Surprisingly, when a conference attendee asked how to begin the journey of compassion, I heard the word breath whispered. For a split second, the whisper unbalanced me with its resonance. What followed immediately was equally strange, for it was a cheeky certitude, akin to what I imagine would be the sense of elation a child who’ve just been shown where the treasure chest of candies are, may feel! Then I had a decision to make, i.e. stick with my prepared script, or follow the breath. The latter felt more fun 😊
Upon accepting the invitation to step into the privacy of another’s suffering, it’s wise to remind oneself that the terrain is always new. Yes, though there may be some sense of familiarity in a word, a phrase, a tone, a cadence, a glance, a silence … no landscape of suffering is ever exactly the same, even if it’s that of the same individual. Which is to say, no one really knows what to expect. Thus vigilance, humility, and being quick-witted are quite necessary skills, to keep safe both one’s self and that of the individual whom one is companioning, vis-a-vis managing unexpected emotions.
Contrary to popular belief, it is FOCUS, and not calmness that unlocks these skills.
Focus being the ability to sustain disciplined attention to attend to what matters, and to stay aligned to one’s compassionate orientation. It is the capacity for heightened present-moment sensory awareness (of self, others and environment); which makes possible precision and wholeness of observation; in turn increasing the chances of clarity of knowing. The gateway to all these good stuff is … the ability to master one’s breath.
Whilst it may be the mind that desires calmness, it is through the breadth that the body is calmed, which in turn gives the mind access to the brain’s prefrontal cortex where conscious decisions may be made to “override” habitual reactive behaviours .
I believe most of us wake up every morning, not with the explicit intention of making other people’s life miserable, but instead, we all wish to “just” be ourselves. Naturally, this raises the perennial question of a human be-ing’s fundamental nature. And precisely because many a narratives abound, it is beyond this brief sharing to delve into any one, in any sensible detail. So I will offer only the current scientific narrative that, comparable to fear, compassion is believed to be a hardwired motivational system. Translation? Compassion is encoded into our genes, i.e. “natural” and “instinctual”.
But it seems that it is quite easy for the compassionate instinct to be hijacked (e.g. by another motivational system such as fear). Because our actions will always be aligned with the dominant motivational system, in order to switch between the systems, the mind needs to be able to access the prefrontal cortex which is the region of the brain which “has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour”.
This is where the breath of mindfulness (otherwise known as training in awareness and attention) plays a role wherein the body becomes an orientation device to bring into alignment intention, thoughts and actions (This 8min video by Dr. Hansaji Yogendra contains a simple explanation). And it seems the magic number is 5.5 belly breaths per minute.
In case some of you may be wondering “hang on, isn’t the way I’ve been breathing all these years natural?” Well, how most of us breathe today is a function of habituated posture, and not nature. For instructions in natural breathing, learn from a baby. Alternatively, check out James Nestor’s book <Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art>.
Returning thus to the ancient art of breathing makes possible as well, returning to our compassionate self.
The first step is this simple 🌹 The breath calms the body, which in turn gives the mind access to the prefrontal cortex, thus increasing the chances that you’re able to make decisions that makes it easier for you to be compassionate.