If you could take this pill and become more compassionate, would you? If I tell the truth for myself, my answer would be, “Sometimes I would, and sometimes I wouldn’t.”
To Compassion or Not to Compassion
Compassion is not a simple, single thing in my experience. Nor is it an easy action to consistently get right. For example, as a parent who knows it’s important for children to have a wide cross-section of life-experience in order for their brains and bodies to develop and grow, my job is not to shield them from all the pain and suffering in the world. It’s more to be with them as honestly and authentically as I can as they encounter and experience pain and suffering. We often practice “Idiot Compassion” when we try to take away or encourage others to turn away from experiences necessary for growth and development. It reminds me of this wisdom teaching: “Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do for another person is leave them alone.” Another thing you can do is … ask someone in the midst of a struggle, what they most need.
Turning a Blind Brain
But what I’m especially interested in is when opportunities present themselves to practice compassion and I turn away from them myself.
Take last week for example: I was in our local Goose Grocery Store and I saw a woman I know at the checkout counter (since we live on a small island, it’s hard to go more than a day or two without running into people I know). The woman – let’s call her Sarah – was trying to buy a bottle of expensive wine and she apparently didn’t have enough money. But Sarah was arguing with the cashier that the price was too high and she should be allowed to buy it for the amount of money she had. The people behind her waiting in line to pay were clearly unhappy.
What would be a compassionate response in this circumstance. Walk over and greet Sarah and offer to lend the money? Simply gift her the missing balance? Side with Sarah against the store and the cashier and agree that the wine price was too high?
This situation is complicated by the fact that Sarah and I have had similar disagreements between us that revolved around money that we never managed to amicably resolve. It’s further complicated by the fact that Sarah too readily reminds me of my mother; and even further by the fact that my mother was an alcoholic. Judging Mind has a lot of ideas about wine-buying and people who remind me of mom.
And so do my adrenal glands! I could feel them flooding brain and body with rampant stress hormones as I witnessed this exchange between Sarah and the Goose cashier. And in that moment I could only do one thing: turn around and do some more grocery shopping. None of my business. Except, of course, that is PRECISELY what my business is – what I want it to be – the ability to turn towards rather than away from suffering, and grow my ability to be present, accounted for and compassionate in these kinds of conflict situations. In that instance, the non-choice between flight, fight or freeze saw flight win out. Maybe next time I can take those three options totally off the table and make the conscious choice to engage by simply asking, “Can I help?”
What’s interesting about the usage of this pill in the Berkeley study above though is not the discovery that dopamine action in the brain can be affected by a pill – tolcapone – but rather that changing the brain’s dopamine levels leads to more compassionate action. More important to me is the realization that whatever can be achieved by a pill’s neurochemical action in the brain, can often be organically achieved by repeatedly practicing the effect the pill produces, in this case, compassionate action. To increase the dopamine-inducing activity in your brain … practice kindness, practice compassionate social engagement. The brain operates such that whatever actions we perform in the world, whatever we pay ever-increasing attention to, tends to increase. We get better with practice; in the above instance, me finding a way to turn towards Sarah, rather than away would have moved me in a direction of growth that I want to head toward.
That’s a critically important neurological truism to realize, and not just solely for compassion: whatever we direct our brain to pay attention to, tends to increase.