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Science, Compassion and Common Humanity

Compassion, Human Flourishing and Integral Polarity Practice

by N. Lee Smith, MD and John T. Kesler, JD

© Mnsanthoshkumar | - Tree of love hearts and hand in support - concept vector icon

Understanding compassion as one of five primary interrelated principles of human flourishing; and how an awareness and life practice, integral polarity practice, interconnects and optimizes all of those principles.

The World Health Organization defines health not as just the absence of disease; health is total well-being, or Flourishing. This encompasses not only physical well-being, but also mental, emotional and social well-being, and one might even include spiritual well-being. Health is linked to healing, and healing is about bringing separated things back together, which is the essence of love and compassion. That compassion applies to ourselves, to our relationships, to our coÍrmunities and to our life world.

Medical epidemiology studies show that strong, loving social relationships predict the following:

  • living longer (lower mortality rates)i
  • less cognitive decline with aging less cardiovascular disease
  • lower cancer ratesii
  • greater resistance to infectious disease
  • more rapid recovery from illness
  • better prognosis when facing chronic life-threatening illnesses
  • fewer medical visits

The effect of loving and compassionate connectedness on these outcomes is comparable to that of stopping smoking, overcoming obesity and signifrcant physical activityiii In fact, in a large community study of nearly 7000 people, good marriage and friendships, spiritual community, and strong community interconnectedness predicted quality of life, decreased mortality, and fewer chronic medical conditions better than did traditional health habits.iv

Medical and psychological interventions, designed to increase compassionate support and connectedness have been shown to significantly improve health and medical outcomes for each of the following:

  • Obstetrical outcomes for both mother and childv
  • Longevity and quality of life in women with metastatic breast cancervi
  • Significant reductions in clinical depressionvii


Interventions that compassionately decreased marital discord and improved interactive coping skills produced less pain behavior and less physical disability in the marital couplesviii

Compassion meditation has been shown to reduce stress responses and to reduce inflammatory markers associated with chronic diseaseix

Similarly, mindfulness meditation has produced a robust medical literature for improving health outcomes both mentally and physically. Three essential features of mindfulness brought into one's daily activities include: 1. Staying calm in the present moment; 2. Without judgment; 3. With compassion (for one's self, those present, and even for the situation itself.)

Even deeply communing with nature has been shown to reduce anxiety depression anger and create 'more vigor". This effect lasts up to one month after a day or two of deep nature communion.x

What are the physiological underpinnings of this? A review of 81 studies showed that feeling loved, and loving and social support positively impacts many physiological processes that benefit the neurological, cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems.xi  Physiologically, all this make great sense, because the essence of physiological health is homeostasis. Homeostasis is a balance in these various body systems of being able to respond effectively to the natural stresses of life with a prompt return to a balanced still point without either too much or too little of a response. Pathology occurs if any one of these systems responds in either the "too much" direction, or the "too little" direction: too much or too little immunity; too much or too little hormone; too much or too little nervous system response all create illness. Physiological health is grounded in finding an effective still point which is present with these polarities, with good capacity to go in either direction and in proper balance as is wisely needed in the moment.

Love and compassion, both for self and others, are at the very heart of all of this medical research for creating personal, family, and community Flourishing. Such love and compassion are deeply interpenetrative with four other interconnected and particularly high leverage health and resiliency principles. In fact, compassion appears to be the key lubricant that supports and interconnects them all. These four principles not only create wellbeing (health, both mental and physical)xii, are also proven to robustly improve stress resiliencexiii, human happinessxiv, and self- actualizationxv (all goals of individual and collective Flourishing). Based on numerous studies, these four principles can be summarized as:

  1. Being in a more deeply connected and vibranr relationship with one's higher, wiser self, with others, with one's sources of spiritual wisdom, and with the earth and its creatures, and with the cosmos (a feeling of oneness). Compassion is essential in all of these categories of relationship.
  2. Having an ínternal locus of control; maintaining the capacity of choice, and being true to the integrity of one's deepest wisdom and values, regardless of circumstances. (This is not about controlling the external world.) Self compassion in this context has been proven to be extremely important; it allows one to honor, love and become the self of deeper values, regardless of external pressures.
  3. Having a sense of purpose and meaning based on contribution to the greater good. Making a contribution beyond the self almost by def,rnition includes the motivation of compassion.
  4. Having a profound sense of hopefulness, not in terms of hoping for specific outcomes (attachment), but rather having an attitude of being able to respond to whatever rises in each moment with wisdom, integrity, compassion and courage.

An important observation is that for interventions for stress resilience and Flourishing, to create optimal health benefits, they need tobe experiential, not just teaching cognitive ideas.xvi So how does one experientially caltivate actualizing these four principles (which together with compassion become "The Five Principles") for whatever arises in life? A powerful method called integral polarity practice provides meditative awareness and life practices which experientially interrelate and connect those principles in mutually reinforcing ways.

Integral polarity practice (IPP) emphasizes that our experience is filled with polarities (seeming opposites) that create both some of our worst conflicts and also some of our greatest moments of insight and wisdom. Some examples include Desire/Aversion, AlignmenlDeviation and Control/Submission. Getting stuck in one side of any one of these polarities causes not only unnecessary conflict, but also usually causes dysfunctional suffering. For example, being stuck in desire is by def,rnition an addiction, and being caught up to an extreme in aversion can cause anxious phobias, or hateful conflicts. Through practicing IPP one begins to see and feel how that seemingly opposite pole helps temper and even fulfill the intention of the first pole. For example, desire and aversion help each other from becoming pathologically extreme in either direction. Through practice, one can see how the positive intentions of both poles interpenetrate; they are essentially two complementary aspects of the same field of functionality and awareness. (e.g., Both desire and aversion collectively comprise the functional energy of seeking, and ultimately are there to help one find deep sense of fullness and abundance, and a constant, enduring sense of gratitude. This interconnection is best understood by experiencing it, and this is what IPP provides.

In summary, polarities are initially perceived and experienced as opposites. But with increasing maturity of experiential awareness, that naturally attracts healing compassion to move from separation to unity, the polarities grow closer together: first to interpenetrate, and then to unify. In this way, IPP experientially works with the endless polarities that one encounters in life.

As a practice, IPP initially pays particular attention to a limited number of universal polarities that correspond to central polar dynamics of the human being, each emerging one after another at each of 15 stages of maturing human development.xvii The fourth emergent polarity

introduces the relation¿l dimension of human experience: agency/communion (illustrated on the next page). This polarity is a primary doorway to optimizing Flourishing in one's life, because it manifests, interrelates and optimizes all of the Five Principles. To begin with, "Agency" correlates with the principle of "intemal locus of control", and communion correlates with having deeply connected relationships, comprising two of the five principles.

Through facilitation, one works with this polarity the same as with every polarity in IPP. If one experiences the poles, agency/communion, as opposites with a strong preference for one or the other, this is the least developed experience of the polarity. The next step of maturity develops an ability to easily hold either pole, but only one at a time. That can further develop into being able to hold both poles simultaneously, beginning to experience a mutually complementary relationship between them. Then, one can begin to experience the poles as interpenetrating, an experience of "agency-in-communion". One implication of that, is that one's individual sense of meaning is inevitably deeply connected to being of service beyond one's self, another of the Five Principles. Each step in this progression represents a compassionate advance toward developing maturity in a relational environment; each step is measurable and can be correlated to stages of human development. Hence, working with this progression is an attractor to personal growth.

Every polarity has what we call a "still point" a place of peace, abundance, refined vibrancy and Being that brings the energy of a polarity to a resting and still quality, even as homeostasis provides this quality in our healthy physiological functioning. The still point of agency/communion is an experience of deep trust, one might say Transcendent Trust, in whatever way one can access that; perhaps most profoundly as trust in the Absolute or the Divine or the Higher Self. Or one might envision an ideal relationship grounded in deep trust. This is a meditative place that over time can be stabilized, and carried habitually into one's day.

From the still point one tends to be able to more fully experience a polarity as a field of awareness and functionality with the poles themselves blending into the wholeness of the field, which happens in any event with significant maturity. In the example of the polarity agency/communion, these elements merge into the oneness of the relational environment. When one is fully present in this fully integrated field the qualities show up in a blend appropriate to the situation guided by one's deepest Wisdom and Compassion.

When one holds that still point deeply, what we call a "Virtue of Becoming" naturally arises, a shift in attitude. tn the context of agency/communion, the still point of Trust generates a deep sense of Hope. This is not a hope for specific things, but a deep dispositional hopefulness in attitude, another of the Five Principles. It is an inner assurance that whatever arises can be dealt with wisely and well.

In addition to a Virtue of Becoming arising out of a still point, a "Virtue of Doing" also arises. The Virtue of Doing that arises from Transcendent Trust is deep or Transcendent Love and Compassion. When grounded in trusting the Absolute or the Divine, this is experienced as Compassion without limit, of a caring, healing love that is not conditional. Transcendent Hope and Compassion are deeply complementary. When you practice Compassion and Hope you deepen your access to the spiritual depth of the Still Point. And when you practice meditatively holding the still point of Trust, you more fully manifest Hope and Compassion. As Hope and Compassion reinforce one another, they penetrate and deeply influence the entire relational field of agency/communion.

These virtues (and the virtues arising out of all the first several polarities) are also mirrored through "positive health strengths" from the science of Positive Psychology,xiii which qualities have been determined to positively impact human happiness and flourishing. Among these proven strengths which reflect the Five Principles are hope, kindness, love (compassion), spirituality (still point), self-regulation (agency) and social intelligence (communion).

Highly creative, wise and vibrant relational dynamics reflect such patterns.xix For instance with opposite points of view being fully expressed and compassionately listened to, this process can transform "your way vs. my way" into "our wã!", by empathizing with and holding together apparent opposites. Every human collective such as organizations and communities can increase the flourishing of the people within them and the productivity and flourishing of the collective itself by promoting and supporting these principles. This can be done productively and in interconnected ways by encouraging personal practice such as IPP, by developing a cultural which cultivates these qualities, by implementing supportive policies and by creating the systems and processes which amplify these principles and pattems.

Within each human being archetypal poles emerge at each new level of developing maturation. A society's maturation level gravitates to that of the preponderance of its citizens. Bringing each of these archetypal poles together, rather than in competition, leads most rapidly to more highly developed and flourishing human beings and communities and societies Compassion is at the heart of this integrative process, even as supporting and interconnecting all Five Principles are important in optimizing human Flourishing.


N. Lee Smith, M.D.

Dr. Smith is Director of Stress Medicine at The Center for MindBody Health in Salt Lake City. He has been Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Utah, where he established the Stress Medicine Clinic. He is an internist with subspecialty interest in behavioral medicine, which interfaces mental and physical health. He co-authored a popular textbook entitled Mind-Body Health: The Effects of Attitudes, Emotions and Relationships, currently in its hfth edition. Lee utilizes mindfulness meditation and integral polarity practice in his clinical work.

John T. Kesler, JD

John Kesler is an attorney, consultant and lecturer. He is founder and president of Salt Lake/Global Civil Network. He is certified in scoring and debriefing people regarding their stage of human development through the STAGES model of development. John developed integral polarity practice, a mindfulness based practice, which emphasizes interfacing states of awareness with stages of development in the context of working with foundational polar dynamics of human reality. He is founder of the IPP Institute.



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xixJames Ritchie-Dunham and Bettye Pruitt, Ecosynomics: The Science of Abundance (Belchertown, MA, Vibrancy Publishing , 2Ol4). The dynamics of this science of abundance and relationship correlate well with patterns of IPP and can be implemented productively in tandem with the Five Principles.

@ 2016 N. Lee Smith, John Kesler


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