How to confront suffering (without shutting down your feelings)

In professions routinely confronted with suffering, it is common belief that we have a choice between emotional shutdown and emotional breakdown. But neither is a viable strategy. Neuroscience sheds light on a tried and tested alternative that can be practiced by anyone and transforms how we respond.

Empathy can plunge us into emotional distress. You know what it’s like to encounter a homeless person in the street, or see the terror in the eyes of a child in a country ravaged by war. According to moral philosopher and founder of the Effective Altruism movement Peter Singer, we get so trapped in empathy that our own relief becomes the focus of our ‘altruistic’ efforts. Some would go as far as arguing that empathy is of zero use to us when it comes to engaging in social change.

If you believe what psychologist Paul Bloom says in “Against Empathy”, homo sapiens seems incapable of putting it to good use. It makes us lose our wits.

We tend to choose actions that may help us feel better but are, as Singer and Bloom point out, fundamentally ineffective. Their prescription, therefore, is that we put our emotions aside and focus on hard facts and our rational faculties instead.

And in some circles, among charity workers, clinicians, and others in ‘helping professions’, this is widely seen as the professional thing to do. I’ve been there: Working in international aid, and on environmental issues, I was constantly confronted with the worst of poverty and environmental destruction, and an institutional architecture incapable of sorting out any of it. When I wasn’t feeling depressed about it all, I was feeling numb and in denial. I used to joke that the only way to survive working on climate change day-in day-out was to be a climate change denier. My options, it seemed, were to either ‘toughen up’ or face emotional collapse. Occasionally, I collapsed. Most of the time, I toughened up.

We don’t get to cherry pick the emotions we shut out

The price we pay for being tough is high. Neurologically speaking, a selective numbing of our emotions is impossible. So with the pain, I shut out all the good stuff too, joy, elation, inspiration. Over time I became cynical, lost my spark, burned out. In the long run, the Bloom & Singer prescription means another form of collapse.

So for years, I wondered: Is there a way to fully engage with suffering around us and in the world, and still feel the energy and joy we need to carry on with our work? Can we care AND stay sane, without looking away?

It turns out that yes, there is and we can. And: we can all learn how.

Empathy under a brain scanner

When neuroscientist Tania Singer put French scientist and Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, and a control group of others, under a brain scanner to study empathy, she was in for a surprise. The difference she discovered between his and other people’s reactions to images and sounds of human suffering wasn’t what she expected.

The average person responded with heightened activity in the brain areas associated with pain and distress. As for Matthieu Ricard, on the other hand, his brain got more active in a completely different place: in an area that belongs to affiliation and parental love. In other words, witnessing suffering, rather than causing him too to suffer, evoked the most positive and fulfilling of emotions we can muster for other beings. This wasn’t an accident. It was deliberate.

Instead of looking away, Matthieu Ricard explained to the stunned neuroscientists, he had learned to look suffering in the eye and stay fully present. Instead of dread and fatigue, it filled him with love and determination.

Our go-to response to suffering is empathy which, Ricard writes in his book ‘Altruism’, is a form of emotional resonance that ‘can provoke a distress that focuses our attention on ourselves and diverts us from the other’s needs’. The neuroscientific findings are very much in agreement with Singer (the moral philosopher) and Bloom on this point.

But they disagree with Bloom and Peter Singer’s idea that emotions and empathy are the enemy. On the contrary, emotions are absolutely needed: While everyone else was simply experiencing empathy, Ricard was consciously using empathy to concentrate on compassion.

A step up from empathy

For most people, empathy and compassion are synonymous. I’m weary of semantics, but in this case, understanding the difference is the key:

Compassion is to be deeply and fully aware of suffering, and wishing to relieve that suffering — but without confusing our emotions with those of others. And while we do tire of empathy, there is no such thing as compassion fatigue. Compassion gives us energy to act.

Neuroscience knows that by training our mind, we can change the structure and function of our brains. In recent years, it has shed more light on how a range of meditation practices, over time, can literally restructure our neurological response to stress, pain, or any kind of stimulus. And Matthieu Ricard, in the footsteps of those practicing these skills over thousands of years, had done exactly this.

Evoking the sentiment of compassion was a skill Ricard had learned and strengthened over years, like a muscle. He hadn’t stopped experiencing pain, but he had changed how he reacted to it, by mind-training his brain out of the empathy trap, out of that dilemma between emotional shutdown and emotional breakdown.

A simple practice

Here’s the thing: You can do this, too. You can begin with a simple, but profound practice. By simple, I don’t necessarily mean easy. But I promise you, you don’t need to become a master meditator like Matthieu to begin to experience the difference it makes.

This basic practice is also known as loving kindness meditation or befriending and consists of a set of phrases you repeat to yourself to wish yourself and other people well. It may sound a little weird at first, especially if you don’t feel comfortable with the idea of meditating, or have a dislike for the imagery and soundscape Buddhist practice can be accompanied by.

But the science is clear: It’s well worth giving this a try.

Here’s a short version of it I liked (and if this feels a little fast paced, you’ll find a couple of slower and/ or longer options at the end):

A final note: it works, and fast.

For their recent book “Altered Traits”, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman (best known for his book “EQ” on emotional intelligence), took a long hard look at all available scientific studies on the impact of different meditation practices on how we’re ‘wired’. And they found compelling evidence that

loving kindness meditation leads to incremental, lasting changes in us from the first few hours of practice.

The longer we practice, the more compassion becomes an ever-present, stable trait, a central organising principle of our empathic emotions, reducing our tendency to collapse under or escape other people’s suffering. I myself am no monk with thousands of hours of practice under my belt, but I’ve been practicing one version or another of this, just a few times a week, over the past months. Admittedly, it feels strange, artificial or bloody hard at times, but I’m sticking with it, because I’m already noticing a shift.

I am beginning to feel a little more able to look suffering — whatever it is that comes up, from the homelessness epidemic in my neighbourhood, to the horrendous warfare in Syria— in the eye, and staying with it without being consumed by it or wanting to ‘switch off’. It’s a powerful difference.

So, try it out, strange as the whole thing may sound. Give it 10 minutes of your day, on as many days as you can manage, over the next few weeks, and see what happens. And if you like, you can let me know how it goes.

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Other loving kindness meditations to try out:

Got curious? Read on:

  • Matthieu Ricard, 2015: Altruism. The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. London: Atlantic Books.
  • Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, 2017: Altered Traits. Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. New York: Avery.
  • Carolyn Gregoire: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Compassion. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/what-neuroscience-can-tea_n_5268853

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With thanks, as ever, to Joel and Michelle Levey for introducing me to the work of great sources of wisdom!