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    Something to Think About: Instinctive compassion

an adult holding a baby on his or her lap, holding the baby's hand
Dr. Amit Sood
says, "Let compassion become your habit so you do not need intentional effort."

Dear friend,

Joey, right after birth, climbs into his mother’s pouch. Leatherback turtle babies need no instruction to walk toward the ocean after they emerge from the eggs. Human moms come preprogrammed with countless skills to care for their young. These complex behaviors, which are innate to us and have obvious survival value, are called our instincts.

We learn another set of complex behaviors. These entail exercise of a choice. Declining a bowl of ice cream or french fries, forgiving, performing random acts of kindness—these are learned behaviors that need intentionality. Intentionality is the hallmark of a more complex brain. Intentionality is unique to us humans. Intentionality needs deeper thought, often with an active focus on the long term.

Our strongest instincts focus on self-preservation and procreation. Behaviors guided by fear, greed, and selfishness, to preserve and expand what I consider me and mine, dominate my day. A world that works by this rule will remain depleted of altruistic intentions. When everyone is busy taking out energy, who’s putting it back in?

Intentional compassion can offer moments of respite in such a world, but because intentionality is energy intensive, it may not be frequent enough to compensate for instinctive selfishness. That’s the main problem with intentionality—it is effortful and energy intensive. In the tug-of-war between instincts and intentionality, most days instincts win, since instincts need the least amount of attention and energy.

We have to create a world where compassion is the first and most primal instinct. In such a world, I will focus on your pain and you on mine, with both of us wanting to heal each other’s pain. Creation of such a world has to be the legacy of a species as brainy and creative as ours. Once a critical mass of us breathes compassion in and out, it will become the defining force for the world. I hope I am alive when that happens. I hope you are there too.

May the world become more compassionate because you live in it.

Take care.

Dr. Sood 2

Read previous blog posts and follow @AmitSoodMD on Twitter.

Dr. Sood is director of research in the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus in Minnesota. He also chairs the Mind-Body Medicine Initiative at Mayo Clinic.