You’re probably not really interested in compassion. And that’s good.

Professor Paul Gilbert

Professor Paul Gilbert

Last Friday night saw the first in a short series, run by our discussion group CATAS, on the ‘evolutionary impulse’. We’re interested in the connections between evolutionary ideas in biology, psychology and neuroscience, and their usefulness in the religious or spiritual life.

Our guest speaker was Professor Paul Gilbert, clinical psychologist and author of a groundbreaking book on evolutionary psychology and its implications for how we do versus how we could live: The Compassionate Mind.

His theme was one of the biggest there is in psychology and in religion: why do we suffer?

As humans, Paul says, our fundamental experience is one of ‘emerging into the flow of life’. We simply find ourselves here. I didn’t choose my face, hair, parents, character traits, location and year of birth – I emerged into consciousness with it all in place.

And yet though this is the hand that life and the evolutionary brain deal each one of us, we get trapped into feeling personally responsible for how all these things are – personalizing the problems we experience to such a degree that we end up depressed or anxious or both.

aa-cm-bkWe can, though, take responsibility, in the sense of coming to terms with it all and doing something about it. And it’s this liberating distinction – between being responsible and taking responsibility – that leads us to ‘compassion’, as Paul Gilbert understands it.

Look at it like this: the fact that we emerge as we do into the flow of life – soon realizing that we’re here for a relatively short span of time, with any number of things threatening to shorten that span even further – is more or less a tragedy. The question is whether we go running off looking for upsides or justifications or distractions or a stiff drink… or whether we are able to face that bare fact, and then see where it leads us.

Where it may lead us, says Paul Gilbert, is compassion for ourselves.

Easier said than done. One audience member pointed out that in her experience as a counsellor people find any number of serious mental health problems easier to talk about than the need for self-compassion. ‘Why am I worth it?’ ‘Why do I need feeling sorry for – by myself or anyone else?’ ‘What’s the point of that kind of self-indulgence?’ Objections like these stop self-compassion in its tracks.

One very useful thing that Paul’s book does here, and it came up in our discussions too, is not to sideline these sorts of reactions and simply continue preaching the importance of self-compassion. Instead, we can use straightforward reflective exercises to ask whether these reactions might be resistances of some sort.

The idea is refreshing: given the amount of talk out there at the moment about mindfulness and compassion, they seem obviously desirable to the point of being a bit banal – ‘Be excellent to each other’ is the message, just like the old Bill and Ted film. But trying one or two of Paul’s exercises, something unexpected happens. I find that though I think I’d like to be more compassionate, deep down I don’t actually desire compassion all that much. I can’t be bothered with it – I don’t have time, and even if I did I wouldn’t want to sacrifice the competitive and judgmental elements of the way I live, for what seems like pretty scant reward. The question ‘do I want to be more compassionate?’ turns out to lead to lots of uncomfortable places.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Alongside resisting compassion, I find I engage in something Paul calls ‘submissive compassion': trying to be ‘compassionate’ to people because I’m afraid to confront them, or because I want to make sure they are going to be nice to me, or look after me, or approve of me. This sort of compassion, just like misguided feelings of responsibility, is linked, says Paul, to greater risk of depression and anxiety.

Real compassion, on the other hand, which might involve giving a certain amount of offence now and again, is said to have a much more positive effect on our mental health.

A useful metaphor Paul came up with to help us understand the human brain was the need for the more recently evolved part to learn to ‘play’ the older part, a bit like a musician playing an instrument. These older structures are geared naturally towards anger and anxiety, towards seeing the problematic and the negative in life rather than being satisfied with the actually-quite-good that is often around us. If we can use what’s called a ‘therapeutic split’ – where one part of us steps back from or hovers above a problematic part and tries to address it – we can, over time, help to effect long-lasting change.

But contrary to all that dodgy self-help logic, real change seems to depend not on persuading ourselves how much we want it, but on realizing how deeply we don’t.

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