Today we’re thinking about the importance of compassion, kindness and hope in the face of Covid-19.
Never in our recent history have so many populations and generations been so collectively challenged. The threat of the pandemic has brought with it a multitude of other psychological and financial threats and, no matter our knowledge of how widespread the anxiety, depression or isolation, our individual experience can be very consuming.
The pandemic is a consequence of a world so much more technologically advanced – and therefore more connected – than ever before, yet this advance is at war with the fact that our brains have nowhere near advanced at the same speed. In fact, apart from the odd intellectual milestone, our brains have hardly evolved at all.
Navigating a new world with “old” minds
Evolutionary psychology ponders this precise dilemma, illuminating how the conflict of old brain/new world can cause a multitude of ailments – both physical and mental. We live in a world of plenty that prioritises abundance, yet our brains have evolved to cope with scarcity, not ‘abundance and plenty’, and we are born ‘seekers’ and ‘wanters’ because for millions of years that was the state we were in.
This is particularly important when we talk about threat perception. We respond to the threats of today (prospect of job loss/financial instability/conflict with friends and partners, etc) with the impulses of our old, primal brain. Our brains can’t and don’t automatically distinguish between the threat of a lion approaching and licking its lips, with the threat of job loss and our inability to provide for our loved ones.
The threats of our modern existence are numerous. Our society cannot function without consistent economic advance, and as such, competition is encouraged and education prioritises grades over emotional maturity and resilience. Belonging, or feeling part of a community, is highly important to us because being part of a community many thousands of years ago was vital for preserving our lives. As such, the threat of losing a friend, partner, being bullied or isolated from a certain group, propels us into panic, depression and a multitude of maladaptive coping mechanisms as a means of self-protection and soothing.
Sitting in an emotional system of “threat and self-protection” can get exhausting. In the context of Covid-19, the threats are widespread and our means of coping are greatly reduced with the necessity of social distancing and isolation. Cultivating compassion – towards ourselves and others – is a way forward that is both healing and unifying.
This is where compassion comes in
Being compassionate means having an understanding and recognition of the fact that we all just ended up here, on this world, with very little control over our existence, and the way we live our life is often a response that attempts to sooth or protect ourselves.
To quote Paul Gilbert, evolutionary psychologist and author of The Compassionate Mind:
“So here we are then – we just find ourselves here. But then so did the universe and so did every living thing that has ever existed. We are all emergent beings. To develop more insight into and understanding of how our minds were designed and why they can be full of difficult feelings such as anxiety, anger, despair and unhelpful or destructive desires, as well as, of course, love and kindness, it’s useful to see ourselves clearly as emergent from the flow of life on our planet.”
Kristin Neff, a prominent thinker in compassion and author of Self-Compassion, focuses on three dimensions to a compassionate mind:
- Kindness: understanding one’s difficulties and being kind and warm in the face of failure or setbacks rather than harshly judgemental and self-critical
- Common humanity: seeing one’s experiences as part of the human condition rather than as personal, isolating and shaming
- Mindful acceptance: awareness and acceptance of painful thoughts and feelings rather than over-identifying with them
In the context of Covid-19, we can apply all three of these dimensions. We can be kind to ourselves by acknowledging the unique, uncertain and unpredictable situation we’re in and how uncomfortable this experience is. We can recognise that the difficult emotions that we feel are merely the condition of being human, like everyone else, and that we are not alone in this. With this awareness, we can accept that our pain and difficulty is merely a response – doesn’t have to be permanent – and doesn’t define who we are.
Integrating Compassion into our Lives with Paul Gilbert’s Compassion Circle:
“We have to recognise something very fundamental about ourselves – we are a species that has evolved to thrive on kindness and compassion. The challenge here is to recognise the importance of kindness and affection and place them at the centre of our relationship with ourselves, with others and with the world.” – Paul Gilbert
The compassion circle, pictured above, details the key attributes of compassion (inner ring) and the skills needed to develop them (outer ring). These attributes enhance each other and are infused with basic warmth. We can develop the circle in our relationships, but most importantly, in our relationship with ourselves.
Buddhism is frequently a reference point for compassion because of its meditation practice in loving kindness. The words and wisdom of Buddhism can help guide us with integrating compassion, kindness and hope into our lives:
“Metta” – a word meaning loving kindness, which is a state we can occupy towards oneself and towards others.
“Mudita” – a word that means taking joy from being alive in the moment. It is also “sympathetic joy”, the joy from the wellbeing of others.
“Karuna” – compassion that involves ethical behaviour. Putting our compassionate mindset into action, or, ensuring our actions are infused with compassion.
And lastly, “Upekkha” – a sense of equality and connectedness towards other humans and living things. A recognition that we all seek happiness over suffering, and that we are the same in our struggles in life.
Signing off mantra: “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering”
As we sign off this blog post, we’re thinking about the treatment here at Orri and how so much of our approach to healing is infused with compassion.
In fact, literally every element of our programme integrates Kristen Neff’s three dimensions of a compassionate mind. From the first moment someone reaches out for help, all the way through to their most challenging moments and euphoric victories, we stand beside someone without judgement, recognising with kindness that every client is unique and has their own history and story behind their struggles, and with sincere hope for their individual recovery journey.
To quote Alain de Botton in The School of Life: An Emotional Education:
“There is always a logic and there is always a history.”
Paul Gilbert – The Compassionate Mind
Kristen Neff – Self-Compassion
Jonathan Heidt – The Happiness Hypothesis