Cultivating Compassion

Rather than describing when I have a headache, I try to look at days I don’t have one. In the past three years, that count has been zero, and I can’t remember before that. They became a problem in 2008. Ever since, I’ve been weaving through the intricate tangle of America’s health care system, seeking traditional and alternative therapies, searching for answers. My attempts at understanding and relief have been comprehensive, but I can only say one thing for certain: these are not migraines.

When someone with a similar story recommended her rheumatologist, I had nothing to lose. I booked an appointment and waited three months for its arrival.

In her office, the doctor lead me through an hour-and-a-half long interview, ordered some blood work and then proceeded her physical exam. When she casually said, “you’re tense, aren’t you,” I nearly broke into tears. She went on to talk about how I must appear so cool and casual to people every day, and it’s hard to hold in all the tension of the city, especially in pain. She didn’t rule other possibilities for the headaches, and to be honest, I’d heard the tension cause before.

Among a slew of suggestions she mentioned meditation. Normally, I would be critical of things often described as “spiritual,” but something about her delivery opened my mind. I really knew nothing about meditation, except that I was bad at what I thought it involved, which was removing all thoughts from my mind.

It was merely coincidental that afterward, I was headed out to volunteer at an event called “The Brain, The Mind, and Meditation.” As the title suggests, the point was to initiate discussion about obvious topics. The result was, indeed, enlightening.

It turns out, meditation takes on many forms, and the one I knew, according to Buddhist scholar, Robert Thurman, was beneficial to well-being, but somewhat pointless and not recommended for beginners. To him and neuroscientist, Richie Davidson, the really useful meditation was one that fostered compassion. This type aims to contemplate the reduction of suffering — of yourself, your mother, strangers, even those who may deserve it.

Some people are naturally more compassionate than others, but Davidson’s work suggests that it is not a stable trait, but a learnable skill. With just two weeks of practice, compassion training can induce structural and functional changes in one’s brain and reduce neural responses to suffering. He was using it in schools and has plans to use it in health care.

My journey through pain has lasted years, but it only took the rheumatologist an hour and a half to understand what I had been going though. She was able to evoke true compassion, a trait hard to find in people, especially doctors. Sure, compassion meditation can improve well-being of individuals, but the point of compassion, true wisdom as the Buddhists call it, is much more than that.

Humans are social. Positive interactions, like food or water, are essential to our survival. If doctors are here to help us survive longer, training them to cultivate compassion is just as important as cultivating bacteria in a Petri dish.

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