The Science of Compassion: Nature Vs. Nurture
What’s your most important goal/s?
What is the legacy you wish to leave behind?
Why does it matter so deeply?
Are you living your purpose?
How will you overcome the obstacles?
How can we answer these questions with sincerity, mindfulness and compassion and proceed with integrity? While at the same time setting in motion the steps towards personal transformation?
It all starts with letting go of the fear and establishing a greater connection with ourselves, our values and our beliefs towards personal change. In my own personal journey this is a two pronged path – one deeply rooted in the wisdom of ancient energy healing and meditation/movement practices and the one deeply engrained in the nature of the science and my obsession with Darwinian Theory. They both hold powerful portals to better understanding my own internal GPS, my position in the world, and my relationship to time and purpose. In my own process of what Brene Brown called “Gremlin, Ninja, Warrior Training” my personal resilience to suffering, (dis)ease, (heal)th, and stressful life challenges all stems from a greater understanding of my brain (even though pea like in mass), my relationship to time and my ability to always put compassion as the underlining foundation of my overall value system.
Train Your Brain:
Our understanding of the incredible power of the human brain and what it is capable is at an all-time high, in both the fields of science, as well as movement mechanics and energy healing. These new emerging fields of neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and psychophysiology are opening new possibilities for greater health, happiness, and freedom from suffering, as well as a deeper understanding of our connection to the world, to technology and the ever evolving fields of innovation.
This connection to the organ that is responsible for taking a third of our caloric daily intake; is even opening up connections to our brain’s biochemical and biological make-up with the current research in compassion and empathy. A few months ago I wrote on the topic of “compassion” and how our brain is wired to be empathetic towards others – humans and the world around us. We see this not only in the homosapein sphere, but in our animals as well.
The Compassion Nerve:
The vagus nerve (or wandering nerve) is one of the most important nerves in our body. This nerve carries axons of type GVE, general visceral efferent, which provides parasympathetic innervation to glands of mucous membranes of the pharynx, larynx, organs in the neck, thorax, and abdomen, and all our skeletal muscle, as well as our aortic body and arch (known as our heart). The Vagus nerve is the biological building block of human compassion, because it’s connected to everything in our structure.
Since the dawn of time, we have been led to believe that humans are selfish, greed is good because it brings power and power rules the world. Altruism is an illusion and cannot be attained in our lifespan. Cooperation is for suckers and kumbaya singing hippies. Competition is natural, survival of the fittest. War is inevitable. The bad in human nature is stronger than the good. And so on.
These kinds of claims have reflected age-old assumptions about emotion and who we are as a species. For over millennia, we have regarded emotions as the fount of irrationality, baseness, weakness and at times sin. Nothing good can come from being over emotional. Hell, the idea of the seven deadly sins takes our destructive passions for granted and splays them out for all to witness.
Yet, biology tells us something different and it begs us to look at another age old question; which is are we a buy product o f“Nature or Nurture.” Usually it’s a little of both.
What if we have been looking through the wrong lens? What if perhaps, we have just led our brains down the wrong path, trained them wrong.
What if we chose to look at it this way: we were born into this world with pure love and joy and through the struggles of our ages, we “dis”evolved to believe that we are all alone, we have to fend for ourselves, etc. What if we accepted that this all crap propaganda and in fact – This is “nurture” NOT “nature.” These “beliefs” are learned skills, and thoughts, not our actual biological blueprint and thus – a new door opens.
FACT: The brain has neuro-plasticity and can be re wired to think and act in ways that benefit humanity and personal power. Ways that align with a more compassionate way of living. This is nature AND nurture.
The brain, as we know from research seems wired up to respond to others’ suffering—indeed, it makes us feel good when we can alleviate that suffering, dispelling the so called ideology that “all humans are selfish.”
At Princeton University a study was done on children and victims of violence – and what they found was astonishing. Take these two very different subject demographics and we find they are united by the similar neurological reactions they provoke when asked to contemplate harm to others. This consistency strongly suggests that compassion isn’t simply a fickle or irrational emotion, but rather an innate human response embedded into the folds of our brains – this is “nature.”
Yet, feeling compassion is one thing; acting on it is another. We can see and now understand the human propensity for compassion and science has shown us the effects compassion can have on behavior and to the relationship to the world around us, but can we actually cultivate compassion, or is it all determined by our genes?
At Berkeley, Dacher Keltner wrote in his article called “the Compassion Instinct;” “Recent neuroscience studies suggest that positive emotions are less heritable—that is, less determined by our DNA—than the negative emotions. Other studies indicate that the brain structures involved in positive emotions like compassion are more “plastic”—subject to changes brought about by environmental input. So we might think about compassion as a biologically based skill or virtue, but not one that we either have or don’t have. Instead, it’s a trait that we can develop in an appropriate context. What might that context look like? It is based on our values, ethics, and belief systems.”
Recently, I met someone who has had a growing impact on my life and my ability to create greater resiliency to life’s challenges and he reminded of this amazing poem that in closing, I will share with you.
It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain.
I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.
I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.
I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, ‘Yes.’
It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.
- Dacher Keltner: The Compassion Instinct: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_compassionate_instinct
- The Invitation: http://www.oriahmountaindreamer.com/
- Inspiration for this article came from James Boileau at James The Coach: http://www.jamesthecoach.com/