We are subjected to distressing images through our media—bombarded. So we enter into a state of moral distress and futility. We see that something else needs to happen. Children need to be protected, we have to stop rape and violence toward women in the Congo, and we feel this profound moral conflict. And yet we can't do anything about it and we enter into a state either of moral outrage or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just, you know, don't want to deal with it or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness or freeze. I think a good part of the globe is going numb.
I think what we're seeing is not actually compassion fatigue, but empathic distress where there's a resonance, but we're not able to stabilize ourselves when we're exposed to this kind of suffering. When we are more stabilized then we can face the world with more buoyancy, we have more resilience. You know, we've got more capacity to actually address these very profound social and environmental issues. So that's why I call these things edge states because they really call us to our edge... A near enemy to compassion is sorrow and that's that sorrow, that's me getting wrecked by the picture of the child in the newspaper so that I can't actually help them.
The theme of compassion has been important in Western culture and it certainly is important in Eastern culture, but it's a kind of fuzzy word. Antoine Lutz and Richie Davidson and others have been finding that certain areas of the brain light up when people are in states of compassion, and that they feel amore acutely the experience of another's suffering, but also they let go of it much more quickly.
One of the features that the neuroscientists have discovered is an area of the brain that's associated with the capacity to actually distinguish self from other. In other words, if there's such great resonance when you're in the presence of suffering with the other, you go into empathic or over-arousal. If I'm sitting with a prisoner on death row or I'm sitting with a person suffering from intractable pain, I can feel this resonance. I can sense into their suffering, but I also have simultaneously this insight—it's that person suffering and this is me. I'm not experiencing it in reality. It's true, but it's not...
From my point of view, the experience of grief is profoundly humanizing and we need to create conditions where we are supported to grieve and where we're not told, "Why don't you just get over it?" "Or, "It's time" or such as that. We in our lives experience one loss after another, and it can be loss of a breast, loss of a loved one, a child going into adulthood, which is a way of loss for many parents, loss of identity, loss of capacity.
My own experience of aging is that there are capacities I had ten years ago that I no longer have, and I have to reflect upon those losses. And, of course, the loss that all of us will face in anticipation of death. It is something that brings great depth and meaning into our lives and also helps us to articulate internally our priorities. What is really important for us? So for me as a human being and not identified as a Buddhist or a woman or a Western person, but as a simple human being, I value the experience of grief.
- "Inside Compassion: Edge States, Contemplative Interventions, Neuroscience," Joan Halifax Roshi talks about empathy and compassion on the part of caregivers who are tending to the ill and dying.
- "Richard Davidson on Investigating Healthy Minds," On Being, June 14, 2012