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PROLOGUE: FROM ETIOLOGY TO EMPATHY TO COMPASSION

 

One of the touchstones of psychotherapy is the quality of empathy, the capacity to feel the emotions that envelope and motivate the client. The more we understand our clients, the more effective our interventions will be. Comprehending what experiences in our clients’ lives have strongly influenced their present suffering can strengthen our connection with them.

 

To conceptualize all behavior as adaptive is a pivotal step in this direction: the Adaptation and Attachment Supplements are my present effort to facilitate this understanding. To have guidelines toward the recent as well as more remote past origins of the person’s current frustrations and suffering is to have a new set of hypotheses to consider in exploring what has led the person into his or her present state and circumstances. To be able to help the person understand what are his/her points of greatest sensitivity, how they have come about, how he/she is protecting him/herself, and then what the prices are that the person is paying to do this is to clarify the person’s choices and thus to enable change. The clinician is a guide or facilitator in assisting the changes that can gain the person a more gratifying life, i.e., a "facilitator of more effective adaptation."

 

It is easy to become habituated to how judgmental our clinical terms are. "You are passive-aggressive," "dependency manipulative," or "borderline" are hardly less pejorative than (respectively) obnoxious, conniving, and crazy. The moment we start forming negative judgments of our clients we start to lose them - they will start having to defend themselves against us, we who are supposed to be their allies and protectors. The more fully we can understand what conditioning experiences and biologic vulnerabilities have operated to shape the client as he or she presently is, the easier it is to keep our own good-bad perceptions out of the way.

 

Note that the words "maladjustment" and "maladaptation" do not appear anywhere else in this website other than this one paragraph. Maladaptation is an observer’s judgment as to how people’s ways of reacting are not gaining them the gratifications and goals that they reasonably might pursue or perhaps explicitly desire. Given the strength of private self-justifications, "I am maladjusted" or "I am a dysfunctional individual" is rarely or at the most limitedly a part of most people’s private self-perceptions, even if defensively proclaimed in order to blunt someone else’s criticisms and judgments ("You may be right, I guess I am."). But the private self-statement is far more likely to be, "But I had to do that," than "I just did that because I am so badly maladjusted."

 

As people with elevated scores on the Pa-3 subscale so consistently demonstrate, the judging person knows that he/she is right. Thinking in terms of all behavior as being adaptive can dilute and help relax what seems a natural if not nearly universal vulnerability to become judgmental when frustrated or threatened. We see the challenge is not to never be judgmental but rather to become aware that we are protecting ourselves against our own discomforts when we become judgmental.

 

Empathy is a major bridge to compassion; the path we are proposing is from etiology to empathy to compassion. Note how strongly the originators of the major religions have advocated compassion. For example, Christ spoke of caring for the most vulnerable: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." Matthew 25:40. Buddha made compassion a core focus of his thought, not to cause suffering to another sentient being. The Dalai Lama emphasizes this. If you truly appreciate another’s pain and hurt, you become aware of whatever pains your own actions are causing them.

 

Our clients so often have fears and other reactions they do not want; seeking to change themselves is typically why they seek help. For the clients to understand that their distress is the natural outcome of what they have endured and survived is to see more clearly what it is that they want to change. A natural benefit of this conceptualization is less judgmental negativity and increasing compassion for themselves as well as others. Our world is one of ever-increasing population demands on finite resources, with all the frustration, aggression, and violence that can ensue from that. The quality of life - if not the chances for the survival of the species itself - may be improved by whatever increases in compassion that we can contribute to society.

 

Whatever fresh insights may arise from the collaboration of Buddhists and neuroscientists, it is my hope that these may lead us to become more and more "warm-hearted persons." I would like to conclude this essay with the Dalai Lama’s own concluding words:

 

 

Whether compassion has an independent existence within the self or not, compassion certainly is, in daily life, I think, the foundation of human health, the source and assurance of our human future.

 

Inserted text from: Houshmande, Z., Livingston, R. B., & Wallace, B. A. (1999). Consciousness at the crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on brain science and Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.

 

Alex B. Caldwell and Micheline Becker-Caldwell