Changing the Patterns: Role of Compassion



Our natural capacity for compassion is profoundly healing if we can access it.  Often this is blocked by the cycles of threat and avoidance that build up automatically in painful and distressing circumstances.  For many of us the ability to connect with compassion has never fully developed, and so needs to be gently trained and strengthened, just as we would train and strengthen a muscle which was weak from lack of use.


Work by the psychologist Paul Gilbert has really helped us to understand how compassion can help in many different circumstances we encounter, but also how it can naturally be blocked and what we can do about this.  As humans, in common with many animals our responses to the outside world are guided by a complex array of emotional inputs, many of which are triggered automatically, without our awareness.  This not only guides our response to what happens but also allows us to respond far more quickly than we would be able to if we had to think everything through.  These emotions are loosely organised into 3 systems.  The first system is based around our responses to threat.  It is easily triggered and mobilises the resources we need to respond helpfully to dangers in the environment.  We also have an emotional system which is focused on drive and motivation which can help us to have the get up and go to do the things that we need to do in order to survive and thrive - collect food and resources, build shelter, provide for our families, challenge for dominance.  Finally, we have a system for soothing and affiliation.  When there are no immediate threats, and all of our basic needs have been met, this system will help us to meet our underlying needs - for rest, repair and connection with others.  This emotional system has access to powerful painkilling drugs, our natural endogenous opiates, as well as the ability to mobilise our natural healing resources.  The regular activation of the system is important for continued health and wellbeing, but it is suppressed when there are more pressing needs for survival and resource gathering.  A problem we have is that often in modern-day life the threat and drive-based systems are constantly activated, so the soothing system never gets a look in.  Further, pain itself can cause the threat and drive systems to continually activate each other in the search for a solution.  One result of this is that the soothing system becomes chronically underactivated and under-developed.  We can work to activate and develop this system by training our mind for compassion.