Mindful Connection and Compassion: Lesson IV in the Mindfulness Series
This weeks mindfulness lesson for staff took the focus from the intrapersonal to the interpersonal perspective. Connection and relationships are best served when the “self” is healthy, but our health is also healed through connecting meaningfully with others through love of all kinds.
Mindful Interconnectedness Lesson Plan:
1. Start with three minutes of silence leading into a reading of the poem “Who Understands Me but Me” by Jimmy Santiago Baca
- Group members can stay in the silence with eyes closed or read along with the poem
- Consider the following after reading: What is this poem saying about adversity? What connection does it have to compassion?
2. Begin by processing the previous weeks lesson with the Entrance Ticket
- Share out metaphors for adversity
3. Read the quote at the top of the handout
Human communities are only as healthy as our conceptions of human nature. It has long been assumed that selfishness, greed and competitiveness lie at the core of human behavior, the products of our evolution. It takes little imagination to see how these assumptions have guided most realms of human affairs, from policy making to media portrayals of social life… Recent scientific findings forcefully challenge this view of human nature…. Compassion is deeply rooted in our brains, our bodies and in the most basic ways we communicate.
– Dacher Keltner, Professor of psychology, University of California, Berkeley
- Share out responses
4. Listen to the Invisibilia podcast “Entanglement” (first five minutes only)
- Write down questions, responses and quotes while listening
- Ponder the idea: How could entanglement be a metaphor for humanity?
- Share out responses to the podcast
5. Read article in chunks together
- Chunk One: What is Mindful Interconnectedness? What Happens in the Brain when Humans Interact and Connect? In What Ways are Humans Connected to One Another?
What is Mindful Interconnectedness?
“Mindful interconnectedness” is bringing the conscious attention of mindfulness to all of the ways that humans are dependent on one another emotionally and physically on a deeper level than our articulated feelings or even our conscious thoughts.
Humans are attuned to one another’s emotional states in ways that are inherent and beyond our conscious control. This attunement can unknowingly cause damage to self and others if these connections are ignored; however, our implicit bonds with everyone in our environment are also necessary for survival and are the source of all of the greatest human joys.
With every interaction with another human being, we are connecting to that person on a level that is physiological as well as emotional. In addition, we communicate our own emotions to every person we meet in affecting ways unknowingly.
Mindful interconnectedness is using this knowledge and these connections to our own advantage and the advantage of all of those with whom we come into contact. It is the conscious cultivation of love, empathy and compassion for our fellow man in order to bring joy to self and others.
What Happens in the Brain when Humans Interact and Connect?
Human’s most innate nature is to understand and interact with other humans in meaningful ways. According to Stanford University professor… “We are wired to read each other’s bodies” through a process called resonance. This largely unconscious system processes the feelings of those with whom one is interacting continually. There are specific neurons, called mirror neurons, which register the subtle facial expressions, body language, and even the unexpressed emotions of other humans.
Through the resonance process, one is not only aware of the states of others but is also affected by them. When mirror neurons sense happiness, that happiness is infectious. The same is true for anger, sadness, compassion and the whole continuum of human emotions.
Even when emotions are unexpressed, the human resonance system is so powerful that it is sometimes called “mind reading” by researchers. In addition, although we process these shared emotional states at a subconscious level, they are felt within the body. This makes more sense when one is aware of the involuntary neural receptors present in the heart and the stomach- both commonly referenced when referring to unexplained intuitions (feeling something “in the heart” or having a “gut feeling”).
In What Ways Are Humans Connected to One Another?
Social connection is an inherent and driving force for all of humanity. Humans’ “resting state” resides in a system of the brain that seeks to understand self and relationship with others. This means that when one is not consciously focusing attention on an analytic task, he or she is automatically directed back to the social mind. In addition, there are three separate “neural networks” in the brain specifically linked to connecting with others. These networks deal with:
- Reading and predicting the emotions of others
- Registering social pain and pleasure
- Absorbing cultural values and beliefs
Anthropologists have found conclusive evidence that the human brain evolved to the size and capacity that it has because of a need to relate to others. Researcher Lieberman confirms, “To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing the modern brain, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out and connecting with others.”
Modern society is counterintuitive to these findings. Culture implies that success and financial gain bring happiness, and this implication has a major impact on the goals of young people. According to the American Freshman Survey, top goals of incoming freshman have changed from “starting a family” and “helping others” in the 1960s to “being very well off financially” in the 1980s; financial success peaked at an all time high as a primary goal in 2012 at 81% of incoming freshman.
Despite the individualistic and materialistic nature of modern industrialized culture, humans are most satisfied when they can give of themselves to others, which truly show how humans’ innermost impulse leads to interconnectedness. In one study, individuals who were given ten dollars to donate to charity showed more activation in the rewards center of the brain than those who were given ten dollars to spend on themselves. Other studies have shown that compassion activates the brain’s reward center, even when there is no recognition for the good deed.
- 6. Ponder the question: How might society be different if everyone was aware of this information?
7. Chunk Two: “What Does Mindful Interconnectedness Look Like? What are the Benefits of Mindful Interconnectedness?
What Does Mindful Interconnectedness Look Like?
Interconnectedness with others is built on the following three ideas:
- Connection– Connection is recognizing and appreciating how one is joined with others and the world in implicit and undeniable ways. No man is an island, as each person was birthed and has survived because of the actions of hundreds of generations of connectedness to every other human, animal, and element on this earth.
- Compassion– Compassion is empathy combined with the desire to act upon another’s suffering. Having the courage to see and inwardly experience others’ pain is a very difficult but necessary step to this process; desire to be present for that person is a natural repercussion, however. We will not always be able to eliminate, or even lessen, the pain of others, but we can be present for suffering in all instances.
- Vulnerability– Vulnerability is the willingness to share of our “true selves” with others rather than projecting an inauthentic or “perfect” image. Vulnerability, showing and sharing our brokenness, is the root of connection and compassion. When others see our “true self,” they will be more able to be their “true self” as well. Humans have radar for authenticity because of our sophisticated neural systems for social interaction. We are inherently attracted by authenticity and repelled by distance and projecting in others.
What are the Benefits of Mindful Interconnectedness and Compassion?
Connecting with others and showing compassion leads to physical and mental health benefits such as:
- Faster recovery from diseases
- Lower blood pressure
- Less depression and anxiety
- Stronger immune system
- Longer lifespan
- Higher self esteem
When one feels compassion for others particularly, the stress response is replaced with something new. Instead of operating under “fight of flight,” the body’s heart rate drops lower as one prepares to approach and comfort the person in suffering. In addition, as compassionate action increases, so does the level of oxytocin within the body.
In a work setting, a culture of “companionate love” is highly correlated with higher work satisfaction, more team work, less burn out, and more personal accountability for employees. It is also correlated with higher client satisfaction. Confirmed by Barsade and O’Neill in the Harvard Business Review, “People who worked in a culture where they felt free to express affection, tenderness, caring, and compassion for one another were more satisfied with their jobs, committed to the organization, and accountable for their performance.”
- Ponder the question: What does it mean to “be present for suffering”? What does that look like?
8. Chunk Three: What Are the Risks of Not Connecting with Others? How Does Mindful Interconnectedness Build Resilience in Self and Others?
What Are the Risks of Not Connecting With Others?
A lack of social connection has been shown to have adverse reactions, even more so than smoking or obesity. Professor Brene Brown stated in an interview, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as were meant to. We break apart. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
Health risks aside, “social pain” has a physiological basis, so much so that Tylenol has been shown in one study to alleviate the painful symptoms of “heartbreak.”
The cost of choosing not to connect with others can be measured in health risks and social pain, but most importantly, the costs lie in one losing what is most essential to his or her own humanity without it. When connection is lost, something seems “missing.” That sense of loss can be pervasive even as the cause remains elusive. One might spend his or her whole life seeking fulfillment that can be measured in square footage or paid for with a credit card. A person may get lost in “success” and prestige,” may become one who “survives life” instead of living it, one who hides under the guise of sarcasm or who sleeps through life under the influence of alcohol, drugs or other addictions used to numb the pain. All of these lives are built on the effects of refusing to open one’s heart, to live the life of pain and joy that is built through true interconnectedness.
How Does Mindful Interconnectedness Build Resilience in Self and Others?
Humans learn, grow, and gain strength from one another at all times on a physiological level, but particularly in times of difficulty. Linda Graham confirms, “The prefrontal cortex matures- and is repaired- most rapidly through interactions with other mature cortices. The most effective way to learn resilience is by interacting with other resilient human beings.”
Not only can one learn and heal by interacting with others, contact with “well-regulated brains” literally helps to stabilize and regulate the brain activity of those with whom they come into contact (Graham). Studies show that resilient action goes “four levels deep,” meaning that the effects of initial contact with a resilient brain has a rippling effect that significantly outlasts the initial interaction, affecting many individuals whom one might never even meet.
All interaction with resilient individuals is helpful, but the most meaningful healing and change occurs within our deep, personal relationships. Through the mirror of another’s love, one can find the good within his or her self. Through honest reflection and dialogue with a compassionate “true other” the most learning is gained. Graham’s definition of a “true other” is one who may or may not be the closest to us but are certainly the “…people most attuned to us, most accepting of our innate goodness, our essential worth as human beings” (133). These relationships heal in essential ways, and humans can consciously choose to be a “true other” in any situation by listening, being present, and seeking to find the best in those whom one encounters.
- Write down: Who are your “true others”? What value or what worth loving do they see within you?
9. Chunk Four: What Are Strategies for Mindfully Building Interconnectedness?
What Are Strategies for Mindfully Building Interconnectedness?
Sharing Our Authentic Self
Sharing one’s whole and imperfect self with others is an essential key to building connection to others. In addition, having self-compassion is the first step to building compassion for anyone else. According to researcher Brené Brown, authenticity and the willingness “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart” while also feeling you are worthy of love is a key to connection. Vulnerability is the basis and root of such experiences. She states that of those she categorizes as “open hearted,” all had the following in common:
“They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating — as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.”
For many, vulnerability is uncomfortable and scary because of the fears that accompany it. “What will others think?”, “What pain will be incurred” or “Will still be loved?” all block genuine sharing of real experiences. Working past fears and embracing insecurities and imperfections as shared experiences with others, however, is essential to building connections and sustaining the truly human experience with which each of us has been gifted.
Practices for Being Present with Others’ Pain
Mindful Listening- The practice of mindfulness is about quieting the inner world so that one may be fully present in the moment. Mindful listening focuses the energy of the whole self on being in the moment with another person without thinking about personal connections/experiences or what should be said next in the conversation.
Mindful listening includes not interrupting the other person or commenting, but instead reflecting back what you hear that person saying. Other ways to show and process listening are to paraphrase what you think the person has said and mirror his or her sentiments and thoughts verbally. For example, “What I hear you saying is… Is this right?” Asking questions such as “Can you tell me more about…?” can also help to illicit insights and show genuine interest.
Loving-kindness Meditation– This Buddhist meditation practice is a way of sharing empathy for self and others. Just a seven-minute loving-kindness meditation was shown in a 2008 study to increase “feelings of closeness and connection” and physiological responses that indicate compassion in participants.
Showing Non-Verbal Compassion to Others
Touch– Touch is the primary way that humans connect and show compassion for one another, and it has serious effects on the ways we heal and how we feel around others. Human touch indicates that one isn’t alone in handling a problem. James A Cohan, University of Virginia psychologist states, “We think that humans build relationships precisely for this reason, to distribute problem solving across brains. We are wired to literally share the processing load, and this is the signal we are getting when we receive support through touch.”
The benefits of touch are far-reaching and hard to believe considering we live in a society that encourages “personal space” and discourages touching others in professional and educational settings. However, “high touch” professional basketball teams are generally higher performing on the court; students who are touched or tapped on the shoulder when asked a question are three times more likely to volunteer again of their own volition; and fifteen minutes of touch a day has shown developmental benefits in children and cognitive and emotional benefits in adults.
Our neural and physiological systems are highly sensitive to touch as a mode of communication and highly responsive to compassionate touch in positive ways. Something as simple as a sympathetic hand on someone’s shoulder or a gentle touch to the arm to communicate can make a significant difference in feelings of connection and eliciting positive emotional and physiological responses.
Body language– Expressing openness to others through body language can be done in the following ways:
- Pointing one’s body toward the person speaking, and leaning toward him or her
- Sitting with arms and legs unfolded in an “open” posture; the more a person’s body is “closed in on itself” the less likely they are to appear “open” to other’s experiences and feelings
- Nodding in confirmation and using other affirmative gestures (such as a hand on one’s heart)
- Using touch as a tool to communicate
- Using “soft” eye contact by looking in the middle of one’s face so as to see his or her full facial expression
- Giving full attention to the person talking (not doing other things such as checking the time, a phone etc.)
Other Compassion/Connection Strategies:
- Compassion begins with the self; use mindfulness to practice “non-judgment” and quiet negative thoughts
- Do “five-minute” favors often:
- Express gratitude
- Give genuine praise and positive feedback
- Show sympathy/empathy when someone is in difficulty
- Notice when someone is struggling and see what can be done to help
- In times of difficulty, even if you cannot be with someone with whom you feel connected, imagining his or her face can help to build resilience in difficult times
- Identify “true others” with whom you can reflect and share personal experiences
- Who are your true others?
- What do your “true others” see worth loving or valuing within you?
- What struggles have you been able to overcome with support of said person(s)?
- Identify resilience “role models” from whom you can learn specific techniques and strategies
- Who are your role models?
- What do they do well?
- How do they handle difficulty? Build meaningful connections? Seek advice and resources?
- What personal characteristics do you hope to emulate?
- Discuss strategies as a group
10. End with loving-kindness meditation – 9 minutes
Complete the journaling activity and then share with your mentors and “true others.” Reflect in writing about the effects of this practice on you and those with whom you shared.
Enjoy and appreciate all of the lovely connections around you for the last weeks of school. Appreciate the beauty and engage in growth opportunities. Continue your mindfulness journey through journaling, meditation and intentions.