Research shows we are wired for kindness. Compassion is “old” in our nervous system. Sympathy is a strong instinct. https://youtu.be/SsWs6bf7tvI
But kindness is not constant, nor is it consistent across demographics. But it can be practiced into a habit. Here’s the low down on kindness, compassion, and peace.
Kindness Has Benefits to Self and Others
Evolutionary science has come to show that compassion is fundamental to our species’ survival. Evolutionary biologists have called this “reciprocal altruism” – compassion is in our self-interest.
When we help others, we experience a “helper’s high,” as endorphins are released in our brain, leading to a euphoric state. The “warm fuzzies” we get come from the release of oxytocin, the same hormone that is released by lactating mothers. Compassion endorphins don’t just feel good, they do good in the body. This hormone seems to have health benefits as well, including the reduction of inflammation in the cardiovascular system. Compassion literally makes our heart healthy and happy.
Studies also show that compassion is contagious. When we see others being compassionate, we are more likely to be compassionate. This results in a feeling called “moral elevation.” Recent research by social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler suggest that this ripple effect can extend out to two and three degrees of separation. In other words, when I am compassionate, my friends, and their friends, and even the friends’ friends are more likely to become kind and compassionate.
Being compassionate to others has benefits, but so does enhancing self-compassion. Research suggests that cultivating your own joy and happiness has benefits not just for you, but also for others in your life. When we can move beyond our own pain and suffering, we are more available to others. In his book with the Dalai Lama, The Book of Joy, psychiatrist Howard Cutler summarized these findings: “In fact, survey after survey has shown that it is unhappy people who tend to be most self-focused and are socially withdrawn, brooding, and even antagonistic. Happy people in contrast, are generally found to be more social, flexible, and creative, and can tolerate life’s daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people. And, most importantly, they are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people.”
Furthermore, the practice of love ignites a self-sustaining cycle. For example, in the book, The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu consistently voice that our joy has an impact on the suffering in the world. The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others.
The notion that witnessing kindness can inspire kindness, causing it to spread like a virus has been studied in other areas. Studies have shown that kindness can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way. People can be motivated for actions of kindness when they see others being kind. For example, when someone witnesses a neighbor donating to a charity, they are more likely to give a donation themselves.
“Catch kindness” is also seen in the public-school system. Schools across America utilize this “kindness contagion” principle in their social emotional learning standards. Some encourage students to contribute marbles to a jar every time they say a “put up” instead of a “put down.” Other schools encourage “random acts of kindness.”
Limitations of Kindness
Despite all the benefits, kindness contagion appears to have limitations. The same studies touting benefits indicate that “witnessing kindness” is based is on the motivation of conformity and the value of “being on the same page” as another. It’s a follow-the-leader vs. true inner alchemy. An estimated 60% of kindness is for our self-interest. 40% for others. The notion of “doing the best good” can morph the intention of kindness into a competition and a measure of status.
Also, despite compassion being in our self-interest as humans, and despite the feel-good endorphins released, kindness is not an automatic habit displayed throughout culture. In fact, studies demonstrate that lower socioeconomic classes give more. In fact, compassion deficit is caused by wealth.
Kindness, compassion and peace are not constant or consistent across demographics. In fact, here are a just a few problems plaguing our culture:
- MACRO LEVEL – climate change, mass shootings, refugees, suicide, racism, terrorism
- MESSO LEVEL – bullying, marginalizing those based on gender/sexuality, suicide, social disconnection
- MICRO LEVEL – anxiety, depression, self-injury, addictions, suicide
The problems perpetuating the micro, mezzo and macro level of our culture are not compatible with kindness, compassion and peace.
Finally, the type of kindness being studied is one-sided. Where is the practice of self-love?
Yoga to Embody Kindness
An effective tool for teaching and embodying ahimsa is lacking in our culture. Schools teach lessons on kindness and offer incentives. Families encourage kindness. As humans, we tend to mimic others being kind and like how it feels. Yet, there is a gap in making it a habit.
Yoga is a universal path towards harmony and union. It is a system, or “rule book” for playing the game of life. Ancient yoga texts outline spiritual practices necessary to attain wisdom and joy. It is expected that students do not intellectualize teachings but seek direct experience through reflection and personal application of the lessons. In other words, deep knowing does not happen with our thinking minds. Truth is a lived experience.
The 8-Limb path is attributed to Sage Patanjali, who is estimated to have lived sometime between 400BC-400AD. These eight steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention towards one’s health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature. These can set the stage for the deeper practices of focused attention and meditation. When we have a peaceful mind, truthful heart, and a balanced body, we can more easily approach the stillness that expands our consciousness beyond daily reality.
Perhaps the 8-Limb Path could allow for the alchemy necessary for Ahimsa to become a habit. In this manner, rather than merely follow the example of another being kind, through the practice of yoga and Ahimsa, an individual will feel the impact of love within on their every sheath, as well as experience love in connection to another. The student can become peace and love. Love is only complete when it includes the self.
Other wisdom leaders have professed the same message that we must become peace and love in order to respond mindfully with compassion in all situations. Thich Nhat Hahn wrote that, “Being peace is an absolute prerequisite for making peace.”
Gandhi once wrote: Non-violence is not like a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our very being.” He too conveys that nonviolence, compassion are ways of life, not a tactic. We must unite with the Ahimsa within and put it to work in resolving problems, being in relationships, and generally raising the quality of our lives.
Maybe, just maybe, if more people could experience the 8 limbs of yoga, there could be an incremental experience of greater freedom as we discover ever more self-control and awareness in how we live and interact with others. As Mr. Iyengar has described, yoga was not intended to be a one-way inward journey. We learn self-control so that we may live in balance with our Self and in harmony with others.
So where to start? How about with the first Yama, Ahimsa? After all, it holds a “self-corroborating truth” – as demonstrated from the many different fields of knowledge that point to the same conclusion. Love is the core of every traditional religion. It all begins with love, compassion, peace.
This past year I’ve undertaken an experiment to see if kindness can become a habit; if kindness can become contagious. This experiment involved teachings of kindness and an all-levels yoga practice that incorporated breath work, heart opening movement and partner work, as well as meditation. Participants identified a specific way to practice ahimsa, kindness, towards self and others in the 48-hours following the workshop. Follow-up emails at three- and six-weeks surveyed participants if they were maintaining the practice to build a daily habit of kindness towards self and others.
The results were overwhelming. 97% of respondents reporting practicing Ahimsa for themselves at 48 hours. 100% of respondents reported practicing Ahimsa for others at 48 hours, 3-weeks and 6-weeks. When we can learn and feel and practice kindness, compassion and peace, we feel truth. And when we commit to the habit, kindness can become a habit. Do you dare to help make kindness contagious?