The Science of Compassion #1000Speak

Image courtesy of Kitt O'Malley via

Image courtesy of Kitt O’Malley via

What was said to the rose that made it open was said to me here in my chest.

– Jalal al-Din Rumi, “What Was Told, That”

While driving home from the hospital today, a female caller phoned my favorite radio station pleading for prayer on behalf of her four-year-old nephew, Adam. “He has been in the hospital the last few days and just had surgery,” her voice trembled, “he’s not doing so well.” As she spoke, I felt a blanket of warmth within my chest, and then a dull sting behind my eyes before tears began to run down my cheeks. I do not know this woman or her nephew, nor do I know the specifics of their current situation. Yet there I was, crying for them. And the question that came to mind was: Why?

Contrary to my positing in “Compassion is a Muscle”, we are hard-wired for compassion (I know. I checked.). We have brain cells, called mirror neurons, which help us to empathize and socialize with others. We have the vagus nerve system, which fires with compassionate response in moments of trauma and trouble. And then there’s our intelligence: our hearts.

At the HeartMath Research Institute, in Boulder Creek, California, scientists are studying the heart-brain connection. Director of Research, Rollin McCraty, says this:

Over the past 18 years, our research center has investigated heart and brain interactions: how the heart and the brain communicate with each other and how that affects consciousness in our perceptions. One of the things we identified in our research was the state we now call coherence. And what we found was that when we’re feeling positive emotions, like we’re really appreciating the sunset, or really feeling love or compassion or care for someone, that the heart beats a very different message. The heart generates, by far, the largest rhythmic electromagnetic field produced in the body and what we’ve now found is that if we look at the spectrum analysis of the magnetic field created by the heart, that emotional information is actually encoded and modulating into those fields. So, by learning to shift our emotions, that’s changing the information we’re encoding into the magnetic field radiated by the heart and that can impact those around us. We are fundamentally and deeply interconnected with each other and the planet itself and what we do individually really does count; it matters.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s easy to think: I’m just one person. What can I possibly do? But the slivers of hope, kindness, affection, compassion, and love matter. You: your voice, your pen, your generosity, your intentionality, your heart matter.

The scaffolding of our humanity is cooperation and democracy. We see it from insects to primates. We see it in the flight of the starlings and the acrobatics of schools of fish. We see it in communities of chimpanzees and herds of deer.  And, of course, we see it in human beings:

A solitary human being actually is an impossibility. You come into being because a community, of two persons, happened… The truth of who we are is that we are because we belong.

– Desmond Tutu

Oftentimes, the world tells us that we are different and shows us those differences. It tells us to stand out, be better, be smarter, be richer. It tells us we’ll be happy when we have more, not when we are more. It tells us that wealth, power and status matter and we, as a society, honor those who have such things. In so doing, we create separation and competition instead of fostering proximity and compassion. In so doing, the heart suffers.

We are all connected. All of us. I share my DNA with my sister, but I also share thousands of genes with fish and insects and trees and birds. They are my relatives and they are yours. So, if we believe in the science of science and the science of heart, then harming another, harming nature, is, in fact, harming our family.

Coleman Barks, poet and author of “The Essential Rumi” asks us what if: what if “the friend, the beloved, was everyone.”

I leave you by asking the same.


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