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Rediscovering Heartfulness: ‘The Way Of Compassion’

Ridgecrest Regional Hospital Dr. HANI CHAABO Medical Dir. Well-Being– During a commencement speech, Mr. Rogers once said, “From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, talked you into talking, sung you into singing, and loved you into loving.” That is so true, especially when you consider what we know about mirror neurons, specialized cells in the brain that allow us to relate to and experience each other.

Mirror neurons are why we yawn when someone yawns or cry when a loved one cries. Without mirror neurons, we wouldn’t have empathy or be able to understand what others are going through without personally having to experience it. In the evolution of our nervous system, we formed “mirror” before we formed “self” neurons, essentially meaning that to understand ourselves, we had first to understand each other.

One day little Sally was prancing around, living her best ballerina life, when she tripped on one of her toys and painfully landed on her side. Hearing her cry from another room, her mother, Lauren, rushed to her rescue. She held Sally, inspected her carefully for major harm, found none, kissed her booboo, and danced Sally back into dancing. We first learn how to soothe ourselves when we’re in pain when a loving caregiver mirrors it to us. Our guardians’ empathy and compassion become our own, or not at all, if we never had caregivers who modeled it well for us.

In my mental health practice, I’ve found that some of the most crucial work we do for ourselves in therapy is reconnecting to our heart — to our most compassionate self. Unfortunately, many of us grew up with judgmental, rigid, or emotionally stunted caregivers who learned that vulnerability is weakness and navigating emotions is coddling. Many of us were shamed, guilted, or blamed into “behaving” and conforming, with imprints of these voices remaining in our self-talk even after they were long gone. This negatively affects the way we view and motivate ourselves and others. We have to unlearn the dysfunction we inherited and re-learn what wasn’t given to us — the powerful ability to soothe and nurture ourselves when we’re hurting.

There is an exponentially growing body of science about the power of the heart and compassion. The heart, of any organ, has the most powerful electromagnetic field, which can be measured 3 feet outside the body. This field directly affects how we physically process emotions and connect with others. Our heart rhythm can show the state of our nervous system, whether we’re in sympathetic “fight or flight” or parasympathetic “rest and recover,” and synchronizes with another’s heart rhythm when we’re empathically connected to a loved one, caring clinician, or pet. It also responds to our emotional state and is influenced by the quality of our thoughts. Frustration and self-criticism elicit the stress response, whereas appreciation and self-compassion generate growth and healing. Perhaps this can explain why individuals who are more self-compassionate tend to have greater happiness, life satisfaction, and motivation, better relationships and physical health, less anxiety and depression and are more resilient during stressful life events such as divorce, health crises, academic failure, and even combat trauma.

Dr. Kristen Neff, the mother of an autistic child, is the foremost researcher on self-compassion. Her work has helped us define it and understand its health benefits. In her definition, self-compassion begins with mindfulness of a painful moment, acknowledging we are in one without judgment or perpetuating the story. Think, “This is painful right now,” period. We acknowledge the painful experience without adding to it, “My life sucks. This always happens to me and will never end.” Over-identification with painful moments prolongs the experience of suffering even after they’ve passed. From mindfulness, we can intentionally move towards self-kindness, finding our most caring and helpful self to soften the blow. For many, this is the most difficult part. It can feel uncomfortable and forced, but it is necessary for any process that rewires the brain. How easily we access compassion for our children but not ourselves is astounding. A helpful practice is to reflect on what we would say to support a loved one if they were in our shoes, then channel that inwards. Challenges are a paradox — they complicate our lives but also prime our brain’s plasticity to learn more quickly because they always contain some form of growth. With self-compassion, we can tap into a growth-oriented rather than a self-defeating mindset. Dr. Neff adds that reminding ourselves we’re not alone in life’s turbulence and unpredictability helps keep us from feeling isolated, reconnecting us to the common experience of being human.

The “happiest man in the world” is a monk named Mingyur Rinpoche. When asked to meditate on compassion, his brain activation spiked 800 percent — a level of activity usually seen only after a seizure. This indicates that we can intentionally amplify and immerse ourselves in a state of compassion. Compassion is a skill that can be learned and nurtured. Consider trying the LovingKindness meditation for a week, a core mindfulness practice proven to multiply the brain’s compassion circuitry, which has been tremendously life-changing for myself and my patients. In Japanese, the word for mindfulness also means heartfulness. With time, repetition, and mindful reflection, we can all become masters of the heart, pouring into ourselves and each other.

May you have peace, be loved, and always find your most heartful self.

Dr. Chaabo attended medical school at the University of Balamand-Saint George Hospital in Lebanon. He completed his Family Medicine residency at West Virginia University-Charleston Area Medical Center, his integrative medicine fellowship from the University of Arizona-Andrew Weil Center, and is completing a fellowship in primary care psychiatry with the University of California in Irvine. He focuses on mindfulness-based lifestyle changes in his stress reduction clinic. He is also the Medical Director of Well-Being at Ridgecrest Regional Hospital. He has been recognized by the American Academy of Family Physicians as the 2023 Leading Physician Well-Being Ambassador.