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The Science of Compassion
What makes us want to be good?
“Compassion is complex,” says Emiliana Simon Thomas, the former associate director of CCARE, the Center for Compassion And Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.
Brian Knutson, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University, adds: “It’s not quite an emotion, is it? It’s more sophisticated.”
Emerging science is exploring how our minds feel for others.
“Can we see it?” asks Knutson. “Does it help people to extend compassion? That would be very exciting.”
We’re looking into the history of how we study human nature. And we’ll see how we can be better.
The news of the world can be depressing. Politics, poverty and war. We live in a seemingly endless cycle of strife, and we often bring it upon ourselves.
But there is more to life. The moments where we find something deeper. A relationship … a purpose … a connection.
Compassion, it turns out, can be cultivated.
Today, we’re exploring what makes us care. Through personal stories, new technologies, cross-cultural relationships, and education.
A Personal Story of Compassion
When Ken Ingram was about five years old, the arguing with his father began. He said his father called him into the room and asked, “Ken, what color is your mom?”
It was about 1968, during the era of civil rights. He said, “Well, she’s white.”
Actually, his mother is a fair-skinned black woman. At five, Ken didn’t understand the difference.
“He just turned it into this big argument that drove me nuts. I think that set the tenor of my relationship from that point on,” says Ken.
Years passed. Tension. Confrontation. Ken went to high school, and the conflicts escalated.
“He had this habit,” Ken says. “He would throw me on the ground and put his foot on my throat. Which just is incredibly insulting. But I would suck it up.”
Until one day when Ken’s rage caught up with him. In his room were cinderblocks from a makeshift cinderblock bookshelf.
“One of them was just sitting there, and I considered grabbing it and cracking him on the head and I knew I wouldn't stop if I started,” he says. “I remember looking him in the eye and it was just this hot, hot rage and the moment I went into kill mode, everything went cold. It just went utterly cold.”
In the next moment, Ken saw where he was headed: prison and a wasted life behind bars. Out of self-preservation, he stopped. He left the cinderblock on the floor.
The next day he signed up for the Marines. It got him out of the house – away from his father. But after two years as a soldier he again wrestled with his destiny. In his mind, it went like this: He could become a career military officer and kill for a living. Or he could try and find a less violent, more enlightened path. He finished his four-year tour of duty and went back to civilian life.
Some time later, he looked up the meaning of compassion.
“I realized I didn't really understand what the word meant,” Ken says. “So I went and looked it up in the dictionary.”
Compassion. Noun. Sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
He said in reading the words, there was just this spark of understanding.
“And I’m like, ‘Oh.’”
The Meaning of Compassion
If you look at the roots, “passion” means to endure, to suffer. So com-passion is to suffer with. That is, to feel or be in tune with someone’s suffering. Religions throughout the world speak about compassion. But the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso, is especially outspoken.
“So if you look at all of his messages in all of his central teachings, they go into the Mahayana concept of compassion and great compassion,” says Martin Verhoeven, a Berkeley-based Buddhist scholar and teacher.
“And this is called single substance, great compassion. It means the wisdom insight to see we are all interconnected, all interrelated, and therefore that’s the reality.”
Tibetan Buddhism is filled with mystical images and occult traditions, but the Dalai Lama says compassion is a human trait – innate to who we are. This ideal is somewhat contrary to our Western culture. Here in the West we take pride in individualism, self-reliance. But compassion is more about interdependence than independence – connection, rather than separation.
We asked a few experts to define compassion.
“Compassion is a meta-concept that has elements of empathy, sensitivity, kindness, of tolerance built into it,” says Verhoeven.
Simon-Thomas, the former associate director of CCARE, adds: “Compassion is complex. There is this empathic part. There is this reappraisal part. There is this caring, nurturing part.”
“Compassion is an embodied process. It’s not a disincarnate process. And through that experience of grounding, we’re actually able to perceive suffering,” says Joan Halifax, abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“It’s not quite an emotion, is it?” asks Knutson, a Stanford University psychologist and neuroscientist. It’s more sophisticated…It might involve emotion, but then it involves other components, like taking another’s viewpoint, maybe. And thinking about how they might be different in the future, they might be relieved of suffering.”
Given this, “Why wouldn’t we want to promote this and make people understand that this type of action has a positive effect?” asks James Doty, CCARE’s founder and director.
A Center for Compassion
There’s a question on James Doty’s mind: “It always interested me why people behaved the way they behave.”
Doty is a neurosurgeon and the director and founder of CCARE, a center for compassion research and training started in 2009 at Stanford.
Doty says he grew up in poverty. “My mother was an invalid and my father was an alcoholic. We were on public assistance, essentially, my entire life.”
So he noticed when people did or did not offer help.
“I would see people who, even as a child, clearly were in a position where they could be very helpful and kind, yet chose not to,” Doty says. “Yet you would see people who were potentially even in more desperate straits in yourself, yet would reach out to you and be very kind. And this paradox always struck me.”
In November 2005, the Dalai Lama came to campus. He met some of the world’s top scientists in a public forum.
At the time, Bill Mobley was director of Stanford’s Neuroscience Institute. He asked, “Can neuroscientists with their tools and concepts bring to Buddhists, with their wonderful contemplative practices, something special? And vice versa? And can the two of them together be more effective in understanding brain and mind?”
A lifelong science fan, the Dalai Lama pushed for collaboration. “Doubt brings question,” he said. And question brings investigation. “Investigation brings satisfactory answer.”
James Doty wasn’t there. He had taken a leave from Stanford for a few years, but hearing about the Dalai Lama’s visit made an impression. He knew nothing about the field, and thought back on his own life.
“I just wanted to understand – are there ways that we can create techniques that make people more kind?” he asked.
Now Doty is a doctor, not a scientist.
But he’s got a certain brashness, or power of persuasion. He has a story about applying for medical school as an unlikely candidate – only a 2.53 GPA at UC Irvine and he needed a recommendation from the school’s pre-med committee.
“These professors showed up and, as I recall, the head of biological sciences was there and you could see that they were not particularly interested in having a conversation with me. But I had a conversation with them and my conversation was, who gave them the right to decide people’s futures? And where was the evidence that beyond a minimal academic performance, that having a higher GPA had any correlation with whether you were a good doctor, you cared about people? This conversation went on for about an hour, with primarily me talking. And at the end of it, they were actually crying. So what happened was that I ended up getting the highest recommendation they could give,” remembers Doty.
Doty is emotional recalling the story. He went on to become a neurosurgeon. He helped fund a medical device company, eventually became its CEO, made millions as an angel investor, and lost most of it in the stock market crash of 2000. This made him reflective. When he returned to Stanford after a leave, Doty began talking with Stanford scientists about how to research compassion. By 2008, he stood before the the Dalai Lama.
Doty explained his idea, “which was to really try to understand, in a rigorous way, utilizing the tools of neuroscience and psychology this complex behavior we call compassion and altruism, and see if there were ways we could cultivate it in people,” he says.
The Dalai Lama listened and then began talking excitedly with his translator Thupten Jinpa in Tibetan.
And at the end of it, Jinpa turned to me and he said, “Jim, his Holiness feels so strongly about the importance of this work that you’re undertaking that he wants to make a personal donation.”
The Dalai Lama donated “$150,000, which turned out to be the largest donation he ever gave to a non-Tibetan cause.
Two Silicon Valley investors donated another one million dollars each. By March 2009, Doty had enough to start a center at Stanford dedicated to compassion.
What would a more compassionate world look like? Would it lead to more understanding and less suspicion of one another? And would that lead to solving conflicts through compromise and empathy? With compassion, would we do better at solving the world’s problems, of malnutrition, poverty, natural disasters and disease? Or is that just a fantasy, and the dark side human nature is always inevitable?
If you think about it, the establishment of CCARE was quite remarkable. East meeting West on the prestigious grounds of Stanford. Eastern ideas of oneness co-mingling with Western ideas of science and reason. So how did we get here?
One person to ask is a man born to a Roman Catholic family in a Wisconsin town that produced both Joe McCarthy and Harry Houdini.
He has many titles: Adjunct professor of comparative religion at GTU, which is the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley; Professor of Buddhist classics, Dharma and Buddhist University; and also a teacher at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery.
As a young Buddhist monk in the 70s, Verhoeven traveled widely in Asia. “I was kind of shocked by what I encountered,” Verhoeven says.
Buddhism, he discovered, was not one entity, but many. From country to country, and even region to region, it changed.
He says there were “Buddhisms.” There wasn’t a Buddhism.
He realized that as the religion migrated from its birthplace of India into other parts of Asia, there was a two-way impact: Buddhism on the culture; and the culture on Buddhism.
“So I began to think, well, what is going to happen, or what is happening as that comes into Europe and America? What’s going to be the mix? What’s going to happen as they encounter each other?”
The roots of that encounter, Verhoeven says, go back to Charles Darwin.
“If you want to trace it historically,” he says, “the interest in Buddhism almost goes directionally proportional to the crisis of faith that Westerners were experiencing with their religious systems.”
In 1859, Darwin published The Origin of Species. The new theory of evolution called into question fundamental Judeo-Christian beliefs.
It seemed science was questioning the very existence of God. If God did not exist, then for many, religion no longer had a place. This was a problem.
In 1893, the World Parliament of Religions met in Chicago. It was a pivotal moment. Eastern leaders saw Buddhism as the religion that could handle the growing split between science and faith. In the years that followed, a reverse missionary movement took place. Charismatic Eastern teachers came to the U.S. and artfully shaped their message for American consumption.
The teachers said Buddhism was “as American as apple pie,” Verhoeven says. “In the sense that it wasn’t incompatible with Judeo-Christian thought. And in fact, it was a transcendence, or a growth above and beyond that.”
As new scientific discoveries were made, Buddhist teachers continued to press the point.
They said that it did not have the conflict between religion and science that the Western world was experiencing. “They could be deeply spiritual and scientific and rational at the same time - they didn’t have to choose,” Verhoeven says.
And so it grew in the West.
Now of course, other cultural and historical factors influenced Buddhism’s entry into mainstream American culture. Immigration. The translation of Buddhist scriptures. The arts.
In the 1950s, alienated by post-war America, Bay Area Beat poets Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg incorporated Buddhist teachings into their writing.
Philosopher Alan Watts, with his books and popular KPFA radio addresses, helped break more ground in mainstream culture.
In the decades that followed, more and more Americans looked to Buddhism as a spiritual guide.
Today, the dialogue about science and faith continues. At this point in time, science is our holder of truth. The spread of Buddhism is not necessarily religious – the mindfulness aspects of it, the development of consciousness and compassion. They can be separated. They can be secular. Verhoeven says many Buddhist teachers – especially the Dalai Lama – understand this:
“And so he’s just being, in a sense, pragmatic and saying, look, most Westerners make sense of things through science. So let’s have the discourse here. That’s very uppaya, meaning “skillful means.” You don’t want to talk about mysticism at this point. You don’t want to talk about ghosts and spirits. That might be a discourse for another culture, but not the United States. So science becomes the one.”
Stanford neuroscientist Brian Knutson and I are peering through a window. On the other side is a futuristic, large, white, bleeping machine with a person’s legs sticking out. It’s called a fMRI machine where fMRI stands for functional magnetic resonance imaging. It costs $500 an hour to use, and Knutson depends on it. Instead of just asking subjects, “Do you feel compassionate,” he can look “deep in your brain on a second-to-second basis,” Knutson says. “You know, we didn’t have those kinds of measures over a decade ago. And now that we have functional magnetic resonance imaging, we can actually ask those questions.”
Knutson’s lab is one of about 15 groups to receive money from CCARE, Stanford’s center for compassion. They’re doing a pilot study to combine compassion research with brain imaging.
“It’s a very new area,” Knutson says. “And a lot of people are getting interested in this, but there are a lot of questions about how you measure this, how you elicit it and so forth."
All of this puts Knutson – and Stanford – on the cutting edge. Researchers have been studying the benefits of mindfulness meditation for a while now, but compassion research is brand new. Their peers include researchers at universities in Madison, Berkeley, Chapel Hill, Atlanta and Chicago.
Knutson didn’t set out to study compassion. He resisted when CCARE founder James Doty first approached him.
“Well, I was thinking that I’m not really the right one to do the research, and that I know much people who are much better than me at this kind of thing,” Knutson says.
Before heading up a laboratory of his own, Knutson studied under Paul Ekman, a famous emotion researcher. Like Ekman, Knutson is interested in emotions’ influence on how we act. And like Doty, he believes science had something to learn from Buddhism about this. So when Doty persisted, Knutson finally agreed.
“If we can look in the brain and say, ‘okay, so the Buddhists say these components are going into compassion. And we think those components may map onto something that’s happening in the brain. Do they? Can we see it? Does it help people to extend compassion?’ That would be very exciting,” Knutson says.
In some ways, Buddhism is like a science, he says. “But they have the brain imaging of introspection so there are very explicit views about what happens when you see something. You taste something. Or you encounter a person that you have a certain attitude towards. Many Buddhists are philosophers. That’s essentially how they’re trained. And so what philosopher wouldn’t be interested in actually empirically testing their worldview?”
Knutson and his colleagues recruited Stanford undergrads. In the basement of Stanford’s psychology department, they put them inside a fMRI machine.
They showed each undergrad photos of neutral faces. That is, people with neutral expressions. In half the cases, they asked the undergrads to stay neutral. In the other half, they asked the students to offer up compassion which they defined as identifying with the person’s suffering, and wishing them to be free of it.
“And you basically have 6 seconds to do this. So it’s not a lot of time,” says Knutson.
Six seconds to either stay neutral or conjure up some feeling of compassion for people you’ve never met and whom you don’t know anything about.
Knutson didn’t know if the undergrads could do it. After all, they’re not monks who train day in, day out, to feel compassion for all beings. But when asked to extend compassion, the undergrads said they did. And Knutson says it turns out they were right.
Here’s how they figured it out. There are three steps to this. One, they showed the neutral faces. Two, they showed a second set of pictures -- paintings of abstract art. Three, just before showing an abstract art picture, the experimenters quickly flashed a neutral face – one of the same faces to which the undergrads had previously either stayed neutral or extended compassion to. The researchers did this quickly, subliminally, so the undergrads wouldn’t notice.
Then they asked, on a scale of one to four, how did this painting make you feel?
“So if there’s a systematic bias, then that’s going to show up in how you rate the art that comes afterward,” Knutson says.
“If it’s a painting that has been paired with a face that you extended compassion, people tend to feel more positive [about those faces]. If it’s a painting that is paired with a face to which they extend neutrality, people tend to feel less positive about those paintings.”
In other words, the undergrads rated paintings higher if they felt compassion first. That suggests compassion is something that feels good.
“And what these results suggest to us, even though they’re very preliminary and on a small sample, is that even in unschooled undergrads who are not spending 30,000 hours in a cave doing compassion meditation, they can do this and there can be effects that carry over,” Knutson says.
Now this is unpublished data; it’s not yet vetted by the larger scientific community. But if it holds up, Knutson can continue using this set-up as a measure for compassion. He’s also analyzing the fMRI scans to see which parts of the brain light up while subjects feel compassion.
In addition, Knutson is screening people he calls the super-Olympians of compassion – people who have completed a secluded meditation retreat that lasts a total of three years, three months, and three days. He plans to compare their brain patterns with those of the undergrads.
Are their brains different? If so, that might give a hint for how the rest of us can do better, to develop our capacity for compassion. It’s not science for science’s sake. It’s science to help make the world a better place.
Remembering An Experiment on Evil
Obviously, human nature is complex. But to simplify – there’s good, and there’s bad.
Philip Zimbardo is a member of CCARE’s board, and an emeritus professor at Stanford. He considers himself a good person, but he’s spent most of his career focused on the forces of evil. He’s famous for a study called the Stanford Prison Experiment.
For one week in August, 1971, he and others took over the basement of Stanford’s psychology building. They turned it into a mock prison. Over an intense six days, otherwise well-adjusted college students transformed into helpless prisoners and cruel guards.
The Stanford Prison Experiment asked, in the context of a mock prison, what would happen if you gave some people authority, and took away privileges from others?
“Does the goodness of people dominate the situation, or does situations and the situations come to corrupt even good people?” asked Zimbardo.
In other words, are people inherently good or bad? Or can situations influence who they are? For the college students who volunteered, this was a job. Fifteen dollars a day for two weeks over summer break.
“It’s 1971,” said Zimbardo. “These kids are many of them hippies. Everyone has hair down, the play Hair came out in 1968. Many of these kids are anti-war activists. Many of these kids are involved in civil rights. All of these kids are involved in don’t trust authority of the 70s.”
Compassion wasn’t spoken of. The tenor of the time had more to do with mistrust. Against this backdrop, the experiment began.
Prisoners were stripped, de-loused and given a smock and stocking cap to wear. During the study, they would not be addressed by name, only by ID numbers. On day 2, the prisoners rebelled.
“They barricaded themselves in their cells,” Zimbardo said. “They ripped off their numbers. And suddenly, the guards come to me and they say, what are we doing to do? I say, it’s your prison, what do you want to do? They said, ‘We need reinforcements.’”
Role-playing had become real. The guards played psychological mind games on the prisoners.
“Just intuitively knowing what would make the prisoners feel helpless and hopeless. A guard would tell a joke and a prisoner would laugh and he would get punished,” Zimbardo said. “The guard would tell another joke, the prisoner wouldn’t laugh and he got punished for not laughing. So essentially what they did was on their own, and I hadn’t thought about it, was create an unpredictable environment, except if you followed the rules you would not get punished.”
Over the next few days, the cruelty of the guards grew. They shouted obscenities, they made prisoners clean toilets with their bare hands, and move boxes endlessly back and forth. Prisoners had to do countless numbers of pushups and jumping jacks in smocks with no underwear. Bad prisoners were given time in solitary – a small, dark closet. As punishment for the misbehavior of a comrade, other prisoners had to stand with their arms raised until they dropped from exhaustion. One prisoner decided to stage a hunger strike; he had to sit in solitary with sausages in each hand.
Zimbardo says he experienced a psychological transformation: “I think it’s half-way through, I transform from being the principal investigator of the research project, there to observe and collect data, to become superintendent of the Stanford Prison Experiment.”
His main concern was now taking care of the prison, not the students’ well being. “And I saw it when I looked at the video tapes where I’m walking down a row of prisoners with my hands behind my back, chest out. This is what military people – this is what authorities do when they’re reviewing their troops. It’s a position I never take. I didn’t even know who it was on the video.”
Visiting day. Day three. The parents of prisoner 1037, Rich Yacco, spoke with Zimbardo.
“The mother comes in and says I don’t mean to make trouble, sir, but I’ve never seen my son looking so terrible. Well, as prison superintendent, that’s a red alarm, she’s going to make trouble. She says she doesn’t want to make trouble,” said Zimbardo.
On Day 4, the guards’ sadistic harrasment escalated to include sexual humiliation.
On Day 6, Zimbardo stopped the experiment. But the repercussions went on for decades. Doug Korpi was the first prisoner to break down in the study. He went on to become a forensic psychologist. Another prisoner, Craig Haney, became a professor at UC Santa Cruz, and a leading authority on the psychological effects of incarceration.
In the immediate aftermath, Zimbardo testified before Congress about prison issues. Thirty-three years later, it came up again, when U.S. soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison.
“Almost anyone could be seduced into behaving in evil ways,” Zimbardo says. “Almost anyone could be a perpetrator of evil. Certainly the majority. That’s the conclusion of all the research.”
“People who do evil deeds, except when they’re in that situation, are just like the rest of us,” he says. “They don’t look different. They don’t act different. They look like your Uncle Charlie. They look like your Aunt Minnie. And it’s not until we put Eichmann in charge of Auschwitz that he did these terrible things. Everything we know about him before, everything we know about him since, he was normal. The psychiatrist at his trial in Nuremberg said, he’s more normal than I am.”
But it wasn’t until he started writing a book about the Stanford study that he started to think, “Well, what is the flip side of that? Isn’t it true that ordinary people in certain situations can be induced, inspired to do heroic deeds rather than evil deeds?”
He decided that instead of trying to find villains, he wanted to find heroes.
He says a hero is “somebody who takes action in defense of a moral cause, and you do it without expectation or gain.”
James Doty of CCARE asked him to sit on the compassion center’s board. The shift, from evil to good, took Zimbardo nearly 40 years.
“The problem is evil is fascinating,” Zimbardo says. “Good is boring. So it’s so easy. It’s easier to like Lucifer than the good angels. The Wicked Witch is more interesting than Glinda, the good witch. So I guess that was the attraction. You want to understand evil so you can undo it.
One summer, when CCARE founder James Doty was about 13 years old, he walked into a magic shop. He started talking with a woman there, the owner’s mother.
“She said, ‘You know, I like you a lot. If you come here every day for the next six weeks, I’ll teach you something that will change your life.’”
So Doty continued showing up. The woman taught him meditation. Doty describes it as a “mindfulness meditation practice in conjunction with a visualization technique, probably combined to some extent with the power of positive thinking and self-hypnosis.” He says the practice changed him.
“It changed my brain, if you will, in the sense that I stopped perceiving myself as a victim, but saw that, in fact, I was responsible for my destiny, and it was I who made the decisions and could control that destiny,” says Doty.
These days, Doty doesn’t meditate – and he doesn’t care about Buddhism so much. But he is interested in how its practices can help people become kinder and more compassionate.
Kelly McGonigal sits cross-legged on top of a lecturer’s table at Stanford University.
“We will start with a little bit of breathing, ” she says. “Relax the shoulders away from the ears.”
The students in this class are mostly middle-aged and older. They’re not at Stanford for any kind of degree. Rather, they’re here for CCARE’s compassion cultivation class. Where scientific research is CCARE’s right arm, compassion training is its left.
“This is a practice called the compassion image,” McGonigal says.
CCARE staff worked with the Dalai Lama’s interpreter, Thupten Jinpa, to design the nine-week class. Some of the exercises come from Western psychology, but many are drawn from Tibetan Buddhism. Even so, this is a secular class. There’s no chanting, no icons, no mention of the Buddha, or even Buddhism.
Strip away religion, and you make way for mainstream adoption. That’s the theory, anyway. And there’s a precedent. A program called MBSR, which stands for mindfulness based stress reduction. It’s a secular treatment for pain and anxiety that draws from Buddhist mindfulness practices. Started in the 1970s, it’s now institutionalized at hospitals and health centers all over the country.
CCARE wants to do the same, but for compassion. Already, it’s offered the compassion course at UC Berkeley, Stanford, the Palo Alto Veterans Administration, and Sharp Healthcare in San Diego. With a one-year teacher training program, the hope is that eventually those students, who come from a variety of backgrounds, including healthcare, education, mental health and public health, will teach the course in their communities.
This week’s theme in McGonigal’s class is self-compassion. The class started with the basics of mindfulness, and will end with a difficult practice called tonglen, which involves imagining you are breathing in the world’s suffering, and breathing love back out.
McGonigal says students often come to the course with misguided notions: “I’m still getting emails, people wanting to argue that, could we just exclude suffering from the definition of compassion because it would be so much better if we didn’t have to have suffering, and we could just feel compassion without suffering having to be present?”
But compassion demands an acknowledgment – that suffering is part of life.
“I think people stick it out because if they actually do the practices, you see that there’s something there,” McGonigal says. “You have the experience of touching something that is really interesting and also is not our habitual way of relating to the world.”
Deborah Defilippo heard about CCARE when she attended the 2010 discussion between scientists and the Dalai Lama. Researchers talked about the health benefits of meditation.
“I am, I guess you could say I’m a type A, high achieving person,” DeFilippo says. “And I’m now catching myself when someone in front of me is driving below the speed limit, saying the phrases that are in almost every single meditation practice that Kelly has. And that is, you say for each individual and yourself and the world, ‘May you be happy. May you be free from pain and suffering. And may you experience joy and peace.’ …It’s like taking a deep breath and a lot of calm does instill within me.”
Stanford’s CCARE program has its critics. Some worry this type of secular practice will lose something, and perhaps lack substance. Others say the aspirations of CCARE – to make a more compassionate world -- are too idealistic. They question how much students can learn in nine weeks.
But McGonigal says many students do connect what’s taught by CCARE with what’s occurring in their lives.
“One of my favorite stories was a man who was in a church setting and a homeless woman had approached this group that was meeting at the church.... And he could feel in himself that little bit of threat or stress arising that would normally have led him to maybe get rid of that person as quickly as possible so that she didn’t disturb the group that was meeting.”
The man remembered a lesson from the previous week in class.
“He considered the other ways of thinking about her,” McGonigal said. “That, just like him, she was human. She was suffering. Going down the checklist, does this person need help? Do I have the resources to help? And turns out that she had diabetes and she needed food and there wasn’t food available in that moment and the people in the group were able to get her something to eat and the whole thing ended very differently because he was using this framework from the study that we talked about … People can take something from a study and use it in everyday life.”
Which is exactly what CCARE founder James Doty wants. “So if we already know that these techniques clearly, and demonstrably, through science can have an impact on the brain, then why not use them?” he asks.
“And I would tell people if I could find a drug that would do this, I would use that, too. Or if I found something on the back of a chocolate bar wrapper and it worked, I would use that. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how we get there.”
Shifting the way people interact with each other, with the world, can seem – impossible. But Doty is the kind of person who thrives with impossible odds.
“My only interest is finding techniques, whatever they are that can accomplish this goal,” he says. “Which is to promote compassion, kindness, altruism, empathy, because I think fundamentally at the end of the day we are wired for this, it makes us feel better, it makes us healthier and it will allow our species to survive into the future.”
The Three-Inch Shift to Compassion
Years after Ken Ingram’s father asked him what color his mother was, after Ken joined the military and returned to civilian life, and after he first looked up the definition of the word “compassion,” his father’s health took a turn.
“Yeah, my dad got really ill. He got prostate cancer. And when he found out about it, it was in stage 3. I was still, at that point, really pissed at my father. Really, really pissed.”
It was around Labor Day weekend of 2009. Ken’s father was in hospice care. “And they called me and my sister and said, we’re not going to be able to take care of him over the weekend,” remembers Ken. “So I took over the first night and I stayed all night at his apartment.
Ken remembers his father needing help turning over in the bed. “And I had to pick him up and just shift him a little bit in this bed. And there was this moment of picking him up, all I can say is just, it was this spark of knowingness, like I got him in that moment. Being that close to him physically and getting to know him in that way,” says Ken.
Helping his father made him think:
“I realized – this is what compassion is. That in spite of all the anger and the righteous indignation that I had over things that he had done that weren’t so cool.”
He was trying to help me create my life. And so if I can let go of all the animosity about that, what’s there is that there actually was a connection, there was love. There was a sense of oneness and care.
And so compassion was being able to let go of that ego trip that I was on that I was owed something, that something was done to me, me, me, me, me. No, this is a human being who helped me come in the world, helped me learn how to be in the world, helped me learn how to survive in the world, and he needs my help.
Can I let go of my anger about it and help him? And it was such a small thing. It wasn’t like I had to move the world, or build a building. It was shift him three inches in the bed.”