Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Empathy, Compassion, and "Compassion Fatigue"

"All one here" collage by Lani, textures by FlyPaper.
Here's a little story about the possibly misnamed experience of "compassion fatigue".  Matthieu Ricard, the happiest man in the world, was a subject in some neuroscience research that Tania Singer of the University of Zurich was exploring.  With neuroimaging, Tania was trying to tease out the differences between empathy and compassion and what parts of the brain might be involved in these different experiences.  She asked Matthieu to simply feel empathy for the suffering of others, without transforming it into compassion, concern, or love.  It took her half a day to persuade him, and after a short while in the scanner he was begging her to please let him do his loving-kindness meditation, that experiencing the pain and suffering without doing his metta meditation was unbearable.  She found this experience really eye-opening.  She believes this may be the reason healthcare workers suffer burn out and fatigue, because we are overwhelmed by the suffering of others and are not taught to transform our empathy into compassion, concern, and love.  She thought that actually here in the west, we are more concerned with holding ourselves apart from those who suffer.  Suffering is an aversive feeling.  We are taught to fight, flee, or freeze when we come into contact with aversive feelings.  From an early age in our culture, we are taught to differentiate ourselves and others, to perhaps even to deny the possibility that one day we may suffer as well.  

The good news here is that there are folks out there working very hard to teach us what to do with our empathy for the suffering of others.  Joan Halifax is one of these individuals.  She has taught thousands of healthcare providers at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, N.M.  She believes that developing our capacity for compassion makes it possible for us to help others in a more skillful and effective way, and that recent research studies suggest that compassion plays a significant role in reducing physiological stress and promoting physical and emotional well-being, as well.  (Good news right?)  She kindly suggests a great collection of studies and articles on the benefits of compassion, which we can access from the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, based at Stanford University.

In response to the need for tools that can help prevent burnout and secondary trauma in clinicians, Joan developed the "G.R.A.C.E." model. This practice offers physicians, nurses, and others working in stressful situations a simple and efficient way to open to their patient's experience, to stay centered in the presence of suffering, and to develop the capacity to respond with compassion.

She believes it is quite possible to use "G.R.A.C.E." in our everyday interactions and allow it to help us cultivate more compassion in our own lives. Here's the abridged version.
The G.R.A.C.E. model has five elements:
1. Gathering attention: focus, grounding, balance
Here we should pause, breathe in, give ourselves time to get grounded. We can invite ourselves to be present and embodied by sensing into a place of stability within our bodies. We can focus our attention on the breath, (especially on the out-breath which activates the parasympathetic nervous system). We can also bring our attention to a phrase or an object. We can use this moment of gathering our attention to interrupt our assumptions and expectations (and our cultural training) and to allow ourselves to relax and be present.
2. Recalling intention: the resource of motivation
We can remember what our life is really about, that is to act with integrity and respect the integrity in all those whom we encounter.   We can remember that our intention is to help and serve others and to open our heart to the world. This "touch-in" can happen in a moment. Our motivation keeps us on track, morally grounded, and connected to our highest values.
3. Attuning to self/other: affective resonance
The first part of this is to notice what's going on in our own minds and bodies. Then, we can sense into the experience of the other; sense into what they are saying, listening for emotional cues: voice tone, body language. Sense without judgment. This is an active process of inquiry, first involving ourselves, then the other person. We can open a space in which the encounter can unfold, in which we are present for whatever may arise, in ourselves and in the other person. How we notice the other person, how we acknowledge the other person, how the other person notices us and acknowledges us, constitute a kind of mutual exchange. The richer we make this mutual exchange, the more there is the capacity for unfolding.
4. Considering: what will serve
As the encounter with the other person unfolds, we can notice what the other person might be offering in this moment. What are we sensing, seeing, learning? We can ask ourselves: What will really serve here? We can draw on our expertise, knowledge, and experience, and at the same time, be open to seeing things in a fresh way. This is a diagnostic step, and as well, the insights we have may fall outside of a predictable category. We shouldn't jump to conclusions too quickly.
5. Engaging: ethical enactment, then ending (this has two parts)
Part 1: Engage and enact. Joan believes that compassionate action emerges from the sense of openness, connectedness, and discernment that we have created. This action might be a recommendation, an open question about values, or a proposal for how to spend the remaining time with this person. We co-create with the other person a dynamic, morally grounded situation, characterized by mutuality, trust, and consistent with our values and ethics; we can draw on our expertise, intuition, and insight, and we can look for common ground that is consistent with our values and is supportive of mutual integrity. What emerges is principled compassion: mutual, respectful of all persons involved, and as well as practical and promoting action. Joan believes that these aspirations might not always be realized; there might be deeply-rooted conflicts in goals and values that would need to be addressed from this place of stability and discernment.
Part 2: End the interaction. Joan believes it is important to mark the end of the interaction with the other; release, let go, breathe out. She suggests we explicitly recognize internally when the encounter is over, so that we can move cleanly to the next interaction or task; this recognition can be marked by attention to our out-breath. While the next step might be more than we expected would be possible or even disappointingly small, we can notice that, acknowledge what transpired. Without acknowledgement of what unfolded, it will be difficult to let go of this encounter and move on.

Joan believes we live in a time when science is validating what humans have known throughout the ages: that compassion is not a luxury; it is a necessity for our well-being, resilience, and survival. Joan's G.R.A.C.E. model can help us to actualize compassion in our own lives and that the impact of this will ripple out to benefit the people with whom we interact each day.  Wonderful!  I think perhaps this G.R.A.C.E. model may just be the #31 out of a thousand ways to have a happy life.
Grace by Gretchen Miller
If you want more, do check out the Upaya Zen Center or this lovely video interview between Joan Halifax and Dr. James Doty.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Top secret way to have a happy life (#30 out of a thousand)

"Embrace a simple practice" collage by Lani, textures by FlyPaper.
This is a very cool, and top secret way to have a happy life!   I was watching Chade-Meng Tan from Google (author of Search Inside Yourself) in a lecture at the Greater Good Science Center.  He was explaining his mindfulness classes at Google.  He was trying to help folks understand empathy and compassion and how they make us feel better.  So he suggested that participants secretly pick a couple of people around them and wish that they be happy, that they have no suffering.  If they had a particularly difficult work environment, they could try this secret activity every hour.  One of the participants contacted him later and told him that he'd changed her life, that she had hated her job, but after trying this activity every hour for a day, she said amazingly she no longer hated her job.  Very cool, very easy, and totally secret!

#30 of a thousand ways to have a happy life - Secretly find two people (could be strangers) to wish well, to hope their suffering be lessened, or that they be happy. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What is Happiness?

"Happiness in the quiet mind" collage by Lani, textures by FlyPaper.

Here's one idea about happiness:

“By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.” ~from Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Forgiveness as a way to have a happy life

"How do you grow your wings?" collage by Lani, textures by FlyPaper.
In my morning pages, I was playing with the question of "how do we grow our wings," how do we release the resentments of the past, so that we can fly, live a happy life, and be as creative as possible.  It seems to me like a simple math equation, if I spend energy trying to right a past wrong, that energy is not available for a possible creative act in this present moment.  So I'm thinking with a little forgiveness I could grow my wings.

#29 (out of a thousand ways to have a happy life) - Forgive.

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of Berkeley has a wonderful collection of YouTube videos.  My favorite so far is Jack Kornfield's The Ancient Heart of Forgiveness.  But this is nearly an hour long.  They have also pulled out some parts of the talk so you can listen to his guided meditation on forgiveness, or about the Buddhist concept of 12 principals of forgiveness. or who forgiveness is for.  (This last one has an amazing story in it, guaranteed to open your heart!)  Lovely!  

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Compassion and delight as a way to have a happy life

"Sprinkle Delight" collage by Lani, textures by FlyPaper.

 #28 - Sprinkle compassion and delight as much as possible.


"If you wish to make others happy, practice compassion.
If you wish to be happy, practice compassion."
Dalai Lama

Compassion (the feeling of caring for and wanting to help others who are suffering) seems to be a fairly simple way to create a happier life.  Although I have mentioned it in previous blog posts, this past week I came across a fascinating research project by Laura Pinger and Lisa Flook on teaching preschoolers compassion and mindfulness and the amazing results it had on eliminating "in-group/out-group" biases, or perhaps it was a broadening of the in-group to create a very inclusive environment.  I listened to a YouTube lecture with Matthieu Ricard and James Doty, MDMatthieu Ricard described this research eloquently, with slides, and he was most interested in the pre/post-test for the program which included placing stickers in envelopes with children's faces on the envelope.  At the beginning of the research the children placed the most sticker in the "in-group" members face (best friend).  The "out-group" faces (unpopular children) got very few stickers.  At the end of the study there was no difference between stickers given to the "in-group/out-group" envelopes.  Perhaps the idea of out-group had been diminished.

For a lovely, easy-read description of this research, here's a link.  If you are interested in free downloads for compassion  meditations and papers on the subject, do check out the work of  neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, UW-Madison.  They are deeply involved in scientific research on healthy qualities of mind such as kindness, compassion, forgiveness and mindfulness.  Nice, eh?

More research of this kind is being conducted at The Greater Good Science Center at the University of Berkeley and at CCARE at Stanford.  Tons of research and videos.  You may be lost for days, but in a very good, compassionate and delightful way of course.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Create Happiness Revo'lution 2014

"Create Happiness" collage by Lani, textures by FlyPaper.

It's that time of year again, when some of us create personal revolutions, based on  Gretchen Miller's industrious inspiration I really like Gretchen's Revo'lution*ary way of working with intentions for the new year.  Do take a look at her blog and consider creating an altered book of intentions, it can be a very portable reminder to carry into the new year. This year I resolve to create as much happiness as possible. Why not?  We certainly have enough sorrow, misery, and terror to go around, but I believe if we can bring a little joy and ease into our lives, then we can actually attend to sorrows a little more effectively. 

So I took apart a kid's board book and looked through some found words that appealed, and then created the backgrounds and text.  Then I looked for the little characters that I wanted for each page.  Finally I bound it and digitized it.  So it's available for download, freely offered, and it's got my 10 revo'lution*ary intentions for the year, plus art work of course.  And as always I am indebted to FlyPaperTextures for my textural expressions and joy, and to Gretchen Miller for continuing to inspire!

Here's the link for the PDF version of my Create Happiness Revo'lution 2014.


Click to view the full digital publication online

Saturday, January 04, 2014

More (#23 - #27 of a thousand) ways to have a happy life

"Discover your story" collage by Lani, textures by FlyPaper.

Jane McGonigal has a new video app to help you create more well being and a happier life, SuperBetter.  I enjoy the app, but I really liked some of the information withing her TedTalk.  She started her talk about SuperBetter by focusing on the top five regrets of the dying:
1. I wish that I hadn't worked so hard.
2. I wish that I had stayed in touch with friends.
3. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
4. I wish I had had the courage to express my true self.
5. I wish I'd lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.

She then talked about how she developed her game SuperBetter to help herself recover from a traumatic brain injury.  She was blogging about it and sharing it with some folks and discovered a link to Post Traumatic Growth.  She and fellow gamers were all feeling better and stronger for playing.  In fact she noticed that the top five traits of Post Traumatic Growth were the exact opposite of the top five regrets of the dying.  So she and her fellow gamers were discovering that the felt better and happier if they employed the following strategies, which I will number to fit into my search for a thousand ways to have a happy life:

#23 - I will find ways to add more "play time" into my life.
#24 - I will find nice ways to stay in touch with friends.
#25 - I will let myself be happy!!!
#26 - I will have the courage to express my true self a little more each day.
#27 - I will live a life true to my dreams and not worry about others' expectations.

These make a nice New Years Declaration as well! 

If you are interested in taking a post traumatic growth survey, the APA has one for you here with a list of possible traumas and if you are interested in a bibliography of post traumatic growth there's one here.