might sound sentimental but even science is catching up to what ancient traditions have been trying to tell us for thousands of years: what we need is compassion!

So What Is Compassion and Why Is It Good for Us?

Many spiritual traditions speak of the importance of compassion. Buddha spoke of compassion thousands of years ago as part of the path to enlightenment. It is believed that compassion allows us to move away from a ‘’I’’ centered worldview to the ‘’other-centeredness’’ view which allows us to see reality more clearly and accurately. In other words, compassion is a gateway to understanding the human experience through the eyes of others. I’ve come to interpret compassion as kindness, understanding and acceptance. It is something that connects us to not only others, but also to ourselves. However, it’s more than just the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel what they feel; it’s a way of being and must be practiced. It applies to all beings and therefore it helps us understand that we are not superior to anyone, thing or animal; we are part of a whole. In Buddhism, compassion is part of the Four Immeasurables along with loving-kindness, joy and equanimity. Interestingly though, out of the four qualities, compassion is the one most closely linked to suffering because it means being able to sit with our pain, which in turn gives us the ability to free ourselves from it. Even in psychology, the definition of compassion includes a sensitivity to suffering in ourselves and others with a desire to alleviate or prevent it. Research has actually shown that we are physiologically best regulated when we feel loved, wanted, connected and loving rather than indifferent, disliking and hating – whether it is towards others or ourselves. Tania Singer’s recent neuroscience of compassion shows us that some pain-sensitive parts of the brain are activated when we empathize (or feel) with someone in pain; showing us that we are much more connected to others than we are aware of. It has been shown however that empathy activates negative emotions, which can become too overwhelming. On the other hand, if we feel compassion for someone else, different neural networks associated with affiliation and reward come into play and we feel concern, love and warmth. Thus, by actively practicing compassion, we can begin to develop a motivation to help others without getting burned out. Feel me my empathic friends?

Self-Compassion – The Key to Freedom?

Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion Focused Therapy found that most of his patients, many severely depressed, were relatively comfortable with being compassionate with others but receiving compassion and self-compassion was almost an impossible task. During his practice as a psychologist, he was using cognitive behavioral therapy to help his patients develop healthier thought patterns, but they would do this in a cold and robotic manner. They didn’t know how to be genuinely kind to themselves. So why is it so challenging for many of us to receive compassion? Research actually found that it might be particularly difficult for people coming from a background of violence, addiction or abuse. I have to admit, this hit home. One thing that is still difficult for me to share is that I grew up with a father with a mental illness and a violent temper. As a child, I learned to stay quiet, do as I was told and carry on. There was little space for feeling sorry for myself. Developing self-compassion has definitely been a challenge but what helped me tremendously was to surround myself with empathetic people; whether it was friends, acquaintances, or a therapist.  The uncanny thing in my experience is that if you tend to be on the masochistic side, you often attract people with a similar mindset who will tell you to suck it up when things get hard. Though I am not a fan of pity parties, if you can’t have empathy for others that is usually my cue to walk in the other direction.

So how does compassion and self-compassion set us free? The answer is something much more profound than I initially thought; by helping us access and heal our shame. In other words, those parts of us that seem to be unacceptable, disgusting and bad; whether it is past or present emotions, thoughts, actions or even trauma. Shame can keep us a hostage and a prisoner of the past.  It tells us that we don’t deserve love or kindness. It is that part of us that we don’t want to admit or reveal to others. Jung calls these darker areas of our minds the ‘’Shadow Self’’, and we all have one. The main problem with shame is that it is the most disconnecting of all emotions. It creates a barrier between us, the people we love and even ourselves. If we keep it bottled up inside, it permeates every area of our life, whether we realize it or not. Shame is like a poison we carry and hold onto inside of us that expresses itself in destructive ways like anger, depression and rage. So how do we start to mend these unforgiving ‘’truths’’? By expressing them out loud, preferably in the presence of a compassionate person, group or therapist. A big part of my personal healing has been sharing my story, which felt like a dirty little secret for decades. Though it is definitely a process with many layers, as soon as you put words to it, you start to set that part of yourself free and it no longer owns you. Self-compassion allows for the vulnerability to admit your humanness and forgive yourself. You could even start with dabbling in a journal without censorship and end with a feeling of forgiveness (I like to place my hand on my heart for that). The unfolding is often painful but the rewards are much greater than you can imagine. In my adult life, I was lucky enough to have the presence of a few kind non-judgmental souls, which helped me to realize that I am good enough as is. That is the gift of living and receiving compassion and I believe is the key to setting ourselves free.

I really do hope this helps on your journey to healing and happiness.

All my love,

Lena B.

2 thoughts on “The Unknown Reason Compassion Sets Us Free – When Science Meets Ancient Wisdom

  1. Suzie

    Wow I loved everything you wrote. I’m working daily on being more self compassionate towards myself as I would be to others?

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