Elisa Pearmain, LMHC

Fostering Compassion During the Corona Virus Pandemic

Greetings to readers of my first blog post!
My intention for this blog is to give readers little bits from the book I am writing, working title: Forgiveness: Telling Our Stories in Healthier Ways. The corona virus has inserted some other pressing needs into our lives, and I felt moved to address one of them here.
How can we most skillfully hold and process the stories and images of suffering that are coming to us through media outlets and personal communications during this difficult time? Let me start with a short story that I have adapted for this purpose:
Long ago in the time of King Solomon, a father died and left his land to his two sons. They built houses on opposite sides of the field and promised each other that they would share the work and the harvest evenly at the end of each season.
When the harvest had been divided evenly the two brothers took their share into their barns and laid down to sleep for the night. One of the brothers, the elder, was married with four children. The younger had not married, and lived alone. Despite his fatigue from the days' work the elder brother could not sleep. He thought about his younger brother and worried. "My brother is all alone. It is not fair that I get half of the harvest when I have children who will care for me when I am old. He needs more of the grain so that he can sell some and save his money for his old age." He began to think about his brother being aged and alone, and it filled him with such grief that he began to weep.
Meanwhile, the younger brother also could not sleep. He thought about his older brother, and thought to himself, "It is not fair that I have half the harvest when he has so many more mouths to feed." He felt great caring for his brother. He got out of bed, dressed and went to his barn. There he put several sacks of grain into his cart and pushed it across the field. He put the sacks into his brother's granary and returned to bed where he slept soundly.
Finally the older brother's wife woke up and asked her husband why he was weeping. "I feel so sad for my brother. He is alone and in his old age he will have no one to help him. I should not have taken half of the harvest." "Well, dear," she said, "do not lie there feeling badly, get up and take him some of our grain to him!" And so the older brother also put two bags of grain into his cart and took them to his brothers granary.
The next day the two brothers were both surprised to see just as much grain in their barns as the day before. That night, first the younger and then the older brother crossed the field with four bags of grain. But on the third day, after finding just as much grain in their barns as they started with, they both determined to take as much grain as they could possibly carry.
So, after nightfall, struggling under the weight of their full carts, both brothers crossed the field at the same time. Under the light of the moon they both saw someone coming towards them in the distance. When they realized what was happening they ran to each other and embraced. They laughed until they cried, and promised to always be there for one another.
It is said that King Solomon heard this story and decided to build the Great Temple of Jerusalem on that spot in the fields where the two brothers had met that night. 1. Photo by Christos Gravriel.

Photo by Christos Gravriel
In the traditional telling of this story, both brothers were equally quick in rising to share their harvest with one another. I have changed it to demonstrate the difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy, is defined as, "feeling with" someone's suffering, even if as in this case, it is only how we imagine a person will suffer. Empathy is a crucial skill for all of us to learn. It is only through feeling with or, "walking in someone else's shoes," that we can really know what it is like to be in their skin. This is essential for practicing forgiveness, reducing bullying, prejudice, inequality and injustice around the world. But sometimes we are motivated towards empathy by parts of ourselves that believe that it is only through "feeling with," that we truly show others that we care, or that we are worthy companions. For some of us it is a practice handed down from our families.
However, there is such a thing as empathy burnout or overload, and during times of great suffering it is easy to fall into. When we "feel with" or "imagine with" so much that our vulnerable parts get triggered, we can become overwhelmed and actually close our hearts against too much pain. In my telling of the story, the older brother became paralyzed with emotions when he stepped too deeply into what he imagined his brother's suffering would be like.
Compassion, on the other hand, allows us to "feel for" another person in their suffering while staying grounded. It allows us to support them, and to offer great caring. Research has shown that empathy and compassion involve different neural pathways in the brain. Compassion, stimulates activity in an area of the brain connected to learning and decision making. Empathy activates areas of the brain more associated with emotion, and the registering of pain. 2. Compassion's pathways through the brain more closely follow those of love than the neural pathways of empathy.3.
You can see in my version of the folktale that the first brother got stuck in over empathizing and felt paralyzed while the younger brother was able to stay in caring and to move more quickly to action. Right now, the world needs us to be creatively engaged in whatever ways we can to reduce suffering. When we stand on our own ground with compassion, we have more energy and resources to do this.
So how do we know if we are in empathy or compassion?
  • If you are watching news clips or reading about people who are sick and dying of the virus for any length of time you are vulnerable to over empathizing. Try to limit your exposure. If you find that you keep watching or seeking it out, ask yourself how this is helping you. It is possible that a part of you thinks that being connected to the news will help you or others. Question this! Instead, try checking out positive news outlets that describe acts of compassion all over the world such as: www.karunavirus.org (Karuna is a Sanskrit word for Compassion). Some Good News with John Krasinski is another inspiring source of generosity in action.
  • Check your breathing. Is it slow and deep, or short and shallow? Short and shallow breathing is a sign that your fear response has been triggered. You can help your fight/flight/flee center to relax by taking slow deep breaths with short pauses when the breath is all the way in, and a slightly longer exhale. The brain knows that you cannot be breathing deeply or holding your breath if you are facing immediate danger. Continue for at least three minutes if it is safe and comfortable to do so.
  • Check in with your body. Is your posture relaxed and in line, or are you tensing muscles and hunched forward? Put your feet on the floor and lift your spine. Relax your eyes, jaw, tongue, and progressively work your way down through your torso, belly, pelvic region and down into your legs and feet. Use your breath to help you soften any areas that you may have been holding.
  • Simply by observing your state in a curious and kind way you have stepped back some from the parts of you that are "feeling with" or "imagining with." Honor your ability to observe yourself mindfully.
  • Share a Loving Kindness Meditation (Metta) for the person or people that you are feeling for:

May you Be Safe,
May you be Happy,
May you be Healthy, and
May you live with Ease of Heart and Mind with whatever comes your way.
  • Repeating this Metta for yourself several times a day has also been shown to decrease symptoms of depression and PTSD as it increases compassion towards ourselves and our own suffering. 4..

May you be healthy, and safe, and may you find joy and ease in this challenging time.
  1. Sources for traditional versions of this story include: Once Upon a Time: Storytelling to Teach Character and Prevent Bullying, Elisa Pearmain, (N.C., Character Development Group, 2006). Stories of the Jewish People, by Jose Patterson (New York: Peter Bederick Books, 1991). David Arfa told the writer that Louis/Levy Ginsburg says the story is a mashup of ancient sources written by one of our Jewish storytelling ancestors in 1851.
  2. Singer, T. & Klimecki, O.M. (2014). Empathy and Compassion. Current Biology, 24, 875-878.
  3. From a talk by Toni-Herbine-Blank c/o the Internal Family Systems Institute, called Caring for the Caregiver. April 2, 2020.
  4. buddhaweekly.com/scientific-buddhist-peer-reviewed-studies-demonstrate-buddhist-metta-loving-kindness-meditation-can-slow-aging-increase-brain-matter-decrease-ptsd-schizophrenia-ten-benefits-com