The health benefits of compassion
Tia Rich, Ph.D., director of Stanford CARES™ (Compassion, Awareness, and Relationship Skills to Ease Stress), spoke with BeWell about the relationship between compassion and health.
How do you define compassion?
I think of compassion as the ability to recognize and skillfully respond to your own needs and the needs of other people. We all are born with compassion. It is widely visible in the relationship between parent and child. Compassion also can be expressed between strangers or even enemies, as is the case of the Dalai Lama’s compassion toward the Chinese occupiers of his homeland, Tibet.
What scientific evidence supports the connection between compassion, stress and health?
When we feel fearful or threatened, our bodies produce a “fight or flight” response. When there’s an actual need to run from danger or to physically fight to defend ourselves, this is a healthy response. But many people experience the fight or flight response when fighting or fleeing will not help. In these situations, the physiological changes of fight or flight lead to elevated levels of the hormone cortisol which, in turn, can lead to stress-related illnesses ranging from heart disease, GI distress, diabetes, headaches, disordered eating, depression and anxiety.
Isn’t the fight or flight mechanism necessary for self-preservation?
Absolutely. For example, fight or flight is a perfectly healthy response if a person is saving a friend or stranger from a fire raging through their home. It isn’t healthy when it is the response to the friend or stranger leaving their shoes in the middle of the hall.
Similarly, at work, fight or flight is adaptive; you mobilize yourself and others to stand in a safe location if an earthquake hits campus. However, if you are scheduled to deliver a class, and key data for your presentation is in the hands of someone who is not returning your calls, fight or flight will merely lead to stress. This can wreak havoc with the hippocampus which plays a key role in memory and learning. In this case, fight or flight can hinder your ability to prepare your presentation.
Can compassion be taught?
Definitely. When you establish equilibrium in your body through diaphragmatic or full lung breathing, breath-based concentration and quieting your mind, you are better able to relate to the needs of yourself and others in any given moment, which is what compassion is all about.
Is there scientific evidence to support the physiological basis for the relationship between health and compassion?
Contemplative traditions, such as yoga and Tibetan Buddhism, have thousands of years of observational data on how mind-training practices promote individual health, happiness and social well-being. Scientific understanding of the ability to promote health through contemplative practices began in the 1960s, when researchers at the Menninger Clinic studying a Himalayan yoga master scientifically documented his ability to voluntarily control bodily processes (such as heartbeat, blood pressure, body temperature) that were previously considered by western science to be non-voluntary (autonomic). This research contributed to the development of the field of biofeedback and the integration of mind-body-spirit practices in western medicine.
In 2008, compassion’s role was the focus of researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison who reported the results of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies conducted on Tibetan Buddhist monks with more than 10,000 hours of compassion mediation experience. The research suggested that the experienced monks had greater awareness and attention to emotional stimuli and had a greater compassionate response to those stimuli. These findings suggest that compassion’s effect on the amygdala may be a mechanism by which the stress response is reduced and health is promoted. Detailed understanding of these relationships is a dynamic area of research among western scientists, including researchers at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), who are studying the health and social benefits of contemplative traditions.
The Dalai Lama is a spiritual leader and head of state. Why is he interested in health and compassion?
The life of the Dalai Lama is dedicated to the cultivation of wisdom and compassion for the benefit of all beings. The Tibetan diaspora, created by the Chinese occupation of Tibet, has led to the Dalai Lama’s greater interaction with the Western world. As both the highest priest of the dominant sect of Buddhism in Mongolia and Tibet and head of state for Tibet, he has facilitated relationships between western scientists and practitioners of contemplative traditions to develop more compassionate ways of living to benefit the health and social welfare of all beings.
Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna Ryan.