Helping strangers, as if they were kin, is a highly beneficial spiritual practice. Regular acts of compassion require that self-centred impulses take second place to those of a deeply-seated, naturally compassionate, spiritual self; and a noble attitude ensures that helpful ‘service' differs completely from demeaning ‘servitude'.
Work, especially where teamwork and devotion are involved, can count as spiritual practice under this heading. Health and social care employment, for example, includes an element of compassion. Such work involves looking after not only patients and clients, but also colleagues, sharing both burdens and rewards while looking after one-another. Stephen Post offers other paths to compassionate action: through ten different but related ways of giving*.
Post's Ten Ways of Giving
Post is Professor of Bio-ethics and Medicine at Stony Brook University, New York, also President of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, founded in 2001, which has funded over fifty health outcome studies. Post reports strong evidence that benevolent emotions, attitudes and actions contribute to the giver's happiness, health and length of life.
The Way of Celebration: Turning gratitude into action
Celebration involves the expression and sharing of joy. According to Post, celebration wells up from a state of gratitude, creates a circle of love among those we interact with, moves us from fear to faith, and "shifts us from tired to inspired".
The Way of Generativity: Helping others to grow
People who nurture others are also likely to nurture themselves. Generativity, helping others to discover and make use of their own gifts and strengths, has been studied extensively. It is linked to leadership qualities and high levels of self-esteem.
The Way of Forgiveness: Setting yourself free
The more severe the harm we experience at the hand of another, the more difficult it is to forgive. By holding on to resentment, however, we prevent the healing process from reaching resolution. The way of forgiveness is undeniably hard. It requires courage and maturity to feel the pain, accept the loss and move on. This, however, is the surest way to peace.
The Way of Courage: Speaking up and speaking out
Stephen Post describes three types of courage. Physical courage involves ‘activism', the attempt to change things. Moral courage involves ‘being assertive' (without being aggressive), setting boundaries and speaking out for what you need in relationships. Psychological courage requires ‘perseverance', steeling oneself to face hardship and the practical, economic and emotional problems each day may bring.
The Way of Humour: Connecting with joy
The benefit of watching humorous films as a way of coping with severe back pain was reported in the 1970's. Laughter relaxes the whole body, lowers stress hormones, boosts the immune system, protects the heart, releases endorphins and decreases pain. But contagious good humour is not all about laughter. It radiates naturally from people who are relaxed and deeply content; from those, in other words, who are spiritually mature.
The Way of Respect:
Stephen Post says that the antidote to stress resulting from the social pecking order is routinely to respect other people. The way of respect welcomes diversity. Differences are not denied but celebrated. Accordingly, people develop tolerance and positive feelings towards those who seem different culturally and in other challenging ways. This, too, reflects spiritual maturity.
The Way of Respect:Looking deeper and finding value
The Way of Compassion: Feeling for others
Compassion involves an immediate impulse to act whenever we encounter another's pain. This is a classical human strength that promotes health through a variety of mechanisms. It causes release within the brain of a hormone, oxytocin, which floods the nervous system and is reliably associated with mother-child pair-bonding and other powerful feel-good experiences like connectedness and spirituality. Paradoxically, researchers have found, compassion involves the ability to sense and empathize with another person's pain, yet still trigger positive feelings within you.
The Way of Loyalty: Loving across time
Loyalty is a form of steadfast and selfless identification with another person, group or organization. Marriage, for example, is revealed as one of the most supremely balancing and healthful commitments people can make. Men and women both benefit. Findings are consistent that married people are physically and mentally healthier, and live longer. They experience less anxiety, depression, hostility and loneliness, and are more likely to say they are happy.
The Way of Listening: Offering deep presence
Stephen Post remarks that people are less likely to let their health deteriorate if they feel valued and heard. Studies have shown that empathic listening not only helps the one suffering, it can benefit the listener too. The implications for health and social care professionals, routinely making their assessments, are clear.
The Way of Creativity: Inventing and innovating
Creativity is strongly associated with personal development and maturity. Researchers have discovered a circular link between creativity and joy: the two reinforce one another. Enhancing your own life naturally enhances the lives of those around you as well.
Stephen Post's advice on this includes studying the creativity of others, reading about well-known thinkers, creators, artists, explorers, inventors and social activists, visiting museums, art exhibitions, and attending new performances of music, drama, ballet and opera. He recommends engaging in a creative personal hobby, sharing what we create with others, teaching creative skills if we can, joining a peaceful walk or demonstration for a moral cause, and perhaps getting involved in (rather than just donating funds to) a worthwhile charity.
In summary, he endorses my recommendation to engage regularly in different forms of spiritual practice. Magnificently, protecting us from spiritual stagnation, lack of fulfilment and the risk of despair, these are all ways of both giving and receiving at the same time. Who could ask for more out of life?
Copyright Larry Culliford
*Taken from Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to live a longer, healthier, happier life by the simple act of giving, by Stephen Post & Jill Neimark. (2007, New York: Broadway Books).
Larry's books include ‘The Psychology of Spirituality', ‘Love, Healing & Happiness' and (as Patrick Whiteside) ‘The Little Book of Happiness' and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide' (personally endorsed by HH The Dalai Lama).