How We Think Affects How We Are: Compassion

A holistic approach to health and wellness depends on awareness of the interplay between mind, spirit and body.

A vision of health and healing that neglects mind or spirit is necessarily incomplete. After all, mind and spirit are part of the body. Metaphysics aside, they’re the experience we have of our brains.

Through recent years, much scientific research has been done to help us get a better understanding of the mind-body relationship. (If you watched the presentation by UCSF’s Dr. Kevin Barrows that I posted last month, you’re familiar with some of it.) One thing we find is that positive, nurturing, hopeful (i.e., future-oriented) thoughts and practices strengthen the immune system and thus the healing response, while pessimism, stress and other negative inputs make us more vulnerable to disease and dysfunction.

Simply put, how we think affects how we are.

Now, having a positive attitude doesn’t mean that we will (or should or even could) be happy all the time. Life brings both sadness and joy – and everything in between. But even in hard times, we can still be content, experiencing the negative while knowing that it will pass and that we have the power to deal with it. Optimism doesn’t require denial. Rather, as Vaclav Havel has said, such hopefulness is “the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

When we cultivate this kind of thinking, we quietly affirm that we can change things for the better – whether we’re talking about our health and well-being, or that of the larger communities in which we dwell.

It’s the kind of thinking that underlies the practice of compassion. Even as compassion can make us feel good, it makes the world a kinder, more life-affirming place, reinforcing the states of mind and being that support total health. To be compassionate is to be mindful; to be thoughtful of others; to put one’s own concerns into perspective; to participate in community life by supporting others – and by accepting support when needed. Compassion acknowledges that we are all connected.

Patch Adams knows this. Compassion and connectedness lie at the heart of his approach to medicine. As his Geshundheit Institute‘s mission statement puts it, you simply “cannot separate the health of the individual from the health of the family, the community, the world, and the health care system itself.”

This weekend, Dr. Adams and his mission are being honored through Bloggers Unite‘s International Day of Compassion. Bloggers, including users of Twitter and Facebook, are encouraged to extend compassion, blog and donate toward Dr. Adams’ dream hospital.

How to practice compassion? Here are a few tips from Dr. Adams’ blog post that inspired this day of action:

  • Keep a journal about you in relationship with love and compassion. What is it? Ask everyday – How are you giving it? (Pay close attention. Be present.) How are you receiving it? (From everything, from strangers, from trees, etc.)
  • Do things outrageous for love, like clowning.
  • Actually see if you can produce the vibration of compassion for prolonged periods. What sustains it? (friends, having meaning, fun) What hurts it? (arrogance, apathy, tight underwear.) Are there times you do not want to be compassionate?
  • Be observant of compassion in action around you, everywhere, give details of its languages.
  • Explore the language of love and compassion. Read psychologists and poets, write essays on things you love.
  • How do you relate to other people on issues of class consciousness, race, age, sexual preference. Pay close attention! Decide to connect with people you have no experience with.

In the same post, Dr. Adams shares some “tools” he uses to be compassionate:

  • Twinkle in the eyes, smile on the face and an excitement to meet
  • Eye contact
  • Be fun and tender
  • Turn off TV
  • Develop all your interests
  • A tender love for people
  • Engage with the arts and nature
  • Do volunteer work
  • Practice organizing and following through

The only problem with annual days of anything is that they sometimes give the impression that whatever is being observed can be ignored for the rest of the year. But change and growth require persistent, consistent movement and effort. So consider making a promise to yourself to practice compassion daily. Your acts needn’t be large. Just holding a door open for someone or offering a genuinely kind and warm smile can do a world of good. Those who are treated with compassion tend to pay it forward.

At the end of the day, love and compassion will win. – Terry Waite

Image by el_en_houston, via Flickr

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