In the face of recent events, it is easy to feel hopeless, powerless and overwhelmed. This is especially so, if you are particularly empathic. Neurobiological research shows that when we feel empathy, our brains respond as the person who is feeling the pain. This can lead to empathic burnout. Ironically, it can also lead to distancing ourselves from one side or the other in a conflict, actually leading to a more divisive view of the world.
So many of my deepest hearted friends have tuned out or burned out recently, because of the overwhelming amount of hate, violence and anger in the press and social media. At a time when humanity needs every bit of loving kindness it can get, the most loving people become overwhelmed.
The answer, I believe (and science backs me up) is compassion. Empathy is feeling the pain of others. When we feel empathy we feel the pain. In contrast, compassion is feeling concern for another's pain, along with a motivation to help. The same research that shows how empathy creates a mirrored response to pain also shows that feeling compassion (via compassion-focused meditation) does not activate the same pain-associated brain pathways. Instead, the parts of the brain involved in social connection and thoughtful action are activated.
In empathy, we can drown in the other's pain and emotion. In compassion, we sit in awareness of the pain but are not overwhelmed by it. We are connected and are in a much better place to help or make positive change.
In compassion, I am motivated to do my small part to heal the greater wounds of our world. For me, in this moment, that involves staying mindful of my own judgments, my own prejudices. It involves having the courage to speak up in love, not anger, when I see injustice or blindness. It means keeping in my awareness my human connection with both sides of every seemingly dichotomous issue.
What I am doing specifically to heal the world, in my small way, is to pledge 30 days of compassion meditation and mindfulness. Please join me.
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