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Mindful : August 2017
of her own: “And we also told them, ‘I feel that way, too, sometimes’; ‘It is really hard for me to get to work some days, too’...Telling them the truth, showing them that we can share the same feelings...has made a difference to them and, I think, given them hope. And it gave me hope to give them hope.” The authenticity that Ellen brought to her relationships with students—and that they gave her in return—helped nourish her, despite the exhaustion and frustration she felt. Her medita- tion practice fostered that emotional openness, helped her not be engulfed by the pain of her students, and taught her how to return to a place of steadiness in those times she did get over- whelmed. Like Ellen, we can be compassionate while also strong; understanding while also sav vy. Healthy boundaries require balance. Compassion is not just a feeling but a skill that can be learned and applied in our lives in surprising ways. While we typically think of this skill as benefiting others, compassion can also be thought of as an attitude toward living, one that fosters self-care. There’s a strong link between compassion and both physical and mental health. When we act compassionately, our vagal tone—or the neural connection between the brain, heart, and other organs—increases. This, in turn, leads to the release of oxytocin, the feel- good neuropeptide that calms the sympathetic nervous system, including the fight-or-flight— that is, fear—response. As a result, our heart rates and blood pressures drop, inflammation is reduced, our immune systems are strength- ened, we’re less prone to stress —and we may even live longer. Researchers have actually proven that strong social relationships predict a 50%-increased chance of longevity. What’s more, the greatest advantages come not from receiving love but from offering it to others. Until we can relate to our own pain with kindness and acceptance, we’re more likely to defend ourselves against the pain of others. Or perhaps we do, in fact, engage with the pain of others, but are inclined to offer support out of a desire to receive validation to soothe our own pain. If we turn away from our own pain, we may find ourselves projecting this aversion onto others, seeing them as somehow inadequate for being in a troubled situation. And, paradoxically, when we truly allow ourselves to feel our own pain, over time it comes to seem less personal. We start to recognize that what we’ve perceived as our pain is, at a deeper level, the pain inher- ent in human existence. In fact, it is awareness of both our shared pain and our longing for hap- piness that links us to other people and helps us to turn toward them with compassion. Kevin Berrill, a clinical social worker and bereavement counselor who teaches mindful- ness to oncology patients and their families, says that he’s able to sense the difference between empathy and compassion in himself when he’s working with clients. ‘’I’m aware that I’m best able to serve when I’m in a compassionate place,” he says, noting that, over the course of his career, there’s been a shift from a tendency to feel another’s pain to simply be present with it. “I love my work the most when I’m in that state of flow. I don’t try to offer solutions or fix anything prematurely. I feel calm and peace- ful and fully engaged. I can hold another’s pain without drowning in it,” he explains, adding that he can go through a wrenching session → Compassion is not just a feeling but a skill that can be learned and applied in surprising ways. It is an attitude toward living—and it fosters self-care. August 2017 mindful 77