On May 10th, 2021, I went on an afternoon stroll with one of my then-roommate.
We had been walking for two hours when I began feeling thirsty. I looked around but could not find a water fountain in the park.
As I stood there scanning the blurry faces of people around me, I spotted a water bottle. Two girls with sunglasses on were walking toward me with a full bottle of water. I felt relieved and slowly approached them.
I asked, Hi guys, sorry to bother you, but could I borrow some of your water?
One of the girls asked with a suspicious look, Why?
Taken aback by the response, I said hesitantly, Um.. to drink water. I was feeling very thirsty.
They both responded with an aggressive, No! and walked away.
I stood there, feeling embarrassed and angry. The spiral of thoughts began,
What was their problem? I just asked for some water. If someone had asked me, I would have happily lent it. Gosh, I am appalled by the hostility of some humans. How unbelievably rude–
Thankfully, before it got out of control, another voice sprung up in my head,
Pooja, stop. We don’t know their story. Maybe they are germophobes; maybe they have had bad experiences lending water to strangers, or maybe they were just in a hurry. Whatever it is, this is not worth thinking about. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and move on.
I recorded this incident in my journal that evening. Now, looking back, I believe that was my compassionate voice speaking up to alleviate that moment of suffering I felt.
The True Meaning of Compassion
The word compassion is derived from the Latin word compati which means “to suffer with.”
Compassion refers to our deep awareness of the suffering of someone else, coupled with the wish to relieve it.
There is no lack of suffering in the world around us. As Dr Immanuel Joseph (who I interviewed later in this article), author of The Fifth Revolution: Reinventing Workplace Happiness, Health, and Engagement Through Compassion, mentions in his book,
“Life is strife with pain. The loss of a loved one and the loss of a favorite pen can both cause suffering. It is how the mind perceives and reacts to the incidents that happen to us that define the magnitude of pain. Therefore, it is not realistic to compare suffering. What is real, though, is that as observers of suffering, we can try to alleviate it. This is what compassion is about.”
Researchers break down compassion into four steps:
Noticing suffering -> Feeling for the sufferer -> Suspending judgment -> moving towards action.
The third step — suspending judgment — is where compassion differs starkly from sympathy or empathy, although people tend to use it interchangeably. Below is an illustration from Dr Joseph’s book where this is described aptly,
Sympathy stops with noticing suffering and trying to understand it to the extent possible.
Empathy goes a step further in noticing suffering and experiencing what the other person is feeling through something called the mirror neurons.
Side Note: Mirror neurons were first discovered in the early 1980s when Dr Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team studied macaque monkeys’ premotor cortex. Although the research study was aimed at observing the monkeys’ response to holding different objects, the researchers noticed that the neurons in the monkey’s brain would fire even before they were given the peanut. In fact, it would fire exactly when the researchers picked up a peanut. Even more, these were the same neurons that would fire when the monkeys grasped the peanut themselves. When this research was finally published in a 1992 paper, the researchers named these “mirror neurons.”
Compassion, unlike sympathy and empathy, is neither about just understanding one’s suffering nor about feeling the suffering as if it was your own. It’s about both and more. It’s about noticing one’s suffering, feeling for them, but then suspending your judgment enough to take action and do something to alleviate their suffering.
Side Note: Psychopaths are an interesting subsection of people who understand exactly what is going on in your mind and why you’re suffering, but have no compassion, and hence no motivation to alleviate your suffering. In fact, they use this knowledge against you to manipulate you and exacerbate your suffering.
There is a fourth feeling worth mentioning here: altruism. The difference between compassion and altruism lies in the motivation behind alleviating someone’s suffering. Altruism does not always stem from wanting to alleviate someone else’s suffering; sometimes it stems from wanting to feel good ourselves.
The Neuroscience of Compassion
Our ancestors had to beat out great odds for me to be writing this, and for you to be reading this. They survived the ice age, scores of predators, and to a great extent, each other. It is a miracle that you and I are alive and breathing today.
But the miracle comes with a caveat: we are equipped with a brain that is still playing catch up.
Natural selection built a brain that’s focused on survival. In some ways, this is quite binary: if you do things that promote survival, your brain rewards you with happy chemicals. If you do things that dangers your survival, your brain punishes you with the unhappy chemical “cortisol“, a hormone released when you feel stressed.
Somewhere along the way, we realized that building social alliances and caring about others helps with our survival and results in our brain rewarding us with the happy chemical oxytocin. But there’s a caveat here, as described by Dr Loretta Breuning, Founder of Inner Mammal Institute, in The Fifth Revolution,
“Oxytocin rewards you with a good feeling when you build social alliances because safety in number promotes survival in the state of nature. But oxytocin is soon metabolized, and you have to do more to get more. If you distance yourself from the herd, your oxytocin falls, and it feels unsafe. This response helps young mammals survive without having to experience the jaws of a predator first-hand. But we humans do not want to stick with the herd all the time. We want to check out greener pastures because that stimulates dopamine.
Thus we live with the frustrating tension between the dopamine of discovering new rewards and the oxytocin of social support. Compassion can help us stimulate the oxytocin of social bonds while we are out exploring new pastures. Compassion stimulates the good feeling of trust despite all the many reasons not to. Compassion frees us to leave our tribe and still stimulate the much-desired tribe feeling.“
We all crave the happy chemicals — serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin — to be constantly released into our brains. Except, releasing one comes at the cost of another sometimes. This results in a constant neurochemical battle inside of our brain. But, to quote Dr Breuning once more,
“It’s not easy being a mammal, but you can celebrate the survival power of your brain instead of cynically condemning your natural impulses. This is self-compassion.”
Empathy vs Compassion
Aside from the linguistic differences, empathy and compassion also differ from a neuroscientific standpoint.
A research study by Dr Klimecki et. al in 2013 wanted to find the neuroscientific difference between compassion and empathy. They anticipated that empathizing with the suffering of others might be associated with negative states and distress while practising compassion will activate the areas of the brain associated with reward and affiliation.
And indeed, that was the case. The researchers mention in their study,
“A short-term training in empathy increased empathic responses and negative affect in response to others’ distress. In addition, watching others’ suffering after empathy training was associated with activations in a network spanning insula, aMCC (anterior mediate cingulate cortex), temporal gyrus, DLPFC, operculum and parts of basal ganglia.”
Previous studies have shown the insula and MCC to be associated with pain, both self-inflicted and inflicted by the external world. So helping participants be more empathetic led to them experiencing greater pain, which is generally not helpful for the observer or the sufferer.
On the other hand, they observed the following with compassion training (i.e. asking the participants. to practice loving-kindness, and imagining the sufferer to be happy),
“Importantly, compassion training reversed these effects: it decreased negative affect back to baseline levels and increased positive affect. On the neural level, compassion training increased brain activations in mOFC, pregenual ACC and striatuma network previously associated with positive affect and reward.”
This is to say that training oneself on compassion can be more effective than training oneself on empathy, which can be very unsustainable, especially when you are constantly facing situations where you witness people suffering (e.g. doctors, social workers, nurses, etc.)
There are a few techniques I mention in the later sections on how to train yourself to be more compassionate, towards yourself and others.
Why Compassion Is Hard But Necessary
Let’s imagine a scenario.
You have a large support system of family and friends who love and adore you. You have a job that you’re excited about going to every day. You’re perfectly healthy. Your financial security is through the roof. And, you find meaning in your life every single day.
In such a scenario, practising compassion towards your loved ones, community, and the world at large is not difficult.
Sadly, such is not the case for everyone. Loved ones die. People lose their jobs. Not everyone is born on equal economic ground. We witness suffering every single day.
How do you still practice compassion?
Well, that’s something I’m still learning.
But based on my life, I can tell you that compassion really happens at three levels,
Compassion for Yourself
It starts with you, practicing compassion towards yourself. Noticing when you suffer. Acknowledging the suffering. Suspending judgment. And, taking action to alleviate it. Sometimes, taking action can simply be being more kind to yourself.
This is what it felt like I did in the story shared at the beginning of this article.
But, it took me a year to go from a place of self-abuse to a place of self-love.
Our internal monologue is generally one of negativity and cynicism. Have you ever said any of the following to yourself?
I’m so unproductive. Why can’t I be more diligent?
I’m so disappointed in myself for making the same mistakes again and again.
She definitely hates me.
I am feeling so hopeless right now.
I don’t deserve this in my life.
We would not say half of the things we say to ourselves to anyone else. Yet, because we’re so unaware of the monologue, it keeps playing the tapes over and over, until you recognize it one day and decide to change.
I’ve gone into much more detail on my journey from self-abuse to self-love in this essay.
Now, having gone through that journey, I can tell you that the best transformation that I underwent in 2021 was changing my internal monologue and cultivating this voice of compassion.
Everything starts with you.
Compassion for Your People
People here refer to everyone in your life. Those who you love. Those who you tolerate. Those who make you angry, happy, loved, anxious. Everyone.
It’s easy to feel compassion towards those you love in your life. But what about the others? The ones who cause you pain, intentionally and unintentionally?
It took me a while to feel compassion for them.
When I was in college, I passionately hated a few people in my life who caused me pain. They occupied a significant part of my mental real estate on a daily basis. I wished them hardships and felt a twisted sense of satisfaction in their downfalls.
I admit this openly because I have changed completely, and can look back at this in my rearview mirror right now.
What I realized from all those years spent hating someone is the following,
Hating someone is like drinking poison yourself and wishing the other person would die.
So by hating someone, I was really causing great suffering to myself. I just didn’t see it that way back then. Only after I learned to practice self-compassion did I understand the importance of radiating it outward to those around me, which includes everyone in my life.
However, it does not stop there.
True mastery at this level is achieved when you learn to balance compassion inward and outward.
If you spent time actively hating those who caused you pain, you will spend all of your days suffering.
But, if you forgave them for all of the pain they caused and continuously let them back into your life, you could still spend all of your days suffering.
The middle ground I’ve reached is to remove those who turn out to be toxic from my life and also pull myself out of their life. I have a few people in my life who I will not let into my life and have no interest in entering their lives either. However, I wish them well and picture them being happy on a daily basis.
Previously, this need to pull away from them came from a place of hate. Now, it comes from a place of kind indifference.
Compassion for Your World
There is something interesting that happens when the scale increases from one person to the entire world.
Let’s take two scenarios:
Scenario 1: A close friend opens up to you about how they’re suffering in their current relationship with their partner.
Scenario 2: You read in the news that 1,000 people were killed in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Below are my interpretations of how most people react to such scenarios:
Scenario 1: You hear out your friend. You comfort them with a hug and give them actionable advice on how they can break off from the current relationship.
Scenario 2: You feel sad. You feel for those who were killed. You share the anger of the Ukrainians in what Russia has started with the war. Then, you move on with your day.
So far, looking at the numbers on GoFundMe, somewhere between 200,000-300,000 people have donated money across all Ukranian donation efforts. That’s a drop in the bucket of the over 7 billion on the planet right now. Less than 0.5% of the world population.
My point here is not to berate those who have not donated, but rather to make a bigger point about why it’s hard to be compassionate when the scale increases to thousands and millions. It’s because of a phenomenon called psychic numbing.
Psychic numbing is a psychological phenomenon that causes us to feel indifferent to the suffering of large numbers of people.
Psychic numbing was first coined by Dr Robert Lifton in his 1982 paper, Beyond psychic numbing: A call to awareness where he used the term to describe the rescue workers who “turned off” their feelings to help the survivors in the aftermath of the horrific Hiroshima bombing.
Since then, this has been studied by other scientists, most notably, Dr Paul Slovic et. al in their 2013 paper Psychic numbing and mass atrocity. There are two diagrams from that paper that depict this phenomenon well. The figure on the left below shows how we think we value human life, but the figure on the right shows how we actually value it.
Dr Slovic says,
“Our capacity to feel is limited. To the extent that the valuation of lifesaving depends on feelings driven by attention or imagery, it might follow the function shown in figure 7.9, where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N = 1 but begins to decline at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply “a statistic.” In other words, returning to Dillard’s worry about compassion fatigue, perhaps the “blurring” of individuals begins at two!”
This happens to all of us as we read the news. We’re more motivated to save the life of one person than the lives of millions of people. In 2013, during the Syrian War, the number of daily donations to the Syrian Refugee Fund increased 100-fold after the world saw the following image of Alan Kurdi, washed up against a shore. Thousands of people had been killed at this point, but this one image increased the donations by $200,000 per day.
But, hopefully, as you understand more about how your brain thinks and works, you can do something about it, because the benefits of compassion greatly overweigh the difficulties of practising it.
You can start by making a small donation to one of the Ukrainian donation efforts.
Compassion: How To Train Yourself
The Dalai Lama famously said in the book The Art of Happiness, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Below are some tried and tested ways to cultivate this feeling towards yourself, the people around you, and the world at large:
Compassion for yourself: It starts with you. The next time you notice a negative monologue beginning to take shape in your mind, try one or more of the following,
- Practice pranayama. Sit down if you can. Use your right thumb to hold down your right nostril and breathe in from the other. And then release your nostril to breathe out and keep alternating between the two until your emotions have stabilized.
- Close your eyes and imagine an older version of yourself standing next to your current version. That older version of you is the person you aspire to be. Now, imagine that older version slowly walking closer and embracing you in a warm hug, and telling you, It will be okay.
- Think about what you would tell your best friend if they were in your situation. Close your eyes and picture them standing in front of you. What would you tell them? Tell that out loud to yourself.
- Write a love letter to yourself. I know it sounds corny, but I’ve tried it. And it worked wonderfully well. Just take a small piece of paper and start listing down what you really love about yourself. You will be surprised at how much you come up with.
- Finally, tell yourself, My pain is real, but not true. This means, your pain is very real as you’re feeling it. But, it is simply not true. You are not your thoughts. You can detach yourself from it. Countless others have been able to. You can too.
Compassion for your people: As mentioned earlier, showing compassion towards those we love is way easier than showing it to those who cause us pain. Below are some techniques I’ve personally tried and have had success,
- Practice metta. Metta is a word from the Pali language spoken in Northern India. It means benevolence and kindness towards those around us. I call it compassion meditation. Incorporate this in your daily practice, preferably in the morning before you begin your day. I do it the following way: After my 20 minutes of meditation, I end with a metta where I think about 4 people in my life: someone I love, someone I recently met and want to know more about, someone who I had negative feelings towards recently, and myself. For every person, I picture them being happy, healthy, safe, loved, and cared for.
- Come up with three reasons why someone could have done what they did. If you’re feeling animosity towards someone, take a step back from that emotion to ask the question, Why would they have done this? helps immensely by shifting perspective from you to them.
- Internalize this thought: Everyone around me is suffering. Everyone around me has either lost a loved one or will lose them in the future. As morbid as it sounds, it’s also true. Understanding and internalizing that even the people who we don’t like are suffering can soften our feeling towards them.
Compassion for the world: There is a simple solution here. Below are just my hypothesis on what could help,
- Reading about the world: We can only act on what we know about. So it starts with learning about the world but being intentional with the news we read. I used to read the newspaper religiously every day in 2019, but then I stopped completely. I realized knowing every piece of news happening around the world was not helpful for me. Rather, now I only receive news through curated newsletters and friends.
- Removing “in-group” bias. In-group Bias (also known as in-group favouritism) is the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others who belong to the same group that they do. Here, the “group” can be as small as a fantasy football league or as big as a nation. When there’s a mass genocide or endemic happening in another part of the world that we can’t first-hand witness, we need to remind ourselves of the need to overcome the “in-group” bias to take action.
- Tapping into our System 2 over System 1. Daniel Kahneman, a noted psychologist, and Nobel laureate popularized the two “modes” of our brain: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is a near-instantaneous mode of thinking and decision-making: it happens automatically, intuitively, and with little effort. It’s driven by instinct and our experiences. System 2 thinking is slower and requires more effort. It is conscious and logical. While System 1 is helpful in responding to one victim whose suffering we witness, we need System 2 when the scale increases. If we let System 2 guide us more when faced with global suffering, and think about it from a rational lens, we might be more motivated to do something about it.
Just like a muscle, it takes a ton of practice to get slowly develop compassion in the three verticals.
In neuroscience terms,
Neurons that fire together wire together. — Donald Hebb
While the results might not be immediate, you can be sure that they have a compounding effect when practised over months and years.
Interview with Dr Immanual Joseph
I had the honor of interviewing Dr Immnual Joseph, author of The Fifth Revolution, for this article. Aside from publishing a book on compassion, he is the founder of Compassion Leaders, a certified life coach, author of 5 more books, and a former cancer scientist. Below is a transcription of our interview.
Thank you so much for taking the time, Dr Immanual. I have been curious about this topic and started seriously thinking about it in September 2020. I was working with a life-performance coach, Dr Rhonda Farell, and she asked me “How would you describe your ideal self in three words?” It took me a while to think about that. I wrote down 20 different words, and I kept going over them to see how I would describe my ideal self. But the word that came to me quite easily was compassion.
But I think it took a year since then to develop that for myself, the people in my life and for the world. So finally, I’m excited to write an article on this topic and talk to someone like you who spent years reading this and researching this. For the readers, it would be nice if you could give a concise intro about yourself, all the books you’ve written so far, and all genres they’ve covered.
Dr Immanual Joseph
Awesome, Pooja. It’s such a pleasure to be here. Thank you for asking me to be a part of this conversation.
I’m a high school teacher. I live in Texas. I used to be a cancer scientist, and from there, I started an in-home care service for seniors and people at the end-of-life stages and did that for a few years. That experience was a molding experience for me because it helped me understand my vulnerabilities and come to terms with some of the fears in my life around age and death.
The way it did that was interesting because I realized that I was depressed and that depression stemmed from the fact that I was taking in the pain of the others I was serving. Actually, doctors, nurses, and caregivers do this all the time. They are so, so good at it. But, it’s not for me. I was not that person. As I watched and heard some people go through the challenges, I realized that I was getting clinically depressed. That point is when I started seeking solutions.
One of the things that made a difference for me was the compassion course that I took at Stanford University. It’s a program called CCT, aka Compassion Cultivation Training. There, we practice loving kindness a lot. It became a part of my everyday sustenance in a way. As I reflected more on loving and kindness, I was able to come to terms with the idea that what I was feeling was empathic distress, which is different from compassion. I understood that I genuinely needed to practice compassion, and compassion would be a solution for empathic distress. All of these experiences eventually led me to realize that if I can experience this, I’m sure I can pass on this experience to others.
Thus, I started training in companies. I created a framework called the nine pillars of compassion, and I’ve been blessed to offer that in many forums and companies. I’m still pursuing that. But on the side, I’m working with young minds; there is a saying that you stay young if you work with young people. I’m trying to do that as well. It’s been exciting learning.
Yeah, interesting is one way of describing that. I have two questions for starters. First, how do you define loving-kindness meditation or the loving-kindness practice that you have been performing at Stanford?
Dr Immanual Joseph
Loving-kindness is an age-old practice. It’s an old meditation. Metta comes from the realization of the deep understanding that despite all our differences, nationalities, genders, races, and ages, all of us desire things such as love, happiness, peace, and a sense of purpose. As we realize our commonness, Metta allows you to pass those wishes of love, joy, kindness, and all good things to others.
The way it is done is like the blossoming of a Lotus. There are many layers of the Lotus. You start with the core, which is yourself: You talk to yourself in words like, may I be free from anger and anxiety, may I be loved, may I be happy, may I be at ease. After that, you expand that to somebody who is a person you love or somebody who loves you. You’re choosing that because you can unconditionally pass on these loving wishes without any barriers. Following that, you pass it on to strangers. This part is a little more resistive, but not too much. Then comes the challenging part where you are passing your loving-kindness to people who challenge you, hurt you, and you cannot understand. This is where it takes practice. We have to understand that what they are seeing is different from mine. We understand that whatever they are doing is hurting me. But now, they are somebody’s father or somebody’s mother, somebody’s sister, somebody’s brother, and somebody’s son or child or daughter. In a way that I don’t understand, they are also seeking love and happiness and purpose and peace. Let them have that.
That’s how you’re expanding out into the world at large. You recognize that you can pass on your loving-kindness to absolutely everything on this planet and that you are a ball of energy. The world is energy, and your wishes are energy. That’s how differences are made.
I’m sure people have told you that listening to you is so calming. It’s so calm-paced and very composed. Thank you for describing that.
I have been practicing Metta. The way I practice is I begin with someone I love, someone I recently met, who I’d like to know further, someone I had negative thoughts towards recently, or someone who’s caused pain and then finally myself. It’s not easy to say that this is precisely what helped me over the past year, but I can see the difference even in the momentary practice of a few minutes. I feel that peace afterwards, and it leaves me with balancing compassion towards someone else and compassion towards myself. I believe the balance is also equally important.
And that leads me to the next question: How do you balance compassion inward and outward? Because we all have some similarities, many similarities in fact. At the same time, certain people unintentionally or intentionally cause you a lot of suffering and pain. In this case, How do you balance that compassion? And it would be great if you could give an example of how you have done that so far in your life.
Dr Immanual Joseph
I think we are talking about self-compassion and compassion for others, including compassion for those that are demanding. So, depending on the circumstances and situations, either of those could be difficult. Sometimes it is easy for me to be compassionate towards somebody else, but difficult to show compassion towards myself because I am more judgemental towards myself. In other situations, it’s easy for me to be compassionate towards myself, but I’m suspicious of others. I have too many judgment judgments going on about others. Here is where it becomes difficult for me to be compassionate towards others. It is about balance.
This question has two components: One, the balance between self-compassion and compassion. Two, how to show compassion for difficult people.
To find the balance between compassion and self-compassion, we focus on the core idea of why we want to be compassionate. Let me ask you a question, Pooja. Why do you want to be compassionate?
I genuinely believe that everyone is suffering in their way. I don’t want to add more suffering to that as much as possible.
Dr Immanual Joseph
Lovely answer. The idea of being compassionate is to be a messenger of harmony. Harmony is the core idea of compassion because the universe is somehow chaotic. The entropy has made space for a little bit of order, and that order exists because of harmony. If, as a conscious being, I can contribute to that harmony, let me do whatever I can. That is the core of my being and purpose. I can provide harmony by
- Centring myself. To make sure that all my essential goals are met and I’m in a good state of mind, and I’m able to do the things that I should be doing,
- Enabling others to find that harmony.
Finally, by keeping the focus on higher harmony, which is where the balance comes from. You can ask yourself questions like: where are you focused on? what is the bigger picture? what is the larger harmony of the earth that I’m trying to preserve? what is the larger harmony of the universe that I am called to preserve?. When you focus on these, your place and their place become less significant, but you’re always focused on the greater harmony that you can bring to the planet. This is my take on the first question about the balance between self-compassion and compassion. They are not mutually distinctive. They are all the same, but just different manifestations of how we seek to bring harmony.
The other question you asked me is how to practice compassion for somebody challenging you. To answer this, I think of what Dalai Lama said when an Australian reporter asked him a question. The reporter asked, “What if a mosquito bites you? Would you slap it or let it go?”. Dalia Lama replied, “If I am in a good mood, I will let it stay. If not, I won’t let it stay, and I will shoo away for two times. If it comes back the third time, I will slap it”. This suggests that there is no need for us to compromise our self-compassion after a certain point. It is okay to take a bad apple from a pile and throw it away. But throw it away with kindness. Do not throw it with vindictiveness. This is because you know the larger picture you’re trying to fulfill: the larger harmony you’re trying to create.
If it is somebody who’s disrupting your harmony, keeping the larger harmony of the planet in the picture, block them away from your space in a kind and compassionate way. This is one of the ways to deal with difficult people.
Beautifully put. I love the analogy of an apple. I understand that when you have someone who’s challenging in your life, simply move them away from your sphere of influence. Step out of that so that you don’t interact with them. After that, don’t harbor any ill feelings towards them. Just remove them from your life and let them be happy. Because everyone deserves a certain level of happiness and respect. Is my understanding correct?
Dr Immanual Joseph
Absolutely. But assume that you are in a position of power on a social level; you are asking whether a person should be in the social pile or not. Your task is to enforce compassion, which is to make sure that they are kindly removed from the system in such a way that they could come back and re-join in a better place. Do anything from the place of love.
So far, we’ve talked about balancing the idea of compassion towards oneself and those around you. I came across a phenomenon called psychic numbing. For someone who has not heard of it, it’s the phenomenon through which we tend to become indifferent to suffering when it happens on a large scale. This occurred in the past two years; people suffered from COVID, people passed away from COVID, and there’s a war happening right now. People are dying. Robert Jay Lifton coined the term, psychic numbing, in the 1980s or 1940s, during the Hiroshima incident. And since then, there’s been a lot of research done on where more people’s lives are valued. However, researchers have found that it’s the exact opposite. You value one person’s life much more than you value a million people’s lives just from how you behave and react to suffering.
Based on this,
- The first question is, Do you have any view on this idea of psychic numbing?
- Secondly, what can people do about this once they notice that they’re a victim of psychic numbing?
Dr Immanual Joseph
Thank you for explaining that. Psychic numbing is real. This happens because, when it is something that we can conceptually take in, we can react to it. We can take ownership of that situation. We can respond to it. But when something happens on a much larger scale, we lose our sense of control around that situation, and what we cannot control after a certain point. All the experiences of mass genocide and mass deaths take a long period sometimes. There are conflicting stories about why’s and why not during these times. It’s intellectually possible for us to debate because you are not blocking out the emotional part of that experience. If it’s a single person, you can take in the whole picture; you can look at the emotions and deal with them.
During these times, what we can do is conserve our energy. Let’s take the war that is happening. The next day, there were tons of messages in WhatsApp groups, Facebook posts, people debating who was right, and wrong, who started it, what could have been avoided, and all the logistics. These are things people can handle. So, people go back and forth, and all that energy is spent on judgments. What if we didn’t pay all that energy contemplating right and wrong?
Instead, let’s think that there is suffering happening on a large scale. Let’s think about what I can do to make a difference in my tiny little way. The blocks come in because people say that Ukraine is so far away. I don’t know any of them. I don’t know if the money that I sent to agencies will reach them because there are already plenty of people doing this. People doubt whether their small deeds would have a significant impact. Instead of getting paralyzed with all of these ideas and thoughts and letting the mind do its work, what if we say: I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
There is a famous story about the starfish and the little boy. A wise man, who is contemplating life, is walking by the seashore. And he’s seen a lot of starfishes as the tide came in and gone. So, all these starfishes were dying, and he was contemplating how to cruise nature and life and death and the cycles. Then he sees a little boy taking the starfish, throwing them out into the sea. The conversation between the man and the boy goes like this:
Man: What are you doing?
Boy: I’m saving the starfish.
Man: There’re thousands of them. How many can you throw? You really cannot make a difference.
Boy: Sir, for this starfish, it makes a difference.
Then he bends down, picks another one up in space, and throws it into the ocean.
After this, the wise man also started throwing the starfish into the sea along with the boy.
The story tells us that we cannot do everything, but we can do something. Also, when these things happen, and we have successfully built a wall about that versus me, thinking that it’s not directly impacting me. We need to realize that our indifference, our apathy, stems from a place of compassion. This is a strange thing, but we resist making a difference because we get too emotionally involved in the situation, and we don’t want that to happen. From that sense, it’s essential for us to realize that we need self-care. In these times of distress, we need to take care of ourselves a lot. That’s a good start between conserving our energy from judgment and not providing judgment to doing the little bit that we can do to ensure that we are not selling ourselves.
I thought about this for a while. You mentioned the three steps so clearly. The second step made me think a lot, about how people think whether their few hundred dollars would make a difference. The moment you start thinking that way, you’re already on a path of just diminishing returns because it’s the scale that matters. Instead of thinking that way, we can think like ‘I can afford this much. I’m going to do it, and I’m done my part. So now I can focus on something else that’s actually under my control’. This is a powerful way of contemplation and I’ll revisit this later on if I want to donate more.
There’s a podcast called Secular Buddhism by Noah Rishetta. He talks about the importance of skillful versus unskilful questions that we ask ourselves. An unskilful question would be – does this person like me? Why do they not like me? What I’m doing right now? Is it right or wrong? Am I looking too ugly right now in this outfit? Just all these questions that we ask ourselves in the internal monologue. These questions are not helping; instead, waste our time and end up hurting us.
People should really think of themselves first. It might seem selfish to think of yourself when you’re watching the news of people suffering and being bombed. But, it’s a delicate balance of doing your part but also knowing that you matter and your emotions matter, especially for people whose families are in Ukraine now. They also need to take care of themselves.
Now, let’s focus more on your book, The Fifth Revolution. The book talks less about compassion on an individual level and much more about compassion on a workplace level. Can you talk more about it? Is that what your current focus is, which is to work with organizations and companies on how they can inculcate this value in the workplace?
Dr Immanual Joseph
Compassion in the workplace is an underserved area. Often, the workplace is kind of seen as a place where you get your stuff done. You leave your personality outside the door, walk-in, do your stuff, and walk out. It’s not a very sustainable way of thinking. In the past several decades, we’ve been conditioned to put profits over people, and that hasn’t yielded the long-term results that we would look for. I’m trying to focus on that as much as possible because at every level of an organization, whether you are a leader or whether you are in a different position within the hierarchy, you’re still a human being, and you’re still struggling. If you can change your perspective about life, if you can change the way you deal with yourself and the microcosm around you, you can change the culture of the place.
What is culture? Culture is a collective set of feelings and thoughts and behaviors that you all agree on what you’re going to do. If more and more people subscribe to that centralized idea of the culture of compassion, then it becomes a very nurturing place. The beauty is as people create experiences for themselves and for others, they attract more talent. They create more engagement. There is more talent retention. There’s less stress on health-related absences. That’s what I’m trying to focus on.
I created the idea of nine pillars, which is what I described in the Fifth Revolution. I gained the idea from the fact I am a scientist. My thinking goes like how to build things together in a way that makes sense and arrange, order, and sequence them. This came up when I was trying to find the common themes that defined awesome workplace experiences. From there, I came to these nine ideas: self-compassion, people-first thinking, abundance mindset, mindfulness, embracing oneness, communicating with compassion, vulnerability, big picture thinking, and gratitude.
All these pillars are put under a larger umbrella of compassion. I’ve had people come back to me and tell me that these pillars have impacted them and that they made them stand in their strength to show their true potential. I am grateful for those experiences.
As you were saying, I was thinking about my work culture. I was a product manager at Salesforce, and I was trying to imagine the company’s culture. I remember the four values that they preached a lot. Every company has a core set of values that they constantly keep hammering you with. I’m grateful that at Salesforce, I had very few, very low unpleasant interactions throughout my two and a half years there. What is one example of a company that you currently work for?
Dr Immanual Joseph
Right now, I’m building a program for healthcare professionals, using compassion as a tool to address stress and burnout. Because of COVID, the past two years have been a challenging experience for the healthcare industry. The attrition rates for nurses and physicians, especially nurses and caregivers, are high. What I am trying to focus on is the very core of your being, your perspective about why you do what you do and in a very compassionate way. I think about the very roots of stress and burnout. That’s my focus now. The truth is that it’s not going to be restricted to healthcare. We want to start off with health care, and we want to expand it. It’s a collaboration with the university and a company that focuses on this training. But the idea is that we are sure that these ideas can be translated across industries and globally. The health care space is a good place to start.
It’s probably the most pressing need at this point for what you’re describing. What does that look like if you take a hospital, for example, are you implying programs that people can practice?
Dr Immanual Joseph
Without going into the details, what I can share with you is that it’s a hybrid program.
Because a purely virtual model will not work, because you really cannot keep too much accountability in place. At some point, it becomes forced because people’s priorities shift. A purely in-person training program works for a while. It’s impactful for a few days, but that’s not going to without constant reinforcement.
But what we have created so far is a beautiful combination of both. We are trying to make a difference, not just in one segment of an organization, but across hierarchies, and for every hierarchy, we have a different system of how we want to train. When it comes out, I think it will be a lot of fun.
Sounds very good. It sounds like you’re creating videos in advance but also having ongoing live sessions or ongoing training. People are not just watching videos on the screen, but they also have some accountability.
Wonderful! I will end with two more questions.
We’ve spoken a lot about compassion on different levels. Now, for someone who is just starting out, who probably just understood what compassion even means or is starting to, how would you recommend that they start by first practising it for themselves? Then for the people around them?
Dr Immanual Joseph
I would recommend not to separate it as self-versus others. However, that is a question that’ll happen eventually. I recently gave a TEDx talk on the idea called micro compassion. It is a tiny consistent, deliberate, everyday act of compassion that you can do at the moment.
It doesn’t matter what the situation is, whether it is a situation that is inward-facing or outward-facing. Remember to ask one question, how can I bring more compassion to my current experience?
The answers will come. You will have a direction that will make a tiny bit of difference. It might not be perfect, but it will be slightly different from how you would have behaved otherwise. And you keep doing it. After so many incidents, you will realize that compassion is not something you need to learn; rather, it is something that you are born with. It is built into our genes. We are a species, not just us; all species have compassion built into the inside. Eventually, we will remember that compassion is part of our nature.
Let’s say that I’m angry right now. How can I practice compassion at this moment? What would you do? What are some examples that you’ve tried before?
Dr Immanual Joseph
Let’s take that I’m upset with you. I’m not thinking about how can I bring compassion to this experience. Instead, how can I bring more compassion to this experience? It’s not going to be perfect. I’m not going to have a compassionate response, but I’m just going to add tinge my response to a little bit more sympathetic. What I would then probably do is withhold my voice. If I’m triggered to the point where I know I cannot control myself; self-awareness has happened. I’m then telling you “Pooja if you don’t mind, I really appreciate this conversation, but I’m not going to take it. We’ll have this conversation later with you, but I need to stay out of this. Because I’m feeling agitated, and I don’t think I will have harnessed any helpful conversation. I hope that’s okay with you”.
I really think that is how it is. If you can catch yourself and walk away from that, so much could be avoided, all the downstream effects of that. Beautiful! Thank you so much.
I have one last question. I read many stories and situations in your book where people practice compassion that really changed someone else’s life. I remember the story of a little girl who robbed the hands of an old lady during the Holocaust when they were being transported in a highly uncomfortable environment. Maybe we can end the conversation with a story that you remember distinctly.
Dr Immanual Joseph
Let me tell you a real story. This is from one of my friends, Hannah, and I’m going to talk about a workplace compassion experience. I’m sharing this story because of how simple it is and how we see situations like this every single day. This is not in the book, but Hannah was sharing this with me.
She is a journalist, who is dry, tight, bushy-tailed, and all you got something to do big in the workplace. Her direct boss is not happy with that. She is looking out for ways to put her down. It’s hostile. Soon after she joins, she’s given the assignment to cover a report, and she writes a report, and somehow, she ends up throwing it into the recycle bin. When the boss comes in around 1:00 in the afternoon and asks, “Hey, where’s the report?”. Hannah replies, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was supposed to find it. I trashed it”. To this reply, the boss loses it. She screams and says, “If I don’t have it on my desk, not just the report, but completely as an article that you’re going to print tomorrow, by 3:00 PM, you will be fired”.
She’s humiliated, not just about losing the job, but just not having proven herself in her very first job. She goes down to the place where they keep all the paper trash and tons of paper trash. She dives right into the paper trash, and she’s pulling things out, and finally, she finds the article. Fortunately, not shredded. She’s covered with trash. She goes back to her desk and starts typing. She’s about to cry but doesn’t want to. All of this is being witnessed by a senior reporter. The senior reporter comes and says she doesn’t offer any judgment or advice on how things should be. Instead, she says, “I saw that you are trying to write an article and you’re on a time crunch. I have some experience with this. Let me help you”. And the senior reporter is helping and guiding her. Because of the teamwork, the whole thing is done before three o’clock. And the next day, it comes out in the paper, and everything is fine.
In this way, the senior reporter handled the situation without judgment but ensured that there was no sympathy, apathy, or empathy because that would have basically paralyzed her. But there was compassion. At the end of the day, the suffering was eased.
Is this real? You did say it was a real experience.
Dr Immanual Joseph
Yeah, she’s a friend of mine.
I am curious to know what the manager thought after all this was over, when she went in, showed the report to her or him?
Dr Immanual Joseph
I don’t know. That’s a good question. I never asked her.
That’s such a powerful story for showing the point of suspending judgment, which is one of the four steps of noticing suffering. It’s certainly not easy. I think it just comes with more and more practice and really asking myself, and this is something I’m trying to get better at as well, which is when I’m seeing someone suffering, not empathizing with them so much that I can do something about it, but just pausing and asking myself what will help them right now and then jumping into action. Thank you so much. That was a great story and the past 55 minutes that I zoned in.
I don’t have any more questions. Do you have any final thoughts?
Dr Immanual Joseph
No. Thank you for trying to get the message out to the people, and I hope your listeners are inspired and empowered in some way to ask the simple micro compassion question, which is how can I bring more compassion to my current experience? I hope that enriches them and, and all the people around them. May you all be loved, happy, and at ease.
Thank you so much, Immanual!