The Healing Power of Love and Compassion

Posted on September 24th, 2015

The Healing Power of Love and CompassionDuring her keynote presentation at the Freud Meets Buddha conference, the wise and witty Joan Borysenko, PhD, shared the following poem, written by Sufi poet Hafiz in the 1300s and translated by Daniel Ladinsky:

The Subject Tonight is Love

The subject tonight is Love
And for tomorrow night as well,
As a matter of fact
I know of no better topic
For us to discuss
Until we all
Die!

Mental health and recovery-based clinicians from all over the country listened to Dr. Borysenko’s address, “Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science.” Although it might seem unusual for someone with a background in psychoneuroimmunology and brain science to wax philosophical about love, she shared the ways in which love heals eloquently and with evidence-based examples.

Dr. Borysenko cited a study in which participants were shown a video of Mother Teresa working with disadvantaged people. Watching the film caused an increase in the hormone salivary immunoglobulin A, which helps prevent adrenal fatigue. Even after the effect diminished initially, levels rose once again when subjects called to mind a time when they’d experienced a sense of compassion in their lives. The literal meaning of the word “compassion” is to “suffer with.”

Take a moment to bring up such a memory for yourself. Perhaps it was a situation in which you reached out in support of someone in need or you were the recipient of another person’s kindness. What are you experiencing physically? What sensations are moving through you? What emotions are you feeling? What thoughts are you entertaining? At that moment, perhaps you felt a solid connection between yourself and another, regardless of whether you were giving and receiving.

Contagious Compassion

To experience the effects of compassion, it helps to know what does and doesn’t qualify.

What compassion is:

  • A sense of awareness that we and others might be struggling or suffering in some way
  • A desire to quell physical or emotional pain
  • A connection to other people, rather than an us vs. them mentality
  • Seeing ourselves as fully human, with myriad emotional states, as well as choices about ways to act on these states

What compassion isn’t:

  • Feeling sorry for another or ourselves, or being in victim mode
  • Attempting to fix, save or cure another person from a perspective of one up/one down
  • Co-dependent caregiving
  • Seeing ourselves or someone else as irredeemably broken
  • An excuse for indulging in irresponsible, reckless or dangerous behaviors
  • A rationale for turning to drugs or other addictive behaviors to suppress painful feelings

Kristin Neff, PhD, an associate professor of human development and culture at University of Texas at Austin, created a self-compassion test to determine how we view ourselves. When people are harshly self-critical, their perspective is skewed and they’re more likely to experience self-fulfilling prophecies.

From a Buddhist perspective, compassion’s defined as “wanting sentient beings to be free from suffering.” Someone considering compassion from a recovery-based viewpoint would embrace that same desire for self and others. It’s ironic that many people with addictions have expressed that part of the reason they indulge in their drug of choice is to alleviate suffering. Instead, drug abuse brings on more.

Love Heals

Researcher and author Abraham Maslow, PhD, explored the connection between meeting essential psychological needs and overall wellbeing. The third of the five levels of Dr. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs helps to explain the relationship. The love and belongingness needs include friendship, intimacy, affection and other expressions of love, which may include a combination of family, friends, romantic relationships and colleagues. There are dramatic differences in the effects most people experience when these needs are met compared to when they aren’t:

Not having our need for love met results in:

  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Depression
  • Stress-induced physical illness that might include hypertension, cardiac conditions and cancer
  • An increased need for medications
  • Turning to substances to provide a semblance of comfort
  • Engaging in unhealthy relationships, rationalizing that any connection, even one fraught with conflict, is better than being alone

Having our need for love met results in:

  • Reciprocal relationships rather than being subjected to one-sided interactions in order to “earn” love
  • A decreased likelihood of turning to substances to fill the “hole in the soul”
  • An enhancement of self-worth, valuing yourself enough to ask for what you want, rather than merely what you think someone else would agree to
  • Experiencing greater fulfillment by discovering your purpose and taking inspired action to see it through
  • Treating your body in a way that sustains your health in terms of what you put into it and ways you interact with others sexually
  • Standing up for your values
  • Saying yes and no with ease, based on your wishes, rather than what you believe is expected of you or you feel obligated to do
  • Recognizing that self-love and self-centeredness aren’t synonymous

Bernie Siegel, MD, wrote the classic Love, Medicine and Miracles, which address, among other subjects, love’s power to heal physical and emotional wounds. “Being loved is vital to one’s health,” Dr. Siegel said in an interview with the magazine Personal Transformation. “Statistics verify that. In a study at Harvard, 95% of the students who described their parents as unloving suffered a major illness by the time they were in midlife. Only 29% of those who said they were loved by their parents had a major illness.”

Positivity Resonance

Dr. Borysenko also spoke of the work of Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, who discovered the connection between vagal tone — the nerve that runs from the heart to the head — and heart rate variability — the interval of time between heartbeats. Dr. Frederickson’s book Love 2.0, explores what she refers to as “positivity resonance,” which involves micro-moments of mutual positive emotion. A fusion of biochemistry and behavior is responsible for this phenomenon. When someone has these two factors working in harmony, they have a greater likelihood of experiencing heart-to-heart connection with others, which also increases the chances of maintaining sobriety.

Dr. Frederickson describes love this way: “Love is a momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.”

Toward the end of her presentation, Dr. Borysenko offered the Buddhist Lovingkindness or Metta Meditation, which is to be said to oneself, to others whom we love, to others with whom we have challenges and to the world as a whole. This practice can induce feelings of wellbeing that, in turn, can cultivate a sense of compassion and, with it, healing and ease from suffering. See if applying these words to yourself and those around you helps awaken the healing power of compassion in your life:

May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.

By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1

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