The compassionate mind

By: Peter Muijres – Culture Class 

During a speech at an international business seminar in South Africa, the following text was projected on the screen behind the keynote speaker:

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle, … when the sun comes up, you better be running.”

This quote might make a competitive and thrill-seeking lifestyle sound exciting, but according to the compassionate mind theory this attitude may actually lower both your performance and the satisfaction you get from your achievements.

In Western and other societies marked by competitiveness, a sliding scale indicating ‘who has more’ differentiates the winners from the losers. The elegance of this relative scale is that everyone can feel either a loser or winner at any time. You are always better, faster, richer, or prettier than someone else and so is someone else in comparison to you. So, would you expect people to be more inclined to feeling better or worse off in comparison to other people?

Indeed, people have a tendency to compare themselves with those higher in the hierarchy, because in societies based on competitiveness, only being the best is considered “good enough”. Obviously, not everyone can always be the best at everything.

Based on Mahayana Buddhism, the compassionate mind theory (Gilbert, 2009) provides a powerful tool that helps people to feel satisfied and valued by others in a competitive society without having to be “the best” all the time. This theory explains how animals and humans share three ancient emotion regulation systems:

  • the threat/ protection system,
  • the incentive/ resource seeking drive system, and
  • the soothing/contentment system.

Only in humans, these systems interfere and clash with the young, resourceful, and self-aware human intellect. Gilbert (2009) calls this unique human capacity for self-awareness and creative imagery ‘the new brain/mind’. A consequence of intelligent self-awareness is that only humans may feel like losers.

Of the three systems, the threat/ protection system is responsible for the preservation of yourself and the group you belong to. It is able to override the other two systems and feelings of joy and safety at once in the face of a sudden threat. The ‘safety first’ system is associated with the release of the stress hormone cortisol. A detected threat calls the body for action by switching into a fight or flight (or freeze) mode associated with feelings of anxiety, anger, or disgust, as well as acting on impulse.

Because of its ability to temporarily push away undesirable feelings of fear and frustration, the incentive/ resource seeking drive system is constantly used in today’s society where glamour and power are idealised by many. With every new victory, success, or orgasm, an endorphin fuelled hormone injection produces the ‘yeah baby!’ feeling that helps you to forget illness , grief or other inevitable flipsides of life. However, in a quick fix approach, the lion and the gazelle have to keep outrunning each other without having a chance to enjoy your life or work and  your achievements. This is not only exhausting in the long-term, it is also bound to lead to a looser: either on the side of the gazelle or the lion someone will die eventually. Not being able to always be on the side of the winners activates the threat / protection system and makes people angry, anxious, and sad.

The soothing/contentment system can help you tackle negative feelings associated with the threat/protection system, as well as with frustrations based on not always being “the best”. This system makes you feel connected with and care for yourself, others, and the world you are a part of. New parents experience the activation of this system, when they hold their baby for the first time. Associated with the love hormone oxytocin, a sense of peacefulness, safety, self-appreciation, and feeling valued by others are the result. Being able to sooth yourself allows you to tolerate high levels of group pressure, to remain collected and resourceful during stressful situations, and to tackle destructive self-blame or self-pity.

Some people find it more difficult than others to sooth themselves. Fortunately self-soothing can be trained, for example, by compassionate self-talk, compassionate imagery (an image of a compassionate other or self) or meditative exercises. Activation of the soothing/contentment system allows us to look objectively at our weaknesses and failures without being carried away by negative emotions around it. By looking at the bigger picture, the soothing / contentment system acknowledges that strengths and weaknesses, failures and successes are all sides belonging to  the same coin.

Five ways in which a compassionate mind may improve your performance are:

  1. Anxiety, anger, or depression may be rightful gut reactions to truly problematic situations you ought to solve, but keep avoiding or suppressing. A compassionate mind allows you to deal with these issues without being carried away by the feelings entailed.
  2. An increased ability to tolerate social pressure helps you to keep your head clear, and improves your courage, resourcefulness, and negotiation skills even under extremely stressful conditions.
  3. A sense of balance, openness, and inner peace is a human resource tool helping you to see opportunities and talents in others. A positive and inviting attitude tends to be easily picked up and reciprocated by others, working wonders for individual and team performance.
  4. Human attitudes and decision-making are highly subject to group influences and our need for social approval. A compassionate mind helps you to identify and assert your opinion in spite of what others may prefer you to do or say.
  5. A compassionate mind also allows you to set aside your personal views and expectations in order to make it easier to tune into the motives, values and feelings of others. This mindset facilitates effective communication, and enhances sensitivity and adaptation skills across cultural borders.

Self-compassion makes people feel better, accepting and in harmony with themselves. If stress and feelings of anger, anxiety and disgust are still alarming you, a compassionate mind helps you come off complicating feelings of self-pity or self-blame and take on the issues at stake for what they are.


Culture Class provides compassionate mind training suited to the needs and conditions of for parents,  business people, mental health care and other professionals. http://www.cultureclass.org

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About cultureclassblog

Culture Class is a different class: people like you and me who are enjoy expanding their transnational comfort zone by learning about people, culture and nature. We aim to take useful insights and knowhow out of their academic and clinical boxes and make them available to benefit of people working and living together in everyday life.

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