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So what does it take for you to live in the moment – to be truly present in a place of peace?
Karen Armstrong is a former nun and now one of the world’s foremost authorities on comparative religions with her latest book A Case For God topping the best-seller list. She is also the recent creator of the “Charter for Compassion,” whose signatories (like Prince Hassan of Jordan and the Dalai Lama) fight extremism, hatred, and exploitation throughout the world. She was recently asked by Oprah’s O Magazine what it takes to live in the moment, to seize the day. She replied:
“Sometimes you wake up at 3 A.M. when everything seems dark, and you think, ‘Life isn’t fair. I’ve got too much to do. I’m too put-upon.’ It’s a rat run of self-pity! But when you feel compassion, you dethrone yourself from the center of the world. Doing that has made me a more peaceful person.”
It’s amazing how much stress we put ourselves under when we sit on the throne of our lives, trying to be in control of everything. Rather than producing peace, this worldview contributes to anxiety and distress instead. It’s kind of like trying to spin multiple plates on sticks. The first few plates we seem to handle pretty well. But as the plates get added, we’re running around trying to keep them all from falling and breaking into pieces. It isn’t long before the task is simply too much for us, no matter how gifted or full of energy we might be. So much for ruling our kingdoms with ease.
I like Karen Armstrong’s perspective – what helps to dethrone us from the center of the world is compassion – having an outward focus of empathy and caring toward others. Counter-intuitively, including more people in our lives that we give love to actually decreases our dis-stress and anxiety and centers us more in a peaceful frame of heart, mind, and spirit. It’s almost like we were designed to live with compassion.
And actually, we were! Neuroscience research in fact reveals that compassion, helping others, triggers activity in the portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. Every compassionate act causes a pleasurable physiological response. In addition, behaviors associated with compassionate love—warm smiles, friendly hand gestures, affirmative forward leans—actually produce more oxytocin in the body which is the hormone that promotes feelings of warmth and connection to others and enhances feelings of trust.
And the compassionate act doesn’t have to fancy or extreme or complicated at all. Dr. Lorne Ladner, a clinical psychologist in private practice in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., wrote: “I just recently read one research study that found that people who pray for others tend to live longer than those who do not. The point is that when we develop feelings of love or compassion, we may not always be able to actually benefit others in a direct way, but we ourselves do always benefit from such feelings. They serve as causes for our own happiness.” When’s the last time you chose to actually pray a blessing for someone else? How difficult is that?
So Karen Armstrong seems to be on to something when she talks about her personal experience of how compassion actually helps her live more peacefully. The act of dethroning self with our obsessive need to control life by giving authentic love and compassion to others is a eustress rather than a distress – the positive, energy-producing kind of stress rather than the debilitating kind. And the long term affects of this are truly transformative.
Compassionate acts as simple as loving, sympathetic touch are powerful, too. According to experts in a study about emotion and touch, sympathetic touches are processed by receptors under the surface of the skin, and set in motion a cascade of beneficial physiological responses:
“Female participants waiting anxiously for an electric shock showed activation in threat-related regions of the brain, a response quickly turned off when their hands were held by loved ones nearby. Friendly touch stimulates activation in the vagus nerve, a bundle of nerves in the chest that calms fight-or-flight cardiovascular response and triggers the release of oxytocin, which enables feelings of trust. Research by Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney reveals that sympathetic environments — those filled with warm touch — create individuals better suited to survival and reproduction, as Darwin long ago surmised. Rat pups who receive high levels of tactile contact from their mothers — in the form of licking, grooming, and close bodily contact — later as mature rats show reduced levels of stress hormones in response to being restrained, explore novel environments with greater gusto, show fewer stress-related neurons in the brain, and have more robust immune systems.”
The practice of compassion has the potential of radically transforming the life of the giver as well as the lives of the receivers. No wonder Jesus, in concluding his public discourse about the values of God’s kingdom, connected the giving of compassion, living a life of unconditional love and care for all others (including even our enemies) with a life characterized by freedom from worry, anxiety, and distress (Matthew 5-6). Compassion, one of the most godly things we can do in life, puts us in place of inner peace and tranquility, a state of trust and unselfishness in the very heart of the Divine Life.
So what empowers you to be able to live in the moment, to seize the day, even in the midst of stress? Have you tried compassion lately? As the spiritual and scientific experts reminds us, it just might help transform your heart, mind, spirit, and body.