From the research that has been done on compassion just in the last five years we’re understanding more about our mirror neurons, which is this system in our body to naturally mirror other people’s feelings. This is something we know from dogs, for example, they’ve got this down. If we’re sad, they come to us, and cats do it too, it’s so sweet. There is this natural resonance.
If we are triggered, though, if we are in fight, flight, freeze, our mirroring system and network shuts down. It goes offline. It wouldn’t be appropriate, if someone is chasing us, to say “Oh, how are you?!”
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for fight, flight freeze. The parasympathetic nervous system is rest and digest, the opposite of fight, flight, freeze. What is amazing is when we’re not relaxed in the parasympathetic nervous system, when we’re not in rest and digest, we cannot heal. Our body’s healing process is shut down and all of these important things we need to be able to do be resilient, to be resourced, to take care of ourselves.
We can see how we’re trying to regulate nervous system, whether we go in the forest for a walk, or the ocean, or do yoga or meditation, or sometimes we’ve learned how to self medicate or self regulate with substances and they’re not always good for us, they can get out of hand, but that is still an attempt for us to calm the nervous system and be in a more balanced state.
The mirror neurons are only active when we feel basically safe. That is one level of compassion. The second level has to do with what is called emotional resonance and this is that thing that happens when we feel each other. When you look at another person your mirror neurons naturally click into them, breathing rates synchronize, all sorts of wild stuff. It is autonomic, not by choice, it’s just natural. Another person’s emotion can be regulated by your presence. If you can calmly feel them, they start to come into balance, they start to feel that.
That is another reason why it is so beautiful that we’re developing compassion and the ability to resonate with other people. We are actually helping them in a very real and direct way to calm their nervous system and come into presence. It’s called co-regulation when one person’s calm helps another person. We can also actually feel their emotion.
The third level is called taking another’s perspective and it is considered to be this skill where we don’t know the answer but we can ask “I wonder what you’re feeling? I don’t have your conditioning. I don’t know what it’s like to be you. But I wonder what it is like to be you?” That is a really powerful place to be in.
Do you know, and I’m saying this rhetorically, how much our culture dislikes not knowing?! It’s just so terrifying to many people to not know the answer. It’s almost considered unacceptable to not know something. But why? There is so much we don’t know! That is actually a wonderful space. In meditation we talk about that as being comfortable with uncertainty, or at least practicing that.
So I just wanted to throw that into our dialogue, our conversation, these different levels of compassion are really important. We can really actually target different levels at different times. We can decide we want to feel the other person but if we actually take their perspective that is opening up a different kind of compassion.
And, we don’t have to be right, that’s the good part. It doesn’t matter if we know or not, we don’t need an answer, it opens something up and then when they talk to us, because we tried, they can feel that. We all love to feel seen, when we do. We also hate it, when we do. It’s one of those paradoxes. When we invite that in and decide we’re going to hang out with the uncertainty of not knowing their position, that is an open heart and an open mind.
It’s weird to identify ourselves as an individual. We’re us. So to consider ourselves as an equal player in the field of beings requires a certain kind of new vision or awareness. It’s not the same as saying “Am I getting pleasure? Am I avoiding pain?” From the perspective of just being this person, it’s almost like acknowledging there is a person here that I’m responsible for. Wow! To consider ourselves as equal to any other person, for me, that has been a really powerful and challenging insight.
Being sympathetic to ourselves requires a lot of bravery. It can be very scary to feel separate and feel alone and maybe risk connection by honoring ourselves when so much of our conditioning and our patterns have taught us ways of surviving with other people that it seems required that we put then before us in some way. So it can be really scary to be sympathetic to ourselves.
How this unfolds for each of us is so personal, obviously. It’s really unique. It’s not like there is one way you have to feel. It is really interesting to look at how do I regard myself? Am I as worthy of compassion as someone else?
This is part of an ongoing series. Stay tuned for Part 9!
Maitri For Our Time Part 1
Maitri For Our Time Part 2
Maitri For Our Time Part 3
Maitri For Our Time Part 4
Maitri For Our Time Part 5
Maitri For Our Time Part 6
Maitri For Our Time Part 7
Maitri For Our Time Part 8
Maitri For Our Time Part 9
Maitri For Our Time Part 10