“Personal healing is the first step towards healing the world. Before we discover and explore the unresolved conflicts within ourselves, we cannot recognize the damage to our world, that we unconsciously create, and we will have no access to our inner wisdom. To value the world is to value ourselves, and to value ourselves is also to value the world, and that is something men (we all) must learn”
-Carol Shaefer, Women’s Wisdom
It is quite clear that the world, as we currently know it, is very sick. Climate change, droughts, famines, deforestation, forest fires, pollution of water, land, and sky, and mass extinction of species, to name just a few current crises. Over the past couple years I have been lead to believe that this destruction is completely synonymous and symbolic of how sick we humans are. War, colonization, oppression, illness, suicide, poverty, starvation, violence, alienation, stress and suffering, and clearly the list can go on. The massively damaged and exploited ecosystems on the Earth can be understood as completely connected to the severely unjust societal ecosystem that human beings are currently functioning within.
Colonization in the past, as well as currently, has caused and continues to cause devastating harm to the earth and to Indigenous Peoples. This pattern of human behavior, stemming from greed, capitalism, racism, white supremacy and patriarchy, that functions through control, manipulation, exploitation, mistreatment, and the genocide of life, I believe, ultimately arises from how cut off humans have become to their hearts, to compassion, to peace, and to cooperation. Although, this may seem like a tremendously oversimplified version of why humans perpetrate so much violence, and I acknowledge there are a multitude of other factors, I still believe that one’s internal world has major impacts on what happens externally. I do not believe humans are naturally violent, racist, misogynistic, hateful, selfish, competitive creatures. Humans are taught to be that way, as well as taught to believe that these are inherent human characteristics. So that leads to the question:
What are we teaching?
I cannot help but wonder what this world would become if children in schools were actively learning and practicing compassion, cooperation, mindfulness, mutual understanding, equity, active listening, peaceful negotiation, and our interconnectedness with one another and the earth. Instead, children from a young age are taught to compete, compare, and devalue one another, in a colonial, euro-centric, patriarchal, oppressive education system that only allows a small percentage of students to actually thrive and grow to their full capacity. Children’s identity often becomes so linked to their labeling as either a “bad”, a “mediocre”, or a “good” student, based on numbers and behavior evaluations that rarely take into account each person’s unique abilities and gifts.
As children grow older into adulthood, it seems as though success in the forms of the accumulation of money and status, are understood to be valued higher than life, higher than peace, higher than connection, higher than wellbeing, and higher than happiness. What if our society was teaching children and one another that taking good care of the earth and all of her living beings, including one another, is tremendously more fulfilling and valuable than money or status? Teaching children practical and accessible ways to practice, embody, and strengthen our natural capacity for compassion, which can be defined as “the recognition of another’s suffering and the desire to alleviate such suffering” is usually not apart of the conventional elementary school’s curriculum.
Several universities including Stanford University School of Medicine decided that researching and learning about the science of compassion was worth some time and energy. Stanford Medicine opened up The Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in partnership with His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso as the Founding Patron. This centre is dedicated to promoting, supporting, and conducting rigorous scientific studies of compassionate and altruistic behavior. The founder of the centre, James R. Doty, M.D, shared that there is ever-increasing data that shows that when we care for and feel close to others, we improve our own health and even our longevity. He shared the following impactful statement:
“The chain of causation resulting in war, poverty, global warming, ecological catastrophe, and the myriad afflictions of our species is not an external problem but a problem of the human heart. While science and technology offer immense hope for a variety of conditions, until we focus these extraordinary tools on the afflictions of the heart, our species is doomed” (Doty, M.D, 2012).
As a brief aside, lets explore some afflictions the human heart can experience. Ischaemic Heart Disease is the main leading cause of death globally, with 8.76 million deaths accounted for in 2015 alone. Sudden cardiac death (SCD) is responsible for half of all heart disease deaths. SCD occurs when the vagal tone decreases. The vagal tone is responsible for parasympathetic nerve fibers that control the heart rate. Another way to explain this phenomenon is that the electrical system to the heart suddenly malfunctions and becomes very irregular. The heart beats very fast, the ventricles flutter or quiver, and blood flow to the brain and rest of the body reduces so drastically that a loss of consciousness leading to death occurs, unless immediate emergency treatment is begun. Research has shown that secondary effects of the hearts electrical system weakening are; elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a decreased immune function, and inflammation.
The research being done at the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, has shown that through compassion practice, one can tone and strengthen these parasympathetic nerve fibers and by doing so become calmer, decrease ones heart rate and increase one’s capacity for empathy and social connectedness. Even as little as two weeks of practicing compassion has been shown to decrease stress and strengthen immune function.
Every one of us has experienced stress, suffering, and wounds to the heart. It is a part of the human condition. However, if these wounds are not given the love, compassion, and care they need to heal, they lead to a continuation of pain in one’s relationship to oneself, others, and the planet. The science of epigenetics (the study of heritable changes in gene expression) has shown that trauma, violence, emotional, spiritual, and psychological wounds can be transmitted through chemical changes in the DNA and passed on from parents to children (Wolynn, 2016). This means that all of us are currently carrying pain that does not belong directly to us, but to our parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and so on (Wolynn, 2016). Learning to cultivate unconditional kindness and comfort towards oneself, while embracing the human experience, as challenging as it may be, can help us avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation (Neff, 2011). Feeling compassion for oneself which transcends to feeling it for all others, can prevent the cycle of trauma, violence, and pain being passed to our children and future generations, including the way in which we interact with the planet we are living on.
“Every advance in our understanding of ourselves, our nature, and our place in the cosmos, deepens our reverence and love” (Naht, 2013).
We can be the generation that decides that we will no longer ignore and perpetuate the psychological, emotional, spiritual, and energetic wounds that have been passed on throughout the generations. We have the capacity to become beacons of light, brightly burning through the illusion of our separateness from our hearts, the planet, and all other beings. We have the capacity to recognize that any violence done to another is direct violence to ourselves and any violence done to ourselves is direct violence to others. We have the power to heal our planet, our home, but we must begin with our very own heart.
If you were to light a bright, warm flame of compassion and peak inside all the dark hidden crevices of your heart, what wounds would you find that are calling out to be acknowledged, witnessed, cared for, felt, and healed?
With a gentle hand over your own heart, feeling the profoundness of the pulse that keeps you alive, perhaps you can begin to acknowledge and witness your own suffering with love.
“Yes. I hurt.
But I also feel care and concern.
I am both the comforter and the one in need of comfort.
There is more to me than the pain I am feeling right now,
I am also the heartfelt response to that pain.”
– Kristen Neff,
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself
Doty, J. (2012). The science of compassion. The huffington post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-r-doty-md/compassion_b_1639200.html
Hanh, T. (2013). Love letter to the Earth. Parralex Press, The Unified Buddhist Church, Berkely, California 94707.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself.
HarperCollins Publishers, 195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007, p.50.
Schaefer, C. (2006). Grandmothers counsel the world: Women elders offer their vision for our planet, Trumpeter Books, Horticultural Hall, 300 Massachusetts 02115.
WebMD (2017). Heart disease and sudden cardiac death. WebMD. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/guide/sudden-cardiac-death#1
WHO (2017). The top 10 causes of death. World Health Organization. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/
Wolynn, M. (2016). It didn’t start with you: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle. Penguin Random House LLC, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
By Cassandra Cornacchia
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.