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Build a Better Brain By Pumping Up Your Compassion Muscle!

January 4, 2016

A few weeks ago, I was standing in line at the check-out of a store to purchase a few items when a lady in her fifties with fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair pulled back in a loose pony tail, cut right in front of me! At first, I could feel the wheels spinning in my mind to make sense of what had just happened.

I didn’t say a word to her, but I could feel this dark cloud of tension move over us and uncomfortably hover there.  I watched my brain trying to make sense of why this woman would cut right in front of me. I watch my brain throwing judgements at her and then the mind train began to weave a personal tale for me about how this lady’s actions had negatively impacted me. It was really quite a story!

The ‘old me’ would have let the mind train circle around for a few hours and I would have been far more upset in the coming hours based on all the additional data my mind was trying to sell me about the reasons why this woman thought it would be okay to jump in front of me.

But since the brain injury, I have learned some invaluable tools to help me navigate life in a different way so my brain is not wasting precious energy on needless anger.

One of the areas I have focused on is building my compassion muscle. And, it really does take practice, patience and time. Yes, I did experience the mood and physical disruptions when the triggering event with the lady occurred. I am still a work in progress. But, I was able to stop within a few minutes and shift gears. Just like at the gym, I wouldn’t be able to go in with no prior training and start curling 50-pound dumb bells. Think of building compassion in the same way.

How to Build Compassion:

  1. Focus on awareness. Whenever a situation occurs that elicits some sort of negative feeling within you, use that as an opportunity to tell yourself that it is practice time!  This is a great opportunity to use some of the tools (below) I will share with you.
  2. Put that person in a loved one’s shoes. Think of someone you love dearly who may be facing a tough time in life. For me, that is my Mom. Her husband, my Dad, died less than one year ago of cancer. Mom recently made the decision to pick up from the only home she has ever known at the age of 63 and move to a brand new place to be closer to her some of her children.  My Mom is an amazing woman, but I know all of these changes must feel overwhelming to her and like she is barely hanging on in life.What if that woman at the store was experiencing some sort of personal struggle that day and needed to be cut some slack? Would I want someone to do that for my Mom? You bet I would!
  3. Understand when others act, it is rarely for the purpose of a personal attack on you. Often in our minds, we think about what is best for us and our families. We become consumed with ‘me’ talk. So, it can feel that when others in the world act in a way that we may assume is such a blatant disrespect towards us, in fact, they probably didn’t even notice us and were so busy in their own minds too! Remind yourself when you feel hurt or anger inside that we are all humans on this earth, trying to do the best we can.
  4. Loving kindness – When you are able to focus on using some of the tools above, it begins to shift your perspective and your brain feels more at peace. The more you practice compassion when you are upset, the more you wire your brain to go there naturally in the future.
    The final cherry on top for compassion is when you can not just understand previously frustrating situations differently and remain calm, but when you can reach out to others and share love, regardless of their state.

Probably this lady who cut in front of me that day needed love in that moment more than anything and perhaps, that could have helped shift her perspective.  I can think of countless times where I have struggled out in the public as I continue to recover from the brain injury and people have held the door for me or given me a caring smile. They would have had no idea what was happening inside of me, but by sharing their kindness, they helped shift things for me.

I decided to give the lady in front of me a smile when her eyes finally met mine. She smiled back and I sensed the relief in her eyes. After she paid, she turned to me and said ‘thank you’ and was quickly gone. I will likely never know her story, but I do know when I walked out of the store, I felt happiness wash over me. I behaved in a way that felt right for me and in line with who I am. And let me tell you, that is a lot better for my brain than the other side of the coin.

Think of where you can practice compassion in your life? When upset, give yourself a few minutes to just be and then take the high road that feels right for you.It will be your reaction that impacts your brain’s health, not the way the other person treats you. I don’t think we control as much as we think we do in our lives, but you do control largely your brain health. Choose compassion.


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