Cultivating Compassion

by Brian Clement PhD, LN

When psychologist Carl Jung, on one of his perennial quests, visited Chief Mountain Lake of the Taos Pueblo, the tribal elder told him he judged the whites to be quite mad. “Why is that?” Jung asked. “They say they think with their heads,” the chief replied. “Of course” said Jung, “What do you think with?” Mountain Lake pointed to his heart, “We think here.” (See reference at end of article)

Most of us believe that wisdom of the heart is learned by experience and employed with charm, but cultures the world over have forever thought and spoken from a place of compassion rather than calculated intellect. The “civilized” have often diminished the importance of the so-called “uncultured” by placing a wedge between them. In common thought, they are looked down upon as naïve and ignorant. When people express themselves clearly and openly, they are often perceived as childlike, which should be a compliment but unfortunately is seen as a detriment.

All of humanity’s self-imposed problems bubble up from our addiction to and admiration of cerebral activity. All greatness and resolution from the beginning of time has poured out of the heart. When you consciously peruse the past, our most beloved figures have employed their hearts in the utmost way to raise humanity. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, “the heart is not only the core of a human being, but is identified with the mind itself.” In biblical terms, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7) Similarly, the Japanese have two words for heart: shinzu, the physical organ and kokoro, the mind of the heart. Marc Ian Barasch in his landmark book Field Notes on the Compassionate Life poses the question, “Does the heart have a mind of its own?” He goes on to describe how neuroscience has long known: that the two hemispheres of the brain think somewhat independently – the right side being, in a sense, more heartful, specializing in emotional-intuitive functions; the left leaning more toward rationality and logic. The idea of heartfulness as an independent form, a cognition, was illustrated, in a widely reported 1986 experiment. A test group of college students was first shown a documentary about Mother Teresa. Immediately afterward, their saliva revealed increased levels of S-IgA, an immune system boosting hormone. The conclusion reached in the popular press was, “Compassion makes you feel good and it’s good for you.” But the media reports overlooked an intriguing fact: Most of the students said they’d found the film depressing. After seeing it, they reported a decrease in feelings of love and contentment and an increase in “overall negative mood.” They found the plight of the poorest of the poor, the sick and the dying of Calcutta’s slums, deeply dispiriting. Mother Teresa’s rigid religiosity made some uncomfortable. The surprise was this: Both the students who had negative reactions and those who had positive ones showed the same immune system enhancement.


In the rolling hills of Northern California sits the Institute of HeartMath. Its mission statement: “to illumine the mind with the heart’s knowing.” The organization’s enigmatic founder, Doc Childre, often says that love is not enough – it is the care that makes it real. The Institute’s teachings are backed by some hard research reported in such periodicals as the American Journal of Cardiology. Cardiologists have for years been studying subtle beat-to-beat irregularities in heart rhythms called heart-rate variability (HRV), mostly as a diagnostic tool to measure nervous system aging and emotional stress. Doc added a key insight to this already well-established methodology: Different HRV patterns seem to correlate with specific emotional states, in particular those that psychologists call the qualia, such as compassion, love, and forgiveness. Measuring inner states with instrumentation is nothing new. EEGs have shown that alpha and theta rhythms in the brain are associated with the calming effects of meditation, yoga and prayer, commonly known as the “relaxation response” named by Harvard Medical School’s, Herbert Benson, M.D.  HeartMath’s research added a new dimension. Measures of HRV show that the patterns generated by altruism and compassion are distinctly different from relaxed meditative states. Researchers claim that states of mind (or better yet, states of heart) have more to do with caring about others than with seeking inner peace. These feelings also generate far greater health-promoting effects on the immune system and autonomic nervous system. Rollin McCraty, one of HeartMath’s researchers, states “love and caring drive the entire bodily system to oscillate at its resonant frequency, a purported state of harmony between brain and body that can be scientifically measured.” He further asserts that emotion is faster than thought. This rings with truth, since there are many examples in daily life that display this reality. Primate researcher Frans de Waals “perception-action model” suggests that it is both apes’ and humans’ emotions, including empathy, that trigger a physical response before any conscious decision has been reached. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt also reflects on this by calling it a “heart-over-head hypothesis.” He describes this as a social intuitionalist model, and believes that we first have an emotionally colored intuition followed by intellectual justification. In effect, the heart has already decided what feeling, course or action is to be taken. The heart apparently is the viewing side of the binoculars which leads us to intellectually paint the picture and consciously manifest the already concluded reaction.

As stated in Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison, “Patience is the discipline of compassion.” Christian patriarch St. Markious of Egypt stated that the heart’s greatest potentials lie dormant. For the uncultivated, he wrote in the The Philokalia, “The heart is a tomb and there our thought and intellect are buried.” One Buddhist analogy states:

Your beliefs become your thoughts

Your thoughts become your words

Your words become your actions

Your actions become your habits

Your habits become your character

Your character becomes your destiny

Character was never more eminently displayed than at Calvary. One of the most overlooked events that occurred at Christ’s oblation on the cross was when he offered his flesh as love’s ransom. This keenly portrays the body as a vessel that carries the spirit which houses positive emotion. Positive emotion is that which is manufactured in the heart and compassionately distributed to self and others. Prayer, meditation, contemplation and random acts of kindness will all open the heart and resolve the mental emotional disparity. We should not be a slave to habitual mindset, but a friend of flowing compassion.

The biblical Moses serves as an ageless example of compassionate action. With his story, we can observe a 40-year struggle between his mind and his heart. Although God himself spoke to him and asked him to lead his people, his cerebral nature gnawed at him continually surfacing doubt, skepticism and fear. As we know, the heart superseded the mind and the end result was a nirvanic experience. Patience, being the representation of compassion, should be Moses’ middle name.

Compassion goes well beyond moral decision-making. It is an irresistible force that breaks down the thickest fortress which separates us from ourselves and others. Psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madzikela, a member of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, took it upon herself to interview the jailed former secretary chief of the apartheid regime, Eugene de Kock, chief planner and sometimes trigger man in the government’s brutal shadow war. De Kock masterminded the infamous Vlakplaas “death farm” where the most brutal murders and tortures took place. With his own hands he had killed and maimed many. For the horror he had visited on so many, he had become known to the public as a representative of “Prime Evil.” Madzikela’s prison interviews began as a detached study of a specimen of inhuman detritus through a psychological microscope. After being convicted as a common criminal, de Kock surprised everyone when he asked to meet the widows of three black policemen whom he killed by planting a bomb. One of the wives told Madzikela shortly after her meeting with de Kock, “I could not control my tears. I could hear him, but I was overwhelmed by emotion and I was just nodding as a way of saying, ‘Yes, I forgive you.’ I hope that when he saw our tears he knew that they are not only tears for our husbands, but tears for him.” The widow’s response went beyond empathy; she had offered de Kock a priceless gift, a re-entry into the human community. “I would like to hold him by the hand, and show him that there is a future and that he can change,” she said.

In the effort to heal, your foremost friend is a compassionate heart. It acts as an endless reserve contributing to the continual cycle we call life. It is for us to create the very existence in which we flourish, at all times contributing our most sincere heartfulness. There is seldom a time when we can so succinctly spotlight the central ingredient that displaces the fabricated burdens of the mind, replacing them with the godliness and persistence of the heart.


Foundational information for this article is from:

Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness, Marc Ian Barasch, Rodale Press, 2005.

Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill  and Douglas A. Morrison, Image Books- Doubleday, New York.1966.





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