EMPATHY FOR OTHERS requires a minimum level of calm in yourself. To take an extreme example, if you are hanging off the top ledge of a fifty-story building and someone starts telling you their problems, you don't have much empathy, do you? And in a more mundane situations, when you're scared or upset or simply stressed out, your empathy for others isn't as high as it would be if you were relaxed.
And it is true in the other direction too: When you are calmer than you usually are, your empathy for others is higher than normal.
And empathy is a fundamental element in creating and maintaining great relationships. Empathy is what allows you to really connect with people. Empathy is being able to feel how another person feels, to share the experience with them, to see the world through their eyes. It is the most important state of mind you can cultivate in yourself for the pursuit of closeness.
And having a calm body and mind really helps. Experiments have shown this to be the case, and your everyday experience confirms it.
The surest way to calm your body is with what Herbert Benson called the relaxation response, a physical response you can create in yourself very easily. When you hold one word or phrase in your mind for a period of time, you become calmer — and that greater calm lasts for several hours afterward. Here how to produce the relaxation response:
1. Choose one word or phrase to hold in mind.
2. Decide ahead of time how long you will go. Ten minutes is a good length of time. Twenty minutes is best.
3. Get in a quiet place and sit down. Don't lie down. Close your eyes and think the word or phrase. Just hold it gently in your mind. It doesn't matter if you have other thoughts.
4. Your mind will wander away. After awhile, you'll realize you aren't holding your word or phrase in your mind at all any more. When you notice this, simply return to thinking your word or phrase.
5. When your time is up, open your eyes.
Don't do this with a forcing effort. For a few minutes, let go of your planning, your worries, your ideas, or the conversations you might have had or will be having. The relaxation response is a refuge — an island of peace in an ocean of stressful thoughts.
Your increased calm gives you more empathy for people, which changes the way you interact, which improves your connections with people, which improves your health.
All you need to do is sit quietly and hold a simple word or phrase in your mind with your eyes closed for twenty minutes.
Something really surprising happens when you do this simple exercise. The simplicity of your thoughts somehow calms your mind and body. The physical changes are dramatic. Blood pressure drops. Stress hormone levels drop. Your heart slows down. Muscle tension fades away. And some of these effects last for many hours.
Try it. It is incredibly boring sometimes, but ironically, that might be what is so wonderful about it. Just like excitement and fear are almost the same thing, depending on your acceptance or rejection of what's happening, boredom and peace are almost the same thing, depending on your acceptance or rejection of what's happening.
Think of a feeling of calmness as one end of a sliding scale. Calm is on one end; agitation is on the other. Or to put it more extremely: We're talking about a sliding scale with deep serenity on one end and hysterical freakout at the other.
The main thing to remember is that agitation is the malady. Calm is the remedy.
The more agitated you are, the more difficult it is for other people to have a good relationship with you. When we say someone has a "bad attitude," we are just referring to some form of agitation. Stress is agitation. Upset is agitation. Irritable is agitation. Worry is agitation. Anger is agitation. Impatience and intolerance are agitation. When you see it this way, you can easily see why calmness is so vitally important.
When you want to create better relationships, calmness is the most important attribute you can cultivate in yourself. Calmness is the gateway to love, kindness, and affection. Calmness enhances relationships.
You're a better listener when you're calm. When you can listen calmly, thoughtfully, intently, the person really gets heard.
And you're a better speaker when you're calm. When you feel relaxed and secure, it's easier to let your guard down. It's easier to know what you're feeling and easier to say what you're feeling.
Calmness supports sanity (good listening, thoughtful responses to events, sound decisions, etc.).
Agitation does not support sanity.
One thing is sure: The calmness you can cultivate will enhance your relationships.
So think about this next time you want to feel better or be in a better mood. One of the most important influencing factors on your mood is how good your relationships are. In other words, how close you feel with the important people in your life.
If you want to be in a better mood, get closer to people. And the first place to start is to feel calmer and more relaxed. The relaxation response can get you there quickly and reliably.
Herbert Benson wrote an excellent book about how to become more relaxed: The Relaxation Response. I recommend it.