Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 10

Una casa vecchia a Tropea, Gennaio, 2011 
Professor Gilbert outlines two positive emotion systems that exist in all our lives - I'll call the first system The Highs-Seeking System and the second The Calming/Soothing System. Now these are the two sides of the one coin as it were.  In my last post I dealt with the first of these two systems and I wish to treat of the latter in this present post

The Calming/Soothing System:

This is a system that helps to balance the other two systems, (i) The Threat and Defense system and (ii) The Highs-Seeking System.  This Calming/Soothing System is a major source of our feelings of well-being and connectedness.  Spirituality in the broadest sense of the word is all about such feelings of well-being and connectedness.

This system allows us to take time out, or as Suzie, the therapist or group coordinator in Bernard Farrell's play I do not like thee, Dr Fell, says: "relax, relate, communicate."  Or as I hear the young adults in our school say:  "Chill out!"  Gilbert is quick to point out that this state of mind - the chilling out or relaxation state of mind - can accompany very profound and positive feelings that are not just low threat feelings.  Once it was thought that such states of mind were simply the result of the threat system being on low volume or toned down.  In other words, such a view is tantamount to saying that peace is simply the absence of war.  In fact, Gilbert tells us that there is compelling new evidence that we have a special Calming/Soothing System in our brains that enables us to have a sense of well-being and of being at peace.  I would like to quote our author's own words here:

This system uses natural chemicals in the brain called endorphins and opiates.  Indeed, when people take manufactured opiates like heroin, they can experience a general sense of well-being.  They don't become charged up, excited and want to party or agitated or aggressive as can happen with the dopamine that stimulates the drive/excitement system.  So if you want to have the experience of happiness  and approach it purely from a mechanical, physiological point of view, then this is the system that you would be aiming to work on and develop.  It encourages you to enjoy and savour what you have as opposed as opposed to seeking more and more.  (The Compassionate Mind, p. 191)
Now we can learn to create brain states conducive to a calm and content mind by engaging in all manner of compassionate mind training like Zen meditation, Yoga,  general meditation, and a host of other visualization and relaxation techniques. 

As a firm believer in the theory of evolution, Professor Gilbert argues cogently that the arrival of mammals on earth was the start of the evolution of the significant strategy/archetype/social mentality that would eventually blossom to become the very foundation of compassion.

Interesting point on Paedophilia:

Notice, too, how kindness from others is often referred to as touch - "I was touched by your kindness" ...  It is tragic that our terror of paedophilia has led to teachers not been able to touch or hold distressed children, and to a situation where sun cream can only be sprayed, not rubbed, on them.  Such prohibitions could only have been made by people who haven't the faintest idea of how our psychology works, what happens in our brains when we are distressed, and what we need from others by way of comfort. There is increasing evidence that young children may find nurseries more distressing than has previously been recognized, and one possible reason for this, which needs to be explored, is whether or not these children are getting enough physical affection.  This is a very serious and urgent research question. (Ibid., p. 195)

Shop, Tropea, January 2011
It's no harm at this juncture to offer a brief summary of what Professor Gilbert is getting at in chapter five.  He is arguing that compassion arises from the balance and interplay of the three basic emotion sytems: (i) The Defense System of Threat and Self-Protection, (ii) The Highs-Seeking System and (iii) Calming/Soothing System.   This essentially works through the care-giving social mentality that orients us to focus on alleviating distress and promoting the flourishing of the individual.  All of this is accompanied by the release of natural hormones in the brain such as the opiates and and oxytocin.  In short, evolution has given us the above three basic systems that give rise to many of our feelings and brain states.

When we engage in any stilling and calming exercises like Meditation, Visualizations, Yoga, TM, Zen and Deep Prayer, we are essentially fostering compassion and kindness in ourselves. In all of this we are shaping our consciousness, and perhaps may well change the patterns in our brain.

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