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Compassion as a pathway to health

The research is in. Being kind, giving as a way of being, even doing unto others, are now all undeniably good for us.

Thanks to the fields of positive psychology, neuroscience and psychoneuroimmunology we now know that compassion changes the brain, improves the immune system, reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and makes us happier.

It’s not just kindness and compassion to others that count either. It starts with us. Christ and Buddha got it right, as well as religious leaders from most traditions, their wise advice being to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

“Compassion and happiness are not signs of weakness but of strength.” Dalai Lama

This may really be the hardest part of practising compassion. The inner attitude and thoughts we bring to bear on ourselves can be harsh and unkind. We have between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts a day, and of them 95 percent are repetitive and 80 percent are negative, critical, judgmental and self-limiting.

Since we now know that we are what we think, what we think matters. Thoughts create emotions, which in turn create chemicals and hormones. Chemical messages travel around our bodies, telling us about our relative safety or threat.

If our system perceives stress and threat, we will produce stress-related chemicals, including cortisol and adrenaline. These chemicals elevate blood pressure, disrupt blood sugar balance, suppress the immune system, create inflammation and increase weight.

If we feel safe, loved and cared for we will produce chemicals and hormones that reflect this state, including oxytocin and serotonin. Our nervous system will be in balance and our bodies will heal well, digest well, sleep well, the immune system is less burdened and we are able to experience health and wellbeing.

Is it possible to increase our compassion towards ourselves and others?

Wisdom arising from Buddhism, Christianity and other spiritual traditions provides instruction and practices for cultivating kindness including prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and loving kindness practice.

Try these simple ways to increase your compassion:

  • Notice nature around you and feel gratitude: the sun in the morning, the sky at night, the sound of birds, the soft fur of a pet. Take the feelings in and allow them to grow a sense of kindness.

  • Think about someone you care about, family or friend. Bring this feeling into yourself and enlarge it. Can you allow this feeling to settle within you and direct some of the kindness and warmth towards yourself and others?

  • Remember an experience of love and kindness from your past, as a child, from a friend. Take this in and allow the feeling to settle within you. Allow these feelings to grow, come back to them and take in the good.

“If you want others to be happy, practise compassion. If you want to be happy, practise compassion.” Dalai Lama 

Contact Marg Peck


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