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The Science of Compassion

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By:  Dr. Mark Force, DC

Compassion: The Primary Value?

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. The rest is the explanation; go and learn.” !  ~Rabbi Hillel the Elder, 1st century AD

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”!   ~ Dalai Lama

“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”! ~ Ephesians 4:32

Compassion is being fully present and aware of the experience in all of its breadth and depth, in all of its suffering and sublime joy, in all of its ignorance and illumination, of being human. Compassion is being present to the human experience in others and in oneself. It is the awareness that all of the experiences of being human, whether inherent or manifest, are present in all of us.

We all are essentially capable of sensing, perceiving, feeling, thinking, and behaving in any and every one of the myriad of ways that comprise the human experience. Yet, that doesn’t translate into each of us actually doing all of the things people are capable of doing. Our feelings and thoughts may range anywhere, whereas our actions are, hopefully, moderated by our ethics, morals, beliefs, values, and reason.

We experience compassion when we are aware that we are all essentially the same, in that we are human, and that the human experience, regardless of race, culture, education, vocation, and wealth, is universal. From compassion, the qualities of love, faith, modesty, service, forgiveness, tolerance, and generosity follow naturally.

Synonyms for compassion are sympathy, empathy, fellow feeling, care, concern, solicitude, sensitivity, warmth, love, tenderness, mercy, leniency, tolerance, kindness, humanity, and charity.

Compassion is essentially a universal value arising as an outcome of our ability to be aware of and empathize with other’s suffering. The synonyms above are relatives of compassion and I would argue that they’re the fruits of practicing compassion.

Compassion is a central value of all major religions. In Hinduism, ahimsa is the principle of non-harmfulness.

In Islam, charity is on the the “Three Pillars,” or the three primary principles, along with belief in one god and prayer.

In Buddhism, loving-kindness and compassion (karuna) are central. In Judaism, also, compassion holds superior value.

In this contemplation of compassion, however, I will focus on the words of Jesus concerning compassion and related qualities and compare them to what we know from science that validates them.

Jesus on Compassion

“And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” ~ Mark 12:31-32

“These things I command you, that you love one another.” !      ~ John 15:17

The ability to experience affiliation (emotional human relationships) is essential to emotional intelligence and a cornerstone to the ability to feel compassion. Inability to develop the emotion of affiliation appears related to functional disorders of brain neurons, receptors, and neurotransmitters and underlying mental disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and psychopathy. Compassion appears to be an emotion that requires high levels of brain function and organization.

Brain imaging studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that people who regularly practice compassion-focused meditation become more aware and responsive to the emotions of others around them and display higher activity in areas of the brain associated with the experience of empathy when compared to control subjects who do not practice compassion-focused meditation.

Research shows that compassion-focused meditation improves immune function, increases the daily experience of positive emotions and social connection, promotes association with the present (mindfulness), increases sense of purpose and satisfaction with life, decreases depression and rate of illness, and reduces prejudice, chronic pain, and harmful physiological responses relative to stress.

Jesus On Non-Judgment And Forgiveness

“Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” !    ~ Luke 6:37-38

“He raised himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” !         ~ John 8:7

“Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” !! ~ John 8:12

People who are judgmental find their lives less pleasant and less successful than people who are less judgmental. Practicing forgiveness has been shown to decrease depression and increase feelings of self-mastery, empathy, life satisfaction, and well-being with stability of these changes over time.

People who assess high for the trait forgiveness have lower blood pressure and heart rate, list fewer physical symptoms, sleep better, and have more energy, use less alcohol, and take fewer medications when compared to people who assess low for the trait forgiveness.

Jesus on Compassionate Action (Service & Charity)

“Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” ! ! ~ Matthew 25:40

Give, and it will be given to you…” ! !     ~ Luke 6:37-38

“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” ~ John 13:13-14

Functional magnetic resonance imaging shows that the same areas of the brain are stimulated when subjects make donations as when they experience monetary rewards. Also, the prefrontal cortex of the brain (higher cognitive areas of the brain) show increased activity when subjects make altruistic choices. Findings of these studies indicate that altruistic behaviors are psychologically rewarding.

Research indicates that individuals providing anonymous charity are motivated by vicariously experiencing the receiver’s joy from improvement of their circumstances and the actual increase in their welfare.

Hans Selye, MD, the Canadian endocrinologist who developed the current model of stress and how it affects living systems promoted altruism for it’s direct effect on decreasing stress and improving health. He proposed that “egoistic altruism” is natural law of the biological advantage of cooperation and collaboration between cells, individuals, groups, communities, and societies

Charitable acts have been shown to decrease stress, improve quality of life, and increase lifespan for the giver, while a person who receives, but does not practice charity, doesn’t experience the same benefit.

Compassion seems to evoke altruistic motivation and this motivation appears to be related to reducing the receiver’s need and unrelated to how the subject might be viewed by others if they do not act charitably.

Jesus on Devotion

“… she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.” !      ~ Luke 7:37-38

“Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much.” !  ~ Luke 7:47

Mary’s acts represent profound and unrestrained devotion to Jesus. Devotion can be defined as feelings of ardent love, commitment to a purpose; a strong positive emotion of regard and affection. Synonyms are loyalty, faithfulness, fidelity, constancy, commitment, adherence, allegiance, dedication; fondness, love, admiration, affection, and care.

These strong positive emotions have a profoundly positive effect on our health. Research indicates that devotion and related positive heart-focused emotions has effects on the autonomic nervous system that improve internal regulation of organic systems and functions.

Devotion and other heart- focused emotions lower the stress hormone, cortisol, improve anabolic functions and decrease catabolic breakdown of body tissues, improve insulin sensitivity and blood lipid profiles, and restore levels of DHEA, a precursor the anabolic hormones testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen. 

These positive emotions even relieves pain and positively influence both longevity and physical capacities with age.

The effects of devotion and related heart-focused emotions on the autonomic nervous system can be immediately and objectively measured and skill in using these emotions to positively influence your emotional and physical health can be trained through of biofeedback technologies using heart rate variability.

Jesus On Anger

“I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger…” ~ Matthew 5:22

Disciplined management and control of anger has been associated with improved well being, especially in the elderly. Anger also disrupts sleep quality, a fundamental need for maintaining health.

Abnormally high total cholesterol, LDL, and LDL/HDL ratio have all been found to correlate with habitual anger coping styles, indicating that this coping style predisposes one to heart disease. Other studies have correlated habitual anger with heart disease.

Conclusion

These studies support Jesus’ calls to act with compassion, non-judgment, forgiveness, charity, and devotion from the perspective of benefit to the person practicing them. They speak to the physiology, neurology, and psychology of exemplifying these qualities through your actions.

So, follow Jesus’ calls to practice and incorporate these qualities into your being. You will be healthier in body, mind, and spirit and the science says it is true.

About Dr. Mark Force:

Dr. Mark Force, DCDr. Force has been practicing natural health care since 1984. He is the founder of The Elements of Health and author of Choosing Health: Dr. Force’s Functional Selfcare Workbook. Dr. Force is a certified diplomate and teacher for the International College of Applied Kinesiology and the International Academy of Medical Acupuncture and has published research papers, helped develop nutritional formulas, and been a technical contributor for manuals on interpretation of laboratory tests and clinical nutritional protocols

For more info visit: http://www.theelementsofhealth.com/  8711 E. Pinnacle Peak Scottsdale, Arizona 85255 480-563-4256

Image by LisaW123, Flickr Creative Commons http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixellou/5018547147/

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