Is compassion a matter of heart and mind? When I pose such question to myself the first thought that comes to mind is how linguistically heart and mind are connected. From an eastern prospect “citta” is often used as a literal translation for “mind”. Although on a subtle level the word “citta” is also understood as “heart”. Not the heart as a physical organ that pumps blood through our bodies. But rather the “heart” as an aspect of our nature that directs our thoughts, moods; and behaviour. Also, from a western perspective “mind” and “heart” are closely related terms which are often used interchangeably.
For example, we might refer to someone who acts with good intentions as a person who has his or her “heart in the right place.”
Furthermore, even at a personal level, we might feel or likely consider the mind and heart as related. For example, we know that our thoughts and feelings primarily arise in our brain. Yet when we get heartfelt feelings of love towards someone or something, we locate such feelings as emanating from our hearts. Such that compassion the act of recognising suffering and being moved to relive it could be seen as an embodied experience of heart and mind. I see this in the experience of parenting.
Embodied compassion: From the heart and mind
When parents hear their baby child cry in the middle of the night. Instinctively they wake up rush into the baby’s room, instinctively cradling them to sooth them and address their needs. Depending on the situation whether it’s changing their diapers or feeding them. At times this might not be enough and it as if no matter what the parents do the child keeps on crying. Still, the parents don’t walk away. Even if they feel tired, disheartened or distress and it might be even irritated, they verbally and physically keep trying to soothe their child. Such that parents at times selflessly forget themselves in an act to do whatever’s possible to relive their child’s suffering. This could be seen as an example to illustrate compassion as an embodied action of heart and mind.
Reflecting on this we could liken compassion to hearing a cry and walking towards it in total darkness to try to respond to it at the best of our abilities.
The dust under the carpet
Unfortunately, the flip side of the story is that there are times that we ourselves might be the ones crying in the dark. Unbecomingly there might be times where we block out our feelings or turn them off when we feel conflicting emotions. Like seeing dust on the floor and instead of picking it up we sweep it under the carpet. We all do this including myself.
A problem arises when we repeatedly and instinctively sweep the dust under the carpet whenever we spot some. This can be a recipe for disaster as something might happen which moves the carpet exposing and spreading all that accumulated dust all-over the place. Similarly comparing the dust to our emotions, a sudden exposure of our suppressed emotions can lead to panic attacks, anxiety or bouts of depression. Yet we might genuinely compassionately be readily available to pick others dust but not readily open to pick our own or opening to others open approach in pick our own.
We fail to see that at times it might be that we are readily available to approach others compassionately embodying mind and heart. And not recognise when we ourselves might be distressed. Like the example of the parent, we rush to the cry of others. But when we ourselves are crying we might not take the step of approaching ourselves as a parent approaches their child. With an embodied compassionate heartfelt feeling of mind and hearth embracing ourselves.
Am I open to compassion?
Furthermore, as the example of the carpet and dust, we might be readily available and open to the flow of compassion from ourselves to others. Yet although we realize that opening to the flow of compassion might be helpful. We feel a block when it comes to opening up to the follow of compassion towards oneself. Likewise, we might also feel a block to others compassionate embrace towards us. Mainly caused because of harsh self-criticism or feelings of shame. Or we might simply feel we don’t deserve it (Gilbert, McEwan, Matos, & Rivis, 2011).
As Paul Gilbert and Choden eloquently explain in their book Mindful Compassion. Arguing that compassion is not a one-way flow and we need to courageously and compassionately embrace our vulnerabilities and likewise opening receptively to the flow of compassion from other people toward ourselves. Thereafter we might notice how other people’s kindness supports us and positively affects us emotionally (Gilbert & Choden, 2014).
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Dalai-Lama. (2002). An open heart: Practicing compassion in everyday life. New York, NY: Little Brown & Company.
Gilbert, P., & Choden. (2014). Mindful compassion. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Matos, M., & Rivis, A. (2011). Fears of compassion: Development of three self-report measures. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 84(3), 239-255.
Rinpoche, T., & Swanson, E. (2012). Open heart, open mind: A guide to inner transformation. New York, NY: Random House USA Inc.