by Roshi Joan Halifax: Whether compassion is rooted deep in our biology or whether it springs from the conscience…
whether it is instinctual, intentional, socially prescribed, or spontaneously arising, we know from our personal experience and from scientific research that compassion benefits our individual well-being. It usually enhances the welfare of others—even those who simply observe an act of compassion. Compassion is one of those experiences that deeply affects the human heart, whether we give it, receive it, or observe it.
Jonathan Haidt’s studies on morality, culture, and emotion suggest that when we see someone help another, it creates an emotional state of “moral elevation” that inspires us to do the same[KB1] . I believe that this feeling of moral elevation is what sustained the powerful response to the AIDS crisis, which was composed of two epidemics—one that was killing people and one that was saving people. The growth and dedication of compassionate communities serving AIDS patients in the Nineties was extraordinary, in part because we were uplifted by seeing others serve, and we wanted to do the same.
University of California San Diego professor James Fowler, who studies contagion mechanisms, also affirms that helping is contagious. When we see or hear about others helping, we are more likely to want to do the same. An American man, a young lawyer, washes the feet of a Nepali patient. Others in the team are moved, and ask to join in; love and respect become contagious in a matter of moments. A student is dying of cancer. One hand goes out to support Lorraine, and within a week, a whole team of local sangha members has assembled. Months later, Lorraine dies surrounded by a community of loving people, who now continue the work for others. Airbnb lets thousands of hosts know that the company will give free housing to refugees in U.S. Airbnb homes. Social media lights up with hosts volunteering to give refuge to refugees. An article appears in The New Yorker about Upaya’s Nomads Clinic in Dolpo, Nepal. The article, by Rebecca Solnit, inspires clinicians from all over the world to serve in our medical clinics in Nepal, and more and more Nepalis join our clinics, moved by service to others. Goodness is inspiring, elevating, and, fortunately, catching.
Compassion appears to be an important quality to cultivate for our own well-being. The strong social connections associated with compassion seem to reduce inflammation, enhance immune function, speed recovery from illness, and lead to a 50% increase in longevity, according to a meta-analysis of numerous studies by researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad and colleagues[NR2] . In a study conducted by Sara Konrath, volunteers lived longer than non-volunteering peers if the reasons for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving.
Numerous studies confirm that compassion benefits both giver and receiver. In one study, the nonverbal communication of compassion calmed patients’ autonomic nervous systems and regulated breathing and heart rate variation[KB3] . Over my years of sitting with dying people, I saw that compassionate presence can reduce dying persons’ fear and deeply support them as they approach death; it also has a profoundly positive effect on those who serve the dying.
Years ago, Gary Pasternak, the Medical Director of Mission Hospice in San Mateo, California, sent me an email I’ve never forgotten. He wrote, “I’m up late admitting patients to the inpatient hospice unit. Just when I think I’m too old for these late nights without sleep, a person in all their rawness, vulnerability and pain lays before me and as my hands explore the deep wounds in her chest and my ears open to her words, my heart cracks open once again. . . . And this night a sweet 36-year-old woman with her wildly catastrophic breast cancer speaks of her acceptance and her hope for her children, and she speaks with such authenticity and authority. And her acceptance comes to me as the deepest humility a person can experience and then again, once again, I remember why I stay up these late nights and put myself in the company of the dying[KB4] .”
Gary’s words reflect respect and a quietness of heart, as well as humility and courage. He was able, in the medical world of distractions, time pressure, and sleep deprivation, to slow down and open to life and death, to listening and love. And, in the midst of his patient’s pain and his own, he remembered who he really was. This is compassion—the ability to turn toward the truth of suffering with the wish to relieve that suffering. And then awakening with humility to the precious gift of serving others selflessly.
Experiencing compassion also seems to diminish depression and anxiety because it opens our horizon beyond the narrowness of the small self. As Stanford researcher Emma Seppala, Ph.D., wrote, “Research shows that depression and anxiety are linked to a state of self-focus, a preoccupation with ‘me, myself, and I.’ When you do something for someone else, however, that state of self-focus shifts to a state of other-focus[KB5] .” Filmmaker George Lucas, though not a scientist, has his own take on compassion. When asked what Star Wars is really about, he said, “There are two kinds of people in the world—compassionate people and selfish people. Selfish people live on the dark side. The compassionate people live on the light side. If you go to the side of the light, you will be happy because compassion, helping other people, not thinking about yourself, thinking about others, that gives you a joy that you can’t get any other way[KB6] .”
Looking at the faces of our Upaya residents as they serve food to homeless people, I see respect and caring in their eyes, and an absence of pity, self-importance, and fear. Watching clinicians work in Upaya’s Nomads Clinic, I see the same. I also recently heard one of my students, a nurse who serves dying people in the LGBTQ community, speak to the profound benefit she herself experiences in opening the door of safety for this community, to hear their stories, and to love them for all of who they are. I have known Cathy for years. I know that she offers every person, no matter their sexual orientation and gender expression, respect and care. Yet Cathy has chosen to give special attention to a group of individuals who are often neglected and too often abused as they face their own mortality. Her joy in doing this is palpable.
Being a recipient of compassion seems to have powerful mental and physical benefits, ones that really surprised me. Research suggests that receiving compassion reduces post-surgical pain, decreases surgical recovery time, improves trauma outcomes, prolongs the survival of terminally ill patients, improves glucose control, reduces mortality at better rates than smoking cessation, and boosts immune function. By creating all these health benefits, compassionate interactions with patients might even reduce systemic health care costs[KB7] and the costs of stress on clinicians.
In our world today, there seems to be ever-increasing selfish behavior and a deficit of compassion. This deficit is fed by a number of factors, including our idea of what it means to care, and our diminishing capacity for feeling the suffering of other beings in an ever-increasing technological world. Too often today, connectivity is emphasized at the cost of connection, fast thinking is more valued than slow thinking, growth comes at the expense of depth, building a portfolio is valued more than helping to build an ethical culture, and perceptions of time poverty distract us from the present moment. The antidote is to make connection and compassion primary values that we bring to life within the micro-community of one-to-one interactions, and within the macro-community of the planet.
Many of us have also discovered that one of the most powerful aspect of compassion is related to moral character. Albert Schweitzer understood this when he wrote: “I can do no other than be reverent before everything that is called life. I can do no other than to have compassion for all that is called life. That is the beginning and the foundation of all ethics.” He affirmed what Arthur Schopenhauer’s perspective: “Compassion is the basis of morality.” Being compassionate affirms our moral principles and gives meaning to our lives. When we restrain compassion, we will feel that our moral identity is compromised, according to the psychology researchers Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne.
I have long felt that compassion is central to being fully human. Through compassion, we may be able to root out systemic violence in our society and nurture a culture of moral sensitivity and meaning, as well as respect, civility and belonging by normalizing compassion in our lives. I believe that compassion is a key in what makes cultures, organizations, and humans successful. To help us understand the necessity of compassion, science is making a strong case for its benefits and validating the importance of compassion for our survival and fundamental health—an insight that Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed had thousands of years ago, and my grandmother had a century ago. Maybe for some of us, science can be one of the ways that can point us back to who we really are.