The emotion of compassion appears to have a deep evolutionary purpose. Studies in neurobiology have shown that when we feel compassion, our pituitary gland secretes oxytocin, which is often known as the bonding hormone. Levels of cortisol drop, the hormone released in times of stress. Our heart rate slows and pleasure centres in the brain are activated, creating a positive feedback loop that reinforces the emotion of compassion. In evolutionary terms, the emotion of compassion promotes human survival by fostering the type of cooperation that is necessary for communities to thrive.
So, it appears that compassion is a naturally evolved and adaptive trait. Without it, the survival and flourishing of our species would have been unlikely. But compassion can be a tricky thing. The feeling of compassion is linked to an action to relieve the suffering of another. But what if it is difficult to perform any such action? What if the suffering we perceive is so great that we feel overwhelmed? A natural human tendency then becomes to turn away from the suffering, because experiencing the feeling without being unable to take any action is extremely painful.
I am thinking of the year 2015, when the Syrian refugee crisis was escalating to an unimaginable degree. Thousands of refugees were fleeing war-torn Syria, risking their lives to reach Greece or Turkey. Day after day we were reading about disasters at sea, where flimsy crafts containing hundreds of refugees were foundering, with the subsequent terrible death toll. Yet along with the stories of the refugees were other stories – of countries whose leaders feared an unstoppable tide of people, people who were different, people who might be terrorists. Borders were closing, aid was drying up. And then the narrative changed. It was that image of little Alan Kurdi, the three year old child whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. Suddenly the Syrian refugee crisis became personal, tangible. He was just a little boy, whose mother was named Rehana and his brother Galib, all of whom drowned that day. They were fleeing an impossible situation, and they were simply seeking a safe haven. When the image of that child flashed around the world, something profound changed. Many European countries began opening their borders, and aid money began to flow again. Alan Kurdi’s image made the Syrian refugee crisis real to people around the world.
Albert Einstein wrote that when we perceive ourselves as separate from the rest of the humanity and the natural world, we are experiencing an “optical delusion of our consciousness.” He goes on to say “This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
To widen our circle of compassion – isn’t that the essence of the Golden Rule, which is foundational to so many religious traditions? When we think of great spiritual teachers like Jesus and Buddha, compassion was central to their message. For those of us who are healthcare practitioners, compassion is an essential element in the work that we do with people who are suffering from physical or mental distress. But fundamental to the practice of compassion for others is to cultivate compassion for ourselves as well. We are all wounded or broken in some way, and if we focus entirely on trying to heal others without attending to our own woundedness, we risk burnout. When we practise self-compassion, we can begin to understand the roots of our own pain. As we work through our own suffering we become more powerful healers, able to empathize with those who seek our care.