Tuesday, March 26, 2013

REPOST: Compassion Made Easy

Compassion is not only a way to please God.  A social psychologist elaborates how people can cultivate compassion to foster social harmony.

ALL the major religions place great importance on compassion. Whether it’s the parable of the good Samaritan in Christianity, Judaism’s “13 attributes of compassion” or the Buddha’s statement that “loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice,” empathy with the suffering of others is seen as a special virtue that has the power to change the world. This idea is often articulated by the Dalai Lama, who argues that individual experiences of compassion radiate outward and increase harmony for all.

Image Source: The New York Times
As a social psychologist interested in the emotions, I long wondered whether this spiritual understanding of compassion was also scientifically accurate. Empirically speaking, does the experience of compassion toward one person measurably affect our actions and attitudes toward other people? If so, are there practical steps we can take to further cultivate this feeling? Recently, my colleagues and I conducted experiments that answered yes to both questions.

In one experiment, designed with the psychologist Paul Condon and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we recruited people to take part in a study that was ostensibly about the relation of mathematical ability to taste perception — but that in actuality was a study of how the experience of compassion affects your behavior.

Each experimental session consisted of three individuals: a real participant and two confederates (i.e., people who secretly worked for us). First, the participants were told that they had four minutes to solve as many of 20 difficult math problems as they could and that they would receive 50 cents for each one they solved correctly. Twenty was far more than the typical person could do; the average number solved was 4. After time expired, the experimenter approached each person to ask how many problems he or she had solved, paid the person accordingly, and then had the person place his or her work in the shredder.

The situation was rigged so that the experimenter would run out of money just before paying the last person, Dan, who was a confederate. While the experimenter left to get more money, Dan dumped his work into the shredder in full view of everyone. When the experimenter returned, Dan reported that he had completed all 20 problems and had already shredded his work to save time. The experimenter paid him the full $10. But it was obvious to all that Dan had cheated. (There was also a “control” variation in which Dan did not cheat.)

Everyone then moved on to the “taste perception” phase. Here, participants prepared taste samples for one another, and the real participants were assigned to prepare the taste sample for Dan. The sample they had to prepare required them to pour extra-hot hot sauce into a small cup. They were led to believe that whatever they poured into the cup would be placed in Dan’s mouth in its entirety. What did they do? They did exactly what you would expect: those who saw Dan cheat poured more hot sauce into the cup — three times more, on average — than did those who did not witness the cheating. In so doing, they were intentionally acting to cause him pain.

Image Source: New Pathway to Healing
But what of compassion? In a third variation, we had Dan cheat, but before preparing the taste samples, the other confederate, Hannah, began to sniffle and tear up. When the experimenter asked her what was wrong, she said that she had recently learned that her brother had received a diagnosis of a terminal disease. With increasing tears she asked to be excused and the experimenter complied. The participants and Dan then continued as before, though with quite different results: participants who saw Dan cheat poured no more hot sauce than did those who did not witness his cheating.

Before preparing the taste samples, we also had the participants fill out a questionnaire about their present feelings (among other items). The degree of compassion they were feeling directly predicted the amount of decreased hot sauce they poured for Dan.

It seems, then, that the Dalai Lama is right: the experience of compassion toward a single individual does shape our actions toward others.

In another study, published in the journal Emotion, the psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I conducted an experiment ostensibly about music perception — but that actually investigated how feelings of compassion might be increased.

Our hunch was that compassion is easiest to feel when you have a sense of commonality with someone else. So we paired up participants in teams: one real participant and one confederate. First, they had to tap their hands on sensors to tones played over earphones. In some cases the tones led them to tap their hands in synchrony; in other cases, the tones led them to tap their hands in a random mismatching manner.

WE next had the participants watch their tapping partner get cheated by another confederate, which resulted in the partner’s erroneously being assigned to complete a stack of onerous word problems. As our participants were leaving, they were informed by an automated message that if they desired, they could help complete some of the work assigned to their partners. If they did so, we timed how long they spent working on the task.

The results were striking: the simple act of tapping one’s hands in synchrony with another caused our participants to report feeling more similar to their partners and to have greater compassion for their plight: it increased the number of people who helped their partner by 31 percent and increased the average time spent helping from one minute to more than seven.

What these results suggest is that the compassion we feel for others is not solely a function of what befalls them: if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves — even a relatively trivial one — the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly.

What does this mean for cultivating compassion in society? It means that effortful adherence to religious or philosophical dictums (often requiring meditation, prayer or moral education), though clearly valuable and capable of producing results, is not the only way to go. There is nothing special about tapping in synchrony; any such commonality will do. Increased compassion for one’s neighbor, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as (say) a fan of the same local restaurant instead of as a member of a different ethnicity.

Simply learning to mentally recategorize one another in terms of commonalities would generate greater empathy among all of us — and foster social harmony in a fairly effortless way.

Psychic and New York Times best-selling author James Van Praagh encourages spiritual learning, grief support, and friendship through his books. Visit this website to get inspiration.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

REPOST: The Power of Love

Many people consider love as the strongest force on earth, able to move mountains and cross vast distances.  In this article from Omega, Cheryl Richardson explains how the power of love may be tapped to attain healing for the self.

Stronger than anger, hatred, or revenge, love is the force that has the ability to heal everyone, because love is an act of self-care.

Much like electricity, love is the energy that runs through each one of us. You share this energy in many ways. For example, reaching out to hold a hand or touch a shoulder passes the energy of love through your touch. Speaking kindly to another passes the energy of love through your words. The deliberate use of this force—this energy—produces predictable, powerful results. People feel your love and are healed.

A few years ago, I experienced how the power of love can heal even the most challenging situations. One summer day, my friend Max and I were driving to a supermarket to pick up food for lunch. Traveling down our favorite beach road, we came upon a young man backing out of a driveway. As I stopped to let him out, I was surprised when he continued moving backwards until he hit my car. Because he gently tapped the bumper, I thought nothing of it, until he stepped out of his car and informed me that I had hit him. He proceeded to beep his horn until neighbors came to the scene.

I stood by my car, in a state of shock, as I heard him request an ambulance for his injured neck. Had Max not been there as a witness, this stunning act of injustice would have made me question whether or not I really hit him. In the next few months, I wound up in the center of a lawsuit for injuries, pain, and suffering.

I was angry. I felt betrayed and I wanted to hurt this young man. Truth be told, I really wanted to hurt him. My mind and heart couldn’t understand why someone would be so blatantly dishonest and manipulative, and I felt compelled to fight back. But, after getting caught up in the slow-moving legal system, I decided to try something different: I sent him love. I asked God to send this young man whatever he needed, so that he would not need to get it from me in this unlawful way. After all, I figured that if he would go to this extreme to get money and attention, then he must have needed it pretty badly.

For two months, every day, I imagined him surrounded in love, getting all of his needs met. Now, trust me, I'm no saint. And I’m not suggesting that sending love is easy in the face of injustice or betrayal. (Nor am I suggesting that you do so in place of taking firm actions to protect or care for yourself). I am suggesting, however, that for those circumstances that are beyond your control, sending love can be a powerful healing act. As I sent this man love, I noticed something miraculous: I felt better. I relaxed about the situation and was better able to let it go and allow the process to play itself out.

One day, out of the blue, I received a phone call from the police, telling me that a mysterious witness had appeared and the case had been dropped. In that moment I understood the power of love. Stronger than anger, hatred, or revenge, love is a force that has the ability to heal everyone involved. Sending love is also an amazing act of extreme self-care. Because of this experience, I've made the act of sending love my "default button" in any challenging situation. You can, too. Is there someone right now who needs your love?

Each day you receive messages of love. Sometimes you're awake enough to notice them and sometimes, in your busyness, you can sleep right through them. There are very direct messages, like an, "I love you," from someone close. And there are the more subtle messages, like the driver that lets you into traffic, or the person that holds the door for you as you enter a building. Why not become more conscious of your ability to be a messenger of love?

Each morning, imagine you are given a large pocketful of love to share with others throughout the day. Your mission is to empty this pocket daily. You might decide to simply say, "I love you," to your son or daughter (it's usually the people closest to us that need to hear it the most). Or, you may want to send love to someone that has caused you harm. Regardless of the situation, stop right now and choose someone. Then, pick up the phone and tell them. Or, sit quietly and imagine your energy of love radiating outward and touching another’s heart.

Medium James Van Praagh supports self-healing through the use of emotions.  This website offers more insight into the philosophy of his works.