A touch of compassion: ‘We’re creating individuals who don’t know how to reach out to each other’
A psychologist believes nurturing compassion is the key to solving personal problems and societal ills
‘Our competitive, dynamic society is pushing out compassion on all kinds of levels, moving us away from ways that facilitate our wellbeing,’ says psychologist Prof Paul Gilbert
Paul Gilbert, author of the best-selling self-help book Overcoming Depression, and, more recently, The Compassionate Mind, wants people to wake up to the value of compassion.
Gilbert, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Derby in England, defines compassion as a “basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it.”
“There has been a complete neglect of compassion in our world,” he says. “For example, humans are a very tactile species, and we respond to hugs and cuddles, yet the fear of paedophilia is creating a generation of children who aren’t touched [by people other than close family members],” he says.
“We are creating isolated individuals who don’t know how to reach out to each other. And our competitive, dynamic society is pushing out compassion on all kinds of levels, moving us away from ways that facilitate our wellbeing,” adds Gilbert.
With a degree in economics under his belt before he studied psychology, Gilbert acknowledges that “the link between our evolved psychology and the economic systems in which we live, in the creation of misery or happiness, has never been well articulated”.
Demise of welfare states
Gilbert is an advocate of the welfare state, and he bemoans its demise in the UK. “The philosophy of building societies for our welfare is now all but gone, replaced by the need to maintain a competitive edge and make efficiencies, fear of unemployment and the problems of running increasingly complex and expensive services such as health, education and transport,” he writes in The Compassionate Mind.
Also alert to the devastating effects of climate change and conflicts around the world, Gilbert says “we need to engage with the suffering that is around us. Let’s think about the world we’ve created and start to address that.”
Focusing on the inner development of self-kindness, social connectedness and contentment can, according to Gilbert, help us on our way.
Within academic and clinical psychology, Gilbert is best known for his compassion-focused therapy (CFT), a new approach that trains therapists and clients to put kindness to self and a supportive attitude to one’s problems at the heart of the therapeutic encounter.
The premise is that the lack of self-kindness and warmth is central to the many states of mental suffering. Or, in other words, the dominance of shame and/or self-criticism is what prevents people from lifting themselves out of depression, anxiety and addictions. Gilbert is also a strong advocate of volunteering as a means towards helping others and oneself.
On a broader level, Gilbert says, “we are beginning to emerge from religious views of how things are to understanding scientific explanations of ourselves, like how our brains evolve and our genes can change [during our lifetimes], as well as the influence of the families we grew up in,” he says.
He also sees our current scientific understanding of the mind-body connections as an important source of knowledge about how we live our lives.
“Everybody knows now the powerful effects emotions have on your brain and body. Whether it’s the feeling of hostility pumping cortisone and other nasty hormones into your body to drive you into depression on a physiological level, or how if you are kind and nice to yourself you will stimulate the production of oxytocin and endorphins which make you feel good.”
Courage to tolerate difficult things
In The Compassionate Mind, he writes, “the kinder and more compassionate we are with ourselves, the more we can develop the courage to tolerate difficult things”. But, he warns, compassion is not about letting anyone off the hook or avoiding acknowledging the harm we do.
Like mindfulness, compassion-focused therapy is rooted in ancient Buddhist meditation practices. And like many other psychologists using mindfulness, he previously used cognitive behaviour therapy, but now he blends research in neuroscience with mindfulness training.
“Mindfulness helps us pay attention to what arises within ourselves, whereas compassion is the motivation, the preparedness, the willingness to engage with suffering rather than hope it goes away or deny it exists,” says Gilbert. “It’s there for everyone but it needs to be cultivated.”
“There’s nothing easy in following a compassionate path, and at times it requires courage. But the evidence is now overwhelming: feeling love and compassion for ourselves and others is deeply healing and soothing, and helps us face the many challenges that come our way.”
Prof Paul Gilbert is the keynote speaker at The Art of Being Still: Mindfulness and Compassion, the fourth annual conference organised by the Sanctuary in Dublin Castle on Wednesday, October 30. Other speakers are Br Richard Hendrick and Sr Stanislaus Kennedy from the Sanctuary. sanctuary.ie, 01-6705419 for details. compassionatewellbeing.com