Why should doctors cultivate compassion?

compassion_in_chinese_medicineThree excellent blogs, Urbanmonk.net, The Middle Way.net, and kentonwhitman.com have collaborated to create a group writing project around the topic of compassion. They have titled the project “Spread the love NOW,” an imperative statement for an imperative topic! It’s a great time of year to be thinking deeply about compassion and other related topics, so I thought I would add some thoughts of my own.

If you have an online journal or blog, consider visiting that link and participating in the project yourself. Entries need to be posted by the 5th of January, 2008. As if joining your voice with so many others to talk about such a worthy subject isn’t enough benefit alone, there’s also a prize involved. Visit the Urbanmonk.net link above to learn more.

Compassion is a natural theme for a blog about medicine. However, it is too seldom discussed explicitly in medical settings. Sometimes it seems that it is assumed that people come to medicine naturally aligned with the principles of compassionate living and that their medical practice will be informed by those principles. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Some come to medicine because of family tradition, others because of hopes of monetary gain, still others sort of by accident – they choose it out of a book or from some career counseling service’s list. Of course there are many, particularly in the natural medicine fields, who do come for all of the right reasons. Further, even people primarily motivated by some of the above can be exceptionally compassionate individuals. Regardless of one’s motivation for entering the medical field or one’s natural tendency with regards to compassion, it is a topic that should be carefully considered and a trait that should be vigorously cultivated.

The philosophical roots of Chinese medicine are full of descriptions of the necessary attitude for a good physician. While Chinese medical science should not be equated with the philosophical systems that gave rise to it, we can look to those systems to understand the medicine more fully.

Interestingly, all three of the major Chinese spiritual systems – Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism – take compassion to be one of the highest virtues. In Daoism, compassion is one of the three jewels that all good people should seek to cultivate. Compassion is at the very heart of Buddhist thought, no doubt about it. In Confucianism, too, compassion is a most sought virtue and some sources indicate that Confucius believed that all other virtues flowed from this one. I’d like to briefly explore the Confucian understanding of Compassion and suggest some ways that physicians and physicians-in-training can incorporate this vital virtue into their own lives and medical practices.

The word for compassion is Ren and can also be translated as benevolence, humility, humanity and mercy. The character is composed of the person radical on the left and the symbol for “2” on the right. It indicates either a cluster of two persons or the relationship between two people. It is my understanding that this virtue has been explained in many ways by different Confucian philosophers.

One of the major points of contention concerns towards whom we are meant to have this special attitude. Some contend that it should be shown to all people (universal love) others indicate that it is reserved for those we owe some filial debt – such as our parents. Despite these differences, the essence can be agreed upon by anyone. When taking action in the world, we must always consider how our actions will impact other human beings. We must act in such a way that it does not support the desires/wishes of one person at the detriment of others. In essence, we must think of the humanity of others and act in such a way that we respect and honor the core of humanness within every person.

What does this mean in medicine? Simply this – that your primary concern is a doctor is to respect the humanness of each patient. They are not your experimental laboratories, they are not marks to push your products on, they are not intentionally being difficult or any of those other petty little things we all think at one time or another. Thus, they shouldn’t be treated as such. They should be always and everywhere treated in exactly the same manner as you would have yourself treated, with respect, openness – and yes, even a kind of love.

How can we learn to embody this principle? Well, any of the basic self-cultivational practices will certainly help. Meditation helps our minds to quiet and this in turn will help us to notice when our thoughts turn to less than compassionate directions. One practice I can suggest is to stop immediately any speech or thought about any person, patient or not, that you would not want them to hear you thinking or saying.

You might also want to look into volunteering your time to a local charity, particularly one that serves sectors of the public that you traditionally find difficult. In exposing yourself repeatedly to people you find difficult, you may be more able to work through your troubling feelings.

In general, I believe that thinking carefully about our relationship with the virtue of compassion is one of the most important practices we can work with as physicians and future physicians. How does compassion play out in your daily life? Learned any particularly poignant lessons about this virtue? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments. If you would like to read more articles like this one, be sure to subscribe to this blog via RSS feed or via email.


About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

View all posts by Eric Grey - Website: http://chinesemedicinecentral.com