“Compassion means wanting to do something to relieve the hardships of others, and this desire to help, far from dragging us further into suffering ourselves, actually gives us energy and a sense of purpose and direction.”
Dalai Lama in Beyond Religion
Yesterday I was waiting in a strip-mall parking lot to pick up some vegetarian sushi for my daughter. I was sitting in my truck parked in front of the laundry mat. A car pulled in next to me. I observed a disabled man alone and with two canes attempt to get out of his car. I watched his trunk hatch unlock. I understood that he was going to try to get some laundry done. I got out of my truck and asked him if he would like some assistance. He happily said yes.
From his trunk I removed a heavy bag of laundry. The man gave me specific instructions on where he wanted the laundry placed. I took his direction and found his washing machine. I then went back outside an assisted him into the laundry mat. If I were not there, he would certainly have gotten his task completed, as I am sure he had done many times before, albeit with difficulty.
Sitting back in my truck, I felt a sense of calmness come over me. I spend a good part of most of my days as a doctor helping people. And like so many moments when I am serving others, I gain temporary reprieve from the otherwise constant anxiety that I have been suffering with for most of my life.
Living with Anxiety
Those of you that suffer with anxiety understand it is associated with uneasiness, irritation, discomfort, shakiness, nervousness, and worry. And we are not alone. Millions of Americans suffer with anxiety. Unfortunately, many have to resort to anti-anxiety medication to remedy their pain. In fact, approximately 50 million prescriptions are written for anti-anxiety medication in the U.S. each year. About 1 in 6 people suffer with varying degrees of anxiety on a regular basis. These medications have many side effects and are in no way the long-term solution to the problem.
For me, I deal with anxiety by moving. I move incessantly. Those of you that know me personally know I am hard to catch. I walk, run, go the gym, practice yoga and chi gong, meditate, work long hours, play with kids, mediate more, I read, I write, I think about ways to improve my life, my business, and the lives of those I touch, I calculate things, I work out math equations, I surf and snowboard, I sing and play guitar (poorly), I see the psychologist, I pray, I get my neck adjusted, and I’ve even used anti-anxiety medication a few times. I even try to do nothing, but when I do nothing it gets worse. So, I manage.
I have studied anxiety. There are many theories on its origin. Some studies suggest that anxiety is a genetic trait. My mother has suffered with anxiety her whole life and her mother (my grandmother) as well. In fact, my 90-year old grandmother has been on anti-anxiety medication daily for 50 years!
Other theories suggest a learned behavior, a repressed unresolved issue, or I have even seen it explained as ancestral karma. So maybe I am dealing with working out universal laws of cause and effect from not only my own actions , but of those that came before me!
In the book Beyond Religion, the Dalai Lama observes how people in less developed countries worry less and are less anxious compared to those living in the western world. He suggests that perhaps their hardships force them to exercise greater patience and forbearance in life and that this in turn provides greater strength. A greater capacity for accepting difficulties is created without losing an inner sense of calm. Perhaps simply understanding that life comes with difficulties is the first step toward combatting its harm. The next step is the desire to alleviate the suffering. This is compassion.
Compassion is a two way street. The desire to serve others and to act on the intention to relieve their suffering has an immediate rebound effect where you in turn help yourself. I think this is why the best relief I gain from my anxiety is when I am helping others.
This level of compassion has been shown to also help us on the cellular level to improve not only our health, but also our immunity even down to the level of our DNA.
If we all focus a little bit more compassion, compassion to relieve the difficulty and pain and suffering in others, we find that we can perhaps make that leap and find it in us to find the intention to want to help ourselves.