Dealing with stress and suffering in times of crisis
While the COVID-crisis is unfolding, we are increasingly subjected to conflicting emotions: fear and hope, depression and compassion, overwhelm and acceptance. No-one is exempt, whether being a citizen or world leader, we are no different in how the crisis has taken us by surprise. We are united in this challenge: how do we cope with all these emotions, and how do we keep a perspective on the future that creates energy and meaning? In this regard, we have all become leaders. How do we lead ourselves through these dark times, and how do we help those on this planet for whom the worst is yet to come?
While the global scope of the Corona crisis is unprecedented, the emergency of a crisis is not. Not long after the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008, which also spread like a virus into the Euro crisis and later into a global economic recession, I had the fortune of hosting a dialogue between H.H. the Dalai and Dr Daniel Siegel, the well-know neuropsychiatrist at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
We had a room full of 600 people working on severe social issues. The group consisted of mostly people of the education sector, but also social entrepreneurs and environmental change agents. The questions they raised were: how can we deal with the stress that comes with working on these severe social issues? What advice do you have for the social entrepreneur or social worker who is experiencing the pain of the suffering of those he works with? How can we keep ourselves standing regarding the execution of our essential work in reducing the suffering of others? Especially in times of crisis, when we are confronted with an overload of stress and suffering?
This is how the Dalai Lama and Dan Siegel responded.
The Dalai Lama: Through the practice of compassion, which involves a number of steps. First, when you develop a sense of compassion for another sentient being, you will initially share in their feelings of suffering. This is good: otherwise, you would remain indifferent. Indifference does not lead to action, only to inaction. Based on this shared sense of suffering, you can develop genuine compassion, which is a sense of concern for the other. However, if you leave it at that and only experience the feeling of suffering, you yourself may become demoralised and develop a state of hopelessness. This is not good, as it would lead to inaction. So in the practice of compassion, there is an important second step. In addition to being concerned, you should use your intelligence. This requires you to keep some distance from the problem that you observe and analyse. What are the causes and conditions? This is important to explore with an open and analytical mind. After this step, you can ask yourself what you can do to resolve the situation?
Dan Siegel: There is a study in which photographs of a car accident are presented to two separate groups. Their responses in the brain are monitored through a brain scan. One group of people is asked to imagine if that were you in the car crash. The other group is asked to imagine what it would be like to be that person. In other words, in the first group, there is a sense of identification, and in the second, there is not, which is a small but significant difference. The first group became overwhelmed by their emotions and the neural circuitry of their compassion, which includes neural networks right behind our forehead, shut down. The second group, on the other hand, actually maintained emotional balance. They could activate the circuits of compassion that allowed them to not only empathise with the other person’s feelings but to actually get ready to take action and to support them. This is a very important study that illustrates exactly what you’re saying.
So we need to have a kind of healthy distance and maintain an analytical mind in a sense, just to keep our own balance.
I remember you told me a few years ago that it is not just in spite of the suffering that we need to be joyful and have a sense of humour and be playful, but it’s actually because of it. If we let our playfulness and our humour and our joy for life be smothered by the suffering of the world, then suffering will have won. That was very helpful for me to hear those words.
The Dalai Lama: That is very true. Actually, genuine compassion comes through training in a step-by-step manner. A critical aspect of training in compassion that I did not mention is courage. This is, in fact, the third step after first experiencing a shared sense of suffering, or empathy, and, secondly, using your analytical mind to observe and analyse the situation adequately. The third step of courage is needed to develop the will to help those who suffer. Feeling empathy is not enough; you need to analyse as well and subsequently develop courage and self-confidence for compassion to be realised. It is my experience that someone who has developed compassion to this level will not despair. Through his analysis and courage, he will find a way to act appropriately. He cannot feel overwhelmed because he can use the problem as a means to develop his compassion and determine a way of action.
Dan Siegel: There is a professional term called ‘compassion fatigue’. Some people suggest we should change that term to ‘empathy fatigue’, because in your teachings and other research when the first step is empathy, we experience another person’s feelings. Still we have not yet developed compassion as you describe it. Compassion comes from the additional steps of deciding how we can help to reduce the suffering and mustering courage for it. Research has shown this touches a profound source of wellbeing inside ourselves. Empathy fatigue will not arise in this case.
The Dalai Lama: Yes. In dealing with problems – any problem, including this business problems – or tragedies like major social issues, you need to have a degree of courage and self-confidence. Shantideva, a great Buddhist philosopher, said: “When we face a problem, analyse the nature of the problem. If you find that the problem can be overcome, then there is no need to worry”. Make the right effort to overcome it, and then the problem should lead to increased courage and self-confidence. In this way, the problem can become the source of your strength. On the other hand, if the problem cannot be overcome, then there is no use of worrying. So in both cases, there is no cause for worry. This can be regarded as the fourth
step of compassion: ‘no worry’. These four steps together – the practice of compassion – are the best approach to problems or tragedies of any kind.
This dialogue, along with many other dialogues with the Dalai Lama over two decades on topics of leadership, has been recorded in the book “Business as Instrument for Societal Change – In Conversation of the Dalai Lama”, by Sander G. Tideman, 2016, Greenleaf Publications.
his dialogue took place at the Education of the Heart Symposium in May 2014, at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
The term ‘emphatic disease’ was coined by Klimecke et al (2013) Pathological Altruism, New York
Shantideva (1997). A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (V.A. Wallace, & B.A. Wallace, Trans.). Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion.