Monday, May 13, 2013

Kindness and Compassion

I am not surprised to see a new study out which links spirituality and health.  For quite a while, people have thought there was a connection between spirituality and health.  In fact for quite a long time, I have assumed there are a variety of ways to talk about health.  Normally, I think people mean physical health.  That is a given.  If someone asks if you are healthy, they typically mean physical.  Or if I call in “sick,” the boss is going to assume I have a fever, a cold or some other physical malady.
           
But we all know there are ways we talk about mental health.  Everyone would assume health is not limited to one’s physical state of being.  I can be perfectly healthy and not feel “well.”  Ask anyone who has bouts of depression.  He or she may be ok physically, but not at all up to engaging life.  I can be physically in tip-top shape and not want to get out of the bed in the morning because I feel so blue.
           
Finally, I am also convinced there is such a thing as spiritual health.  Doubtlessly, this is the most contested of the three kinds of health---physical, mental and spiritual.  I know some folks would dismiss the whole spiritual realm as so much bunk.  But if I take it seriously, then I can be spiritually healthy or spiritually not well.
           
Furthermore, I am convinced there is interconnection between these three forms of health.  It is difficult to feel mentally well off if I am physically suffering.  And if I am experiencing spiritual health aches, then that probably affects my mental and physical well-being.  Fiddle with one form of health and I am sure you fiddle with the other two.  
           
Now I return to the study that precipitated this reflection.  I was captivated by the title of the little report on the study.  The title is: “The Biology of Kindness.”  The subtitle was just as compelling.  Speaking of kindness, the subtitle says; “How It Makes Us Happier and Healthier.”  “Sign me up,” I thought!  I want to be healthier and happier.  Who wouldn’t?  You would have to be sick not to want to be healthier and happier!
           
The biology part of the article focuses on the vagus nerve.  Unless you have been to medical school or studied nursing, chances are you never heard of the vagus nerve.  Even if you never heard of it, it is an important feature of your body.  It is a very long nerve.  It runs from the brain down to the stomach.  This nerve is connected with speech, breathing, and the digestive system.  For example, it is shown to be related to the heartbeat.  There may be some kind of connection between people who become adept at meditation and the way that affects the vagus nerve.  A number of studies indicate the relationship of this nerve and issues of health and wellness.
           
And so I come to the study on the biology of kindness.  One of the authors of that study, Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at U. of North Carolina says, “We’ve had a lot of indirect clues that relationships are healing.  What’s exciting about this study is that it suggests that every (positive) interaction we have with people is a miniature health tune-up.”
           
This is good news.  All I need is a positive interaction with someone to ensure good things are happening to my vagus nerve and, in turn, causing healthy things to happen for me.  Of course, this is not going to replace drugs.  But it is an additional way to take care of yourself…and perhaps give someone else a gift, too.  Be nice, be healthy, enjoy life.  That is a very simple recipe.  But apparently, there is some biological truth to the advice.
           
There was one more sentence in the study that is a great take-away for me.  The author said, “Being a good friend, and being compassionate toward others, may be one of the best ways to improve your own health.”  I think this is true; I certainly hope it is true.  It is an easy thing to prescribe.  Just think about it: your doctor prescribes that you become a good friend.  Your doctor also tells you to be compassionate toward other people you meet each day.
           
That should not be that difficult.  And yet so many people cannot follow the prescription.  They prefer grumpiness to grins.  They opt for snarling to serendipity.  Perhaps the way to look at it is to see kindness and compassion as a prescription.  For three days or two weeks---whatever you think you can manage---you “take your medicine.”  Or in this case, it is better to say, “you give your medicine.”
           
Resolve to be kind and compassionate.  Resolve to do it, even if the other person does not ask for it or deserve it.  Giving it won’t kill you.  If the study is correct, it may prevent an early death.  And even if you don’t live longer, life will be better.  Who does not want to be healthy till you die!
           
And what if the whole group around you opts for this advice?  The community will begin a transformation process that might lead to new and better things.  Perhaps parties will break out.  Perhaps people will feel loved and cared for in new and profound ways.  That sounds a great deal like what the great spiritual teachers have been advising for centuries.  I am going to give it a whirl.

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