Finding Compassion in a World of Chaos

PHX Perspectives | October 15th, 2019

Most people are familiar with the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.  If you’re anything like me, and allergic to apples, this allegory doesn’t apply. One needs a new outlook and I believe the answer is mindfulness. Over the past decade, mainstream health trends have begun to branch off into different directions, placing a large focus on the importance of mindfulness as the rise of mental health issues becomes a growing concern in the United States. Truth be told, the practice of mindfulness is deeply embedded in many religious practices like Buddhism and has been widely recognized as a cornerstone of their ancient traditions for centuries. Practicing mindfulness more regularly may be the hidden cure to help unify society during the current state of social and emotional discord.

Modern mindfulness practices are founded on the concept of Sati, meaning “moment to moment awareness of present events”. True mindfulness is recognized as an antidote to delusion and is a necessary component in achieving self-actualization and enlightenment. Since the 1970’s, these practices have been used to treat a variety of psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, and drug addiction. Schools, prisons, hospitals, and other institutions have designed programs to incorporate mindfulness techniques, resulting in positive outcomes associated with healthy aging, weight management, athletic performance, assisting children with special needs, and perinatal intervention. Clinical research has observed both physical and mental health benefits associated with mindfulness practices and has consistently proven to have a positive relationship with psychological health. Certain techniques have even appeared to be therapeutic in treating psychiatric disorders like psychosis.

In the book The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama refers to the necessity for mindfulness in terms of all human beings being connected and the idea that there is a fundamental goodness and sense of commonality among all living creatures. In order to truly achieve happiness, you must be willing to adopt a mental attitude predicated on the desire for others to be free of suffering, associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility, and respect towards others. The Tibetan word Tse-wa, meaning compassion, is roughly defined as a non-harmful and nonaggressive state of mind. The Dalai Lama extends this idea to consider beginning with the wish to free oneself from suffering, cultivate that feeling, and expand it to include and embrace others. By practicing compassion regularly, one has the power to ultimately reshape their intrinsic motives to strengthen more wholesome thoughts and behaviors and in turn make it easier to resist the negative ones, allowing them to eventually dissipate.

Although compassion is normally misconstrued as altruism solely benefitting the individuals being acted on, research shows that those who routinely engage in selfless acts may actually benefit more than their recipients. In a study at Harvard University, Psychologist David McClelland had students watch a film about Mother Teresa providing aid to poor and sick individuals. Not only did he observe feelings of compassion from the students, but further testing showed that there were physical improvements as well. After testing the saliva of the students, McClelland found an increase in immunoglobin-A, an antibody which helps to fight infections. A second study, by James House at the University of Michigan, recorded a set of data comparing individuals engaged in philanthropic endeavors.  The results were an increase in the rate of life expectancy and vitality. Further research affirmed the Buddhist belief that extending altruism towards others improves happiness, mindfulness, and can help treat depression. 90% of individuals associate volunteer work with a euphoric, warm, and energetic high, resulting in feeling significantly calmer followed by a boost of self-esteem. When I first read The Art of Happiness, I tested the power of compassion with simple acts of kindness, like holding the door for others no matter how far away they seemed. Every time I did so, individuals would run towards the door expressing appreciation for me. Now, I understand that this may be more an expression of guilt than anything. However, it seemed almost as if there was a net transfer of the energy that I normally would have utilized for my own purposes to instead pull the individual along faster. This is just one small example of how mindfulness may be used to empower others.

In a world entrenched in chaos, confusion, and absolute uncertainty, it seems that we have lost touch with many of our core values—which are needed now more than ever. It does not make sense that in the 21st century, with all the opportunities available to us, that society should be in a state of such emotional distress and civil discord. Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated that “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that”. Allow us to rediscover these principles which unify the fundamental essence of our being and will help lead humanity in a more positive direction, one act of compassion at a time.



The PHX Perspectives blog is a platform that creates an opportunity to share public health stories and viewpoints. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be 600-800 words long, should contact Population Health Exchange reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Population Health Exchange or Boston University School of Public Health.