I was shocked to think that my decision to cycle on the shared bike path rather than the (admittedly wide and free of traffic) road caused a man’s angry reaction, as he had to reign in his large dog to get past me. I was perplexed that my decision to do what I considered best had annoyed him so much.
When I thought about it, though, hadn’t I displayed just as much annoyance sitting behind motorists as animated conversations with their passengers hindered them from making thoughtful and timely manoeuvres?
We have every right to be angry and stressed, and to let the other guy know about it – and then to stir ourselves up about it again (and again) as we tell our friends or publish it on social media. Right?
Well, research pointing to the effects of stress on our health suggests we probably need to think again about this “right.”
It finds that stress can lead to elevated levels of the hormone cortisol which, in turn, can lead to stress-related illnesses ranging from heart disease, GI distress, diabetes, headaches, disordered eating, depression and anxiety.”
However, there’s a significantly positive finding from this research, too. Empathy for the other guy helps. It often resolves the situation, and is actually good for our health.
So, is it possible to foster empathy? Dacher Keltner, who runs the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, reports that various kinds of contemplation — prayer, meditation, yoga, feelings of awe for nature – boost empathy.
You have to chuckle at how The Message puts into everyday language Jesus’ no-nonsense approach to practising empathy, “Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back?”
As Jesus raised the mental bar from empathy for the other guy to full-on compassion (love) for him, so today’s medical research is following suit. It finds that the higher mental state of compassion (or its absence) fundamentally alters the biochemical in which your body is steeped.
Advancing from a state of self-focus, a preoccupation with “me, myself, and I,” we feel rejuvenated and depression and anxiety begin to diminish.
To accomplish this, “Jesus prayed; he withdrew from the material senses to refresh his heart with brighter, with spiritual views,” wrote Mary Baker Eddy, my favourite author on how best to connect with that “something bigger than me.”
Learning about my spiritual side and adopting a healthy spiritual practice, has moved to the top of my list of priorities over the past years.
I’ve found that keeping in mind compassion for the other guy really helps how I handle people, deadlines and even the traffic. Come to think about it, stress-induced headaches are also a thing of the past.
You’d have to wonder if the hopes of millions now riding on “precision medicine,” extracting genetic data in order to tailor medical treatment, can actually be realised since compassion research seems to indicate that health is not a linear engineering exercise. Treatment tailored to the idiosyncrasies of genes and diseases cannot get to the heart of true health.
Eddy shared an important observation, “Not muscles, nerves, nor bones, but mortal mind makes the whole body “sick, and the whole heart faint;” whereas divine Mind heals” (Science and Health).
February is all about the heart – Heart Research Month, Heart Kids, Harmony Day and Valentine’s Day. We’re encouraged to make our heart health a priority.
You’ll be adding to your heart health as you courageously tackle these messy problems as they crop up – mistakes, anger, ignorance, don’t care attitude, difference of opinion, passions and misunderstandings – with compassion.