The Circle of Compassion

Holistic healers are the luckiest of people, says Chandrika Gibson, because in giving they receive so much in return.

Holistic healers are the luckiest of people, says Chandrika Gibson, because in giving they receive so much in return.

Holistic health care practitioners and their modalities are amazingly diverse. What they have in common is a shared motivation to heal others. From nurses to homoeopaths, yoga therapists to Reiki masters, reflexologists to pranic healers, caring for the welfare of other people is a giving vocation. Regardless of whether monetary exchanges occur, the underlying impetus to train in and practise as any kind of therapist is altruistic.

Of course, other motivations may crop up and cynical onlookers may accuse healers of being self serving. The curious truth is that it actually doesn't matter. Research is emerging that supports the feeling many people have experienced - that giving benefits the giver and the receiver. Healers are, in fact, healing themselves as they help others and the circle expands the more people are involved in the intentional giving of care.

One model to explain how helpers benefit from giving originated in the late 1970s and was coined by psychologists "helpers' high". Findings from early studies showed that charity volunteers felt happier than non-volunteers. As the fields of neuroscience and psychology expanded, it was found that even very simple expressions of kindness increase dopamine and other endorphins. What's so wonderful about dopamine is that when the brain is flooded with it, we immediately associate the behaviour that brought on the chemical cascade with positive feelings and will seek the same experience again. Kindness begets kindness, in ourselves as much as in others. Doing good deeds can even become addictive.

Along with experiencing greater levels of happiness and altered brain chemistry, there are other physical benefits to altruism. Feeling compassion towards another being increases the activity of the vagus nerve, a major nerve which controls inflammation in the body. Stimulation of the vagus nerve creates the relaxation response, which affects numerous systems in the body including the nervous system and the cardiovascular system. Relaxation has a favourable impact on blood vessel dilation, normalising blood pressure. Considering the damaging impact of stress hormones on the body, compassion is a very potent therapy indeed.

The 'bonding hormone' oxytocin is also released in response to human kindness. Best known for uniting parents and babies in an altruistic relationship, oxytocin also has physiological benefits. Along with creating an emotional bond, this hormone causes blood vessels to dilate and is considered cardio-protective. Hence when we care about others we really do feel good in our hearts.

More recent work on mirror neurons explains how when we connect with someone else, we influence their brain function and emotional experience. Mirror neurons are the physiological explanation for empathy - our ability to feel what another feels. With the feeling of connection it is natural to wish the best for the other and this is a common practice in Buddhist and yogic meditations - to wish for the happiness of others.

In a therapeutic setting, the practitioner is effectively sampling the client's state of mind and, using whatever tools of their trade apply, guiding the person seeking healing to a preferred state of being. At the same time, the practitioner cannot help but be moved by this interaction. When the other becomes happier, so does the self. When self and other connect, there is no experience of separation. As a part of the universe healing another part of the universe, both are elevated through their connection. An ideal therapist will have practised repeatedly the art of positive and expansive thinking and feeling so that the neural interaction flows effortlessly.

In a 2009 TEDTalk, author Robert Wright shares his insight into how compassion has evolved. From a biological perspective there is survival benefit in 'kin selection'. Just like the mother who has bonded with her infant will act altruistically to protect her child, animals also feel compassion for close relatives and will help them. Biologists believe this is evolutionarily effective for the protection of their genetic line.

Yet caring and giving within family units only is not enough to build a compassionate society. So the next stage of compassion's evolution, according to Wright, is 'reciprocal altruism'. Independent of family relationships, people (and animals) will do good things for others with a clear expectation that the favour will be returned. While this works well in many situations, it means it is easiest to be compassionate and hence act altruistically towards friends and allies. This still leaves a situation where we feel a sense of 'us' and 'them', a separation between friend and foe. Wright describes this as a zero sum game, one in which there are winners and losers.

While some aspects of life clearly operate on this model, there are many situations where win-win solutions are possible. Equally lose-lose scenarios can occur - Wright calls both possibilities non zero sum games. Naturally enough, compassion flows most easily along non zero sum games, hence people will tend to seek out win-win scenarios through social organisation. The ability to put ourselves in another's shoes is necessary for empathy and, on small and large scales, we use our moral imagination to find the best way forward.

Moral imagination is akin to visualisation exercises used in many philosophical schools of thought. Renowned Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman echoes age old wisdom when he teaches people to use their own suffering to widen the circle of compassion. Rather than feeling connected and compassionate towards your nearest and dearest only, include everyone you know; those you feel fondly towards, and those you feel neutral towards are easy enough to include in your circle. The challenging aspect of this type of practice is empathising with those who have hurt you or whose ideas or actions you abhor. So the Buddhist teachings have other techniques such as seeing everyone as your mother. Just as the oxytocin studies reveal in modern scientific literature, the ancient sages understood that the mother is a model of altruism in spiritual teachings.

Being kind and compassionate allows us to wish for the happiness of others. When we can see others in their potential happiness, much of the conflict between people dissolves. Your motivation to love your enemy might be selfish; after all the happiness of your enemy disarms the issue. If they feel happy why would they want to fight at all? So by expanding the circle of compassion you link your mind with the needs of others, just as a therapist does in a consultation. We can all be the healers of each other, simultaneously healing ourselves.

Researchers Snyder and Lopez pondered whether people who already feel good are more likely to engage in altruistic activities, or if acting from altruism is the driver that increases wellbeing. They analysed the many studies on the health benefits of altruism and discovered that it appears kind acts produce positive emotion and act as an antidote to excessive self involvement and depression.

Their meta-analysis can be viewed through the lens of Barbara Frederickson's Broaden and Build Theory.
Frederickson is a positive psychology leader who posits the theory that positive emotional states broaden our perspective. In laboratory experiments, she found various ways to measure how people's perception of themselves and the world around them expanded with positive emotions and shrunk with negative ones. So the question of which came first is less relevant perhaps than how can we continue to expand? If acting from kindness, compassion, empathy, connectedness creates positive feelings, and positive feelings benefit our selves in terms of mental and physical health, then we would do well to continue to act from altruism in order to broaden our perspectives and take in more of the 'other' until our circle of compassion is all encompassing. Jeffrey A. Kottler calls this 'transcendent empathy', where the influence flows in both directions.

Another author who undertook a meta-analysis of the health benefits of altruism, Stephen G. Post, also found that people who act sincerely for the benefit of others enjoy happiness, health and increased longevity. But he issues a cautionary caveat; the benefits of giving disappear when the giver experiences burn out. The increased wellbeing of altruism only occurs when the helper is not overwhelmed.

If you are motivated to embark on the healer's journey by altruism, you will hold a true desire to be of service. It is entirely possible to align your career with spiritual or humanistic values. The beauty of altruism is its ability to connect people. As you move through life offering up your wish for the happiness of all beings, giving what you are able to each person you come in contact with, you broaden your circle of compassion. As more and more people undertake compassionate giving, we all benefit, those who give and those who receive become united by kindness. That is the essence of holistic health.

Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath