Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Compassion and Resilience

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collage by Lani

In giving some thought to Adela's idea about asking women what encourages our resilience, I remember a story in Rachel Naomi Remen's book "Kitchen Table Wisdom" about a young man who lost a leg to cancer and his journey from darkness to light. It was a story than encouraged resilience at a particularly dark time of loss in my own life.

In Remen's story a twenty-four year old came to her after one of his legs had been amputated at the hip in order to save his life from bone cancer. When she began her work with him, he had a great sense of injustice and a hatred for all "healthy" people. It seemed bitterly unfair to him that he had suffered this terrible loss so early in his life.

His grief was so great that it took years to begin to come out of himself and to heal. He had to heal, not simply his body, but also his broken heart and wounded spirit.

He worked hard, telling his story, painting it, meditating, bringing his entire life into a new awareness. As he slowly healed, he developed a profound compassion for others in similar situations. He began to visit people in the hospital who had also suffered severe physical losses. On one occasion, he visited a young singer who was so depressed about the loss of her breasts that she would not even look at him.

The nurses had music playing, hoping to no avail to revive her spirits. It was a hot day, and the young man had come in running shorts. Finally, desperate to get her attention, he unstrapped his artificial leg and began dancing around the room on his one leg, snapping his fingers to the music. She looked at him in amazement, then burst out laughing and said, "Man, if you can dance, I can sing."

When this young man had first begun to work towards his healing, he had made a crayon sketch of a vase with a deep black crack running through it. He redrew the crack over and over and over, while grinding his teeth with rage.

Several years later, Dr. Remen showed him his early pictures again. He saw the vase and said, "Oh, this one isn't finished." He ran his finger along the crack saying, "You see here, this is where the light comes through." With a yellow crayon he drew light streaming through the crack into the body of the vase and said, "Our hearts can grow strong at the broken places."

A wonderful story, and similar to the often quoted saying of nineteenth century Chassidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel's: There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.

There is something about this idea of the broken heart being a portal into a rich world filled with compassion, friends, and light that I want to pursue a little more.

Yesterday, I got a newsletter from Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat announcing the launch of their new website, I thought while I'm thinking about resilience and compassion, why not see if they have anything to say.
(They had written the list of 50 ways for children to keep their souls alive during difficult times, which was quoted on Tuesday, September 13, 2005 in this blog.)

I didn't find resilience but I did find compassion.

Frederic and Mary Ann say compassion is a feeling deep within ourselves —a "quivering of the heart" — and it is also a way of acting — being affected by the suffering of others and moving on their behalf. They feel that the spiritual practice of compassion can be likened to opening the heart. They suggest that in order to practice compassion, you allow yourself to be feel the suffering in the world, including your own; that you shouldn't turn away from pain; instead move toward it with caring. Go into situations where people are hurting. Identify with your neighbors in their distress. Then expand the circle of your compassion to include other creatures, nature, and the inanimate world.

Their website is full of all kinds of good things, ways to practice compassion, suggestions for books on the subject, film reviews, wisdom tales and children's literature that touch on compassion and other spiritual practices as well.

Compassion increases our capacity to care and makes us more human and more humane. It is very good exercise for our heart muscle.

Related to this, I've been noticing that as I play the biofeedback, computer game The Journey into Wild Divine there are places in the game where you are encouraged to sit quietly with some very compassionate thoughts, music, and then the biofeedback indicates that things are going well. When things go well you can go on to the next adventure and you can end up feeling pretty good. So what is the compassion / biofeedback / feeling good connection?

Dr. Bob Whitehouse, a psychologist certified in biofeedback, and Sunny Turner a MA/biofeedback practitioner explain the biofeedback component of The Journey this way:
The Journey's biofeedback equipment measures a player's Skin Conductance Level (SCL) and Heart Rate Variability (HRV) with the help of your computer. SCL measures sweat on your finger tips. Increased perspiration indicates increased autonomic nervous system activation, which is associated with increased energy. Of course the increased energy could be a positive excitement like happiness or it could be a destructive energy like nervousness or anxiety.

HRV is calculated from the differences in heart rate from one heartbeat to another. No two intervals are exactly the same. Greater HRV is a healthy goal. In fact, Dr. Whitehouse and Sunny Turner have observed that people who exhibit this tend to live longer and enjoy life more. So that's what's happening in The Journey you sit quietly with thoughts of compassion and you start to feel pretty good.

The Institute of HeartMath is one of many research groups that has been studying the effects of greater HRV. It combines research-based techniques and unique technology to help people fight the stresses of everyday life. Its research suggests that when you increase your HRV the brain is synchronized with the heart and this boosts the immune system. The people at HeartMath are looking at the way that focusing on positive emotions like empathy, love, compassion, and forgiveness actually have positive physiological effects.

They believe that these positive feelings put the human system into some sort of 'resonant frequency,' a state of harmony between brain and body. They believe we are made for compassion. When we can live compassionately, our mind/body system seems happiest, and our physiology seems to function most effectively.

By synchronizing your heart rate with the breath (two skills that can be gained through playing The Journey), you can quite easily reach your heart's Resonant Frequency. Also, Whitehouse and Turner believe that when we are in this state synchronization, something is projected out into the world like ripples out around us which they believe are detectable at eight feet or more in all directions. They believe it can show up in the brainwaves of anyone we touch! So of course who wouldn't want to experience the positive effects of such a state more and more often?

Interesting, no? So I better go work on my HRV's and my SCL's and have some compassionate fun while I'm at it!

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