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Episode 38: Compassion with Siobhan Horton


Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted podcast. This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity and purpose. I'm your host, Catherine Cowell. 



I am delighted to be joined by Siobhan Horton this morning. Thank you ever so much for doing this, Siobhan. Do you want to just introduce yourself? 

Siobhan: Thank you for inviting me, Catherine. I'm Siobhan. I think the most interesting part about me at the moment is in September, I relocated back to the land of my birth after being 44 years in the UK and I'm living about a mile and a half from my family home. So that's where I am at the moment adjusting. And my lovely husband, Phil, who's a Liverpuddlian and has come to live with me in the middle of the Irish countryside. So that in summary is kind of where I am today.

Catherine: Yes. And you've told me that you get good views from where you live.
Siobhan: Stunning. Stunning mountain views. And this morning, crisp, clear mountains that are just beautiful that are on our doorstep looking out the kitchen window, which I just look like. Yes. And living in a lovely rented accommodation at the moment on a farm. So very local community feel which is part of the reason we've kind of moved back here. So a sense of community and belonging and being part of and connected to land and people is incredibly important to me.

Catherine: Yeah. And we met because you do spiritual direction.

Siobhan: That's correct. Yes. Oh, about six and a half years ago, I retired from nursing. I'd had a wonderful life in palliative care, which was ultimately a vocation for me, and was in palliative care for nearly 25 to 30 years. So when I semi-retired from that about six years ago, I thought there was a real void in my life because even though I'm married, I don't have children. So that leaves a real part in me for kind of being with others, being helpful in a whole variety of ways. And I had experienced retreats and spiritual direction for over 30 years from other people and actually felt called to that myself. So when I lived in the UK, I lived in Northeast Wales, very close to a very well-known Jesuit monastery called St. Buenos, the Center for Spiritual Development. So I went to St. Buenos for a variety of courses to train spiritual direction. And that really has been a gift to this part of my life. It takes me back into what palliative care gave me as well is deep, intimate one-to-one authentic relationships with others. That is two-way. That is very life-giving for me on all sorts of levels.

Catherine: Yeah. And the thing which has prompted this conversation is that we had a bit of a chat and you were talking about compassion and how that has become a deep interest for you. And that's something that you've really explored very deeply. And as we were talking, it was evident to me that there was some real gold in there that it would be really good to kind of draw out and talk about.

Siobhan: You're right. I've got a deep passion for the concept of compassion as I'm now beginning to understand it. 

Catherine: I wonder if you could give us a definition of compassion. 

Siobhan: It is the ability to attend to the suffering of others and to approach it and then to try to relieve it with all your being. So it is being open to the approaching to suffering and then desiring and having the capabilities to do something about that suffering. And either to prevent it happening at all or to relieve it as much as you can. 

Catherine: And that's where the cognitive bit comes in because you need to have some wisdom and some understanding. Otherwise you can't actually practically do the relieving. 

Siobhan: That's right. And I think kind of being realistic, we're all limited to human beings. Some of us find compassion in some areas much easier than others. So there's some parts of life I would not be good in. Compassion wouldn't flow easily for me. So there is a lot of know yourself deeply in this as well and getting yourself into the right space that in this incarnation you're able to be compassionate in that situation. And don't force yourself. We're not all Mother Theresas that need to sort the whole world out. You know there is a balance in all of this. Catherine: Yes. And some people have more capacity than others don't they? My capacity to be compassionate if you want a good conversation and a cup of tea is great. My capacity to be compassionate if you want your bike fixing…

Siobhan: Exactly. Exactly.

Catherine: Yes. 

Siobhan: I know. I know there is yeah there's that about just being realistic as well. And then going and having some fun you know and there is grace involved with this as well. We're not doing this alone you know. It can sound a bit intense but there can be fun in this and absolutely bringing the Holy Spirit into it as well you know. And knowing ourselves because that's why I think that the road to self-knowledge is so important in any kind of good life really. 

Catherine: Yes. Yes. So where did that interest in compassion emerge from for you? 

Siobhan:  Thinking back the genesis of this understanding started about 10, 12 years ago. So about 12 years ago I've given a book by a colleague when I worked in the hospice in Cheshire called Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert and Choden who used to be a Buddhist monk. And what Paul Gilbert and his colleague did in this book for me was take something that was vaguely fluffy and very spiritual, the concept of compassion which is very much part of our Christian spirituality and give it a real biology and make sense of it for me in totally new ways. And first of all once I read it, it actually was the personal journey for me to help me understand what it meant within my human body to have some of the framework of compassion operating.

And then as I began to reflect and meditate on this I actually saw that it was hugely important for the work of palliative care that I was involved with. And then ultimately and very recently and I can begin to unpack this with you together is I began to link it in only in this past year to the spirituality of Theilhard de Chardin who was a wonderful, wonderful mystical priest within the Jesuit order in the 20th century who wrote a lot about spirituality within an evolutionary side. It was very much misunderstood in his lifetime but I began to make links to all of this and how that made sense particularly my work within palliative care. So that's kind of the genesis of it and since then I've really lapped up an amount of Paul Gilbert's books and been on some of the courses etc.

Catherine: So you said that initially it was really helpful for you personally. Do you want to tell me a bit more about that?

Siobhan: I've been attending retreats and retreat work for 30 odd years predominantly within an Ignatian framework but wider than that. And then probably about 10, 15 years ago I started looking at some of the Buddhist retreats as well. Not particularly that I was called to be Buddhist in no way but I'm a bit of a magpie where I find wisdom. I'm very comfortable going to other places for it. And what I noticed was Buddhism, modern Buddhism at least and Western Buddhism has got a great ability to articulate compassion in ways up to recently Christianity in my view hasn't.

Within the Bible it says, "Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind and your whole being and love your neighbor as you love yourself." But I couldn't hear the loving yourself which I felt was a holy thing to do, very well articulated. So I started beginning to explore that from a Buddhist perspective and mindfulness and that and really got great insights in that. So when I found this book that helped me then begin to land it from a spiritual, emotional, psychological perspective that it actually was landed within my body that if I used my breath properly, if I began to observe thoughts and not get attached, that in some way gave me real understanding of what it is to be a human being.

Personally I'm a natural existentialist and I believe we're here for purposes and reasons in this life. And somehow the greater I understand who I am of which one big aspect is my body and how it links into my mind that this understanding, this evolutionary understanding of compassion for me was incredibly useful and totally new even though I had been in nursing for many years. I hadn't heard people talk about this nature but this was one insight that demystified some of the tools that I was given without the context of why they should be working.

It's like when you're on an airplane and they say the mother should put the oxygen mask on first before you attend to others. There's something about the more I attend to myself in a non-narcissistic way, the more I'm available for others. There's less blockages in who I am so that I then can be more a channel of divine energy wherever that's called for because the more I'm caught up in any of my own suffering and hurts and that, the less available I am to work with the divine in life. So for me it is quite a psychospiritual practice really, learning to care for myself so that I am available to be there for others as well. 

Catherine: Yeah. And you were saying a moment ago that there was something about the love of the self that you weren't seeing in Christianity but you were seeing in Buddhism. And then you talked about something about how your breathing feeds into that. So there's a fascinating link then between that ability to love yourself and your body and your breathing.

Siobhan: That's right. Maybe at this point what I'd like to just share just some of the insights I got from Paul Gilbert that will link into that understanding of the questions you've just asked. What he's saying is you and I and all humanity, we have got survival mechanisms that are called motivational structures. And what's very kind of well known from Darwin is the survival of the fittest. And that is one of the motivations of competition and being the top of the pecking order. There is however another very successful motivational structure within our brain which is called compassion. Compassion then takes the ability to look after another and you begin to care for the other in a planned deliberate way that you know the outcomes and you attend to suffering. And apparently Paul Gilbert says this probably came out of females beginning to walk upright. We are of all mammals it is hardest of all of us and most dangerous for us to give birth to our young. Childbirth became incredibly unsafe in the early days for women which led in some way to the tribe around the person beginning to attend to the cries of distress of the other. So we then began to develop this ability to care for people within our tribe and that still is the case. It's much easier for us to be kind and supportive to somebody we like and know that are within our tribe. However what then began to emerge and particularly in the last couple of centuries is with our development of compassion we had this ability to begin to care for people outside of our tribe.

Catherine: So there's a link then between the women standing upright and giving birth and this responding. So connected with birthing partners and women helping each other.

Siobhan: Exactly, women helping each other. So what was noted I think there was just this innate understanding that if we don't look after the woman giving birth the chances are the woman and the baby won't survive. And humans give birth to far fewer babies than say for example a turtle. They'll give birth to about a thousand eggs. They walk away from it so the percentage of their survival is probably one or two percent apparently because of no attention but there's still enough of them surviving. Whereas we give birth to so few children it is in the interest of the tribe that you look after that baby. And we began then to respond to signals in the baby and the mother which set up emotional systems within us. One of which is the soothing system and as a mother you will know this with your boys that when there's distress there are things we can do is something like the tonality of our voice, the touch we give, or have the ability when a child is frightened or too excited to calm them down. So we began to develop emotional systems that were supportive of the compassionate structure and motivational structure within. And these helped us to survive and to feel good about ourselves. The rest and digest system which happens when we are compassionate to ourselves and others we've got this ability to calm the other down. Parts of our brain in response to this, part of our vagal nerve responds to this and our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system respond to these three emotional systems. So three emotional systems one is the threat system so that is in all of us, we're very quick to be frightened. So we've got different hormones inside that relate to the fight or flight part of us. We've then got what is very very prevalent in 21st century living is our drive system that is where we go out to seek more material things where we want to be top of the class we want to be top of everything. And that unfortunately is very dominant at the moment. It's fine for the person that wins at that point in their lives but for many of us it leads to social comparison, to loneliness, to shame, to guilt, to not feeling well and to sense of anxiety. You've then got the third system the soothing system which is to say you know we know well within healthcare when people are very unwell nurses will use a lot of the soothing side of touch calming as well as their knowledge around drugs and all of that. All these systems are really good but what we've got is out of balance at the moment. So coming back to your question about breathing what I didn't realize was there are things I can do to help my soothing system within me the biology of my soothing system to calm myself down particularly if I was frightened about something or anxious or what happened to me a lot was in a busy job, which I had a busy job I have got a high drive system so making it quite personal my drive system is strong and that's fine Monday to Friday but what happens on a Saturday morning when you want to relax. It is something I really want tools to switch that off really on Saturday mornings, you know just let go and have fun rather than being planning, thinking, ruminating, about what had happened over the week, so this introduction to the physiology I've got inside that will trigger the soothing system which is part of the motivational structure for compassion, was really useful to me all those years ago.

Catherine: Yeah so there's something isn't there about the fact that if you are able to kind of key into that biology and soothe yourself then as you were saying earlier it's then much easier to offer that soothing to others and spiritually there are two ends to that, which kind of feel to me like they sort of flow into one another. One is that actually if everybody is valuable, then so are you and so am I, and so if I'm soothing myself I'm soothing one of God's precious precious children, and from that place I can also soothe other of God's precious precious children. 

Siobhan: Exactly and that was the insight I think I had this year is this is biologically the way God has created us and if compassion is one of God's main names – according to the Sufis that's God's central name – how important it is for us to harness the energy of love, the energy of compassion, because that I believe and many believe is just totally undervalued and thought of as being soft, but actually it is, particularly for us as human beings, the likes of Paul Gilbert would say, “the only way that we're going to survive ourselves”, because he talks as well about the pure cruelty of humanity. We've got these abilities that can be used for good or for evil, we're allowing the competitive motivational structure to be too dominant, but there's a huge power if we, particularly as Christians or people of faith, of any faith really, believe that we are beautifully made as you said, with these abilities that are for the good not just for ourselves, of everybody, how important that is.

Catherine: Yes, I was just making a link in my mind as you were talking between the fact that I understand that in the Hebrew Bible the word compassion has the root in the word womb, and then you were talking about the way that one of our emerging sort of being in the image of God things was that women were beginning to care for one another in the context of childbirth, so there's something – it feels like there's something kind of very fundamental about that compassion that actually emerged from the experience of childbirth and supporting one another in it.

Siobhan: What a beautiful connection to make, yes, yeah, totally, yeah, that's beautiful and that does feel like you know that evolution is divinely inspired, evolution isn't by chance, and that's not being fatalistic in any way, there is something about our life that God has given us free will and he needs us to very actively participate in this, but how beautiful the insight you've just given there that that compassion originates maybe within the human species and our rising consciousness, within the giving birth side that somehow it's emerged from that history.

Catherine: So you talked about the first thing that you got was this thing about ‘how am I compassionate to myself?’

Siobhan: Then I began to look at my work within palliative care. My first 10 years I was a Macmillan nurse in North Wales and absolutely loved that job. I had been doing some work nationally with the National Hospice Association since I retired, looking at what are some of the fundamentals of what palliative care is, and I began to articulate with them and was particularly interested in, that it was both an art and a science. The science in palliative care as in medicine is very well articulated these days. That's all things about the drugs or the research and that. What had been given very little attention is the art and that is the art of presence in the face of suffering. So I'd written and thought about that quite a bit and what the nature of that was and I knew I had somehow developed innately the ability to be in the presence of suffering without it draining me too much, most of the time, and I would say a lot of the time it had – yes I needed holidays and good self-care, but actually I had that ability. I couldn't tell somebody else how to do it. I could tell you how to do it externally but not how to do it internally. Then with the discovery of Paul Gilbert's work, I suddenly understood that compassion actually was the bedrock out of which both the art of care and the science of care came. It's about intentionality and what is very much written about in the last couple of years that I think is so interesting is, you've heard the concept compassion fatigue, compassion burnout, there is no such thing as compassion fatigue, compassion burnout. I thought wow how interesting this is. What there is is empathic fatigue, empathic burnout and empathy, which is so often misunderstood as being compassionate, is a totally different neurological structure in our brain.

Empathy is according to Paul Gilbert is a competency, it's not an emotion and the reason it's a competency is we need empathy to wake us up to the distress of others. It gives you a resonance with the other person's emotions. It helps you to tune into them. They liken it to an alarm clock or something but as soon as you've tuned in you turn it off because all it does is it is the impact of the other person's suffering on you and it triggers your own pain pathways. Whereas with compassion you turn off the empathy side because that will all remain about you and that you recognize it, you don't run away from it, you open the door to it, it helps you to become present to it. But then as soon as you've got that engagement there's the second psychology which is action. He gives the example of if you see somebody drowning and you jump into the stream and you think “oh my god I can't swim, what's the point of jumping in there?” So he says the active psychology is you go away and you learn, you do training, you're active. The bit that caused within palliative care for me was being in the presence of people grieving that their life was coming to an end, and the relatives, and being in the presence of grief. Sometimes with things I could do like I could bring in various occupational therapists, physiotherapists, district nurses to do practical things and then there was a lot I knew about drugs, but there was a significant amount I was there with empty hands being in the presence of raw suffering. And it's like you are giving out love and care and attention that actually is self-renewing in me. It doesn't drain me at all as long as I'm allowed to give that. There is a sense of it adds to my life, it's some meaning to my life by being supportive of others in some way, and it doesn't take from me. It's nearly self-fulfilling, self-filling inside and I thought “God you're amazing the way you have created me, you've created everybody for that capacity” and understanding that I found really interesting and that began to teach a bit about that within palliative care. That was a second level of interest when I discovered this approach to compassion that I'm still growing in my understanding of it Catherine. It's a never-ending source of interest to me.

Catherine: Yeah so that distinction between empathy as the thing which alerts one to the suffering of another as opposed to compassion which is the giving of the love. You talked about turning off the empathy and I wonder if you've got any practical tips about how you do that?

Siobhan: That's a brilliant question and I'm not sure. This is where there is a lot of research and thinking going on at the moment and if anybody listening to this podcast is really interested, there's a very articulate German researcher I've come across recently called Tanya Singer who's devoted her life to this really, really interesting woman and she is doing some deliberate training and helping people on this particularly, but some of it is a mindfulness practice that you notice yourself and you don't allow your thoughts to go that direction, and you centre yourself on the other person. So there is noticing it. There is then not being, not – there's somebody else I follow called Matthew Rickard, who's had the reputation of one point for being the happiest man in the world. His brain was showing these signs and he talks about altruism being very similar to compassion and there is something about we're living in a narcissistic society that encourages to think about ourselves too much, like we are the center of the universe. There is something about – in compassion – that yes we are important, but we are part of an interconnected whole. So there is something about really waking up to oneself and knowing oneself as important and precious as you said earlier but equally other people are as well. So there would be something then about the recognition and knowing yourself and your own sadnesses and looking after yourself. And thirdly then there is something about bringing breath works back in and there's something then about the training part. For example, if you want to help somebody with their grief it's understanding something about grief. So there is the cognitive part of it as well, and there is the fourth, and that I would personally would say is prayer meditation. It is deepening one's own roots. So again going back to the kind of very frivolous thing of jumping in to try to save somebody that's drowning, there is a lot of preparation one does to oneself and it's a lifelong thing of maturing emotionally maturing but isn't near as well understood. I would say even still within healthcare as it should be.

Catherine: Yeah, yeah because people do get exhausted don't they and there are a couple of things that strike me from it. One is that I know people who are deeply empathic and very very able to kind of sense other people's feelings and it can exhaust them and then they end up needing to sort of shut off from things like watching the news because what they're seeing sort of sits so heavily within them. And actually if that understanding that it's an alarm system that it then enables you to move into doing something about it is really helpful. It's also encouraging for me because I am not the most sort of naturally empathic person but I do care about people and my ability to have empathy has grown over the years and actually as I've been in difficult circumstances like managing childlessness and you know illness of others, those sorts of things that kind of grew my ability to be empathic but I quite often saw myself as being less able to be compassionate than others because I didn't have that deep empathy, but actually what you're saying is really encouraging to people like me because having something practical to do and knowing that the giving out of the practical stuff and I'm not it's not particularly sitting heavily with me is I'm still giving love. 

Siobhan: Oh totally, absolutely totally and probably you are more other-centred probably because of your less emotional kind of reaction to a situation; possibly that you can be more clear-sighted as to what the need of the others are.

Catherine: Yes it may be from what you're saying that those people who get very caught in the empathy that having a skill to offer as you say kind of switches you doesn't it from the feeling-centredness to the more cognitive-centredness so that might be one way of helping you to kind of –

Siobhan: exactly

Catherine: – from one to the other.

Siobhan: I have got deep compassion developed within me and it is something like you were saying we can develop it is a intentionality is really important like you can say ‘I want to be a good footballer’, then you go and practice, or ‘I want to be good at the piano’ you go and practice. There is something about in all of this that we want time to go into and I wouldn't be an expert on the training of it the very deliberate intentionality, but coming back to what you were just saying there, I will give myself one minute of news a day, and I wouldn't say I've started at the most sensitive level of being human being, and I'm aware through life highly empathic people they'll have to be very, very careful, but for many of us who are more in between there is something about life in the 21st century that is abnormal to the vast majority of our ancestors. The vast majority of ancestors lived in little tribes of up to 150-180 people where you knew everybody, they were the joys and sufferings you lived with. Where we are exposed to the suffering of the world, we haven't got the emotional capacity to take all of that on, so what I find was it can overwhelm that part of the caring part of me and it is disempowering, where bringing it back into the spiritual aspect for me, I believe that I need to manage some of the things coming in like that so that I can be the best of who I am.

Catherine: Yeah, one of the things that you said about compassion earlier is that so long as you're able to offer that love and that care, and it strikes me that one of the things that you're saying about living in this situation where we know about the suffering across the world, when actually biologically we're kind of designed to know about the suffering of about 150 people, but also there's nothing we can do about much of it.

Siobhan: Absolutely spot on Catherine. You've pulled out an absolutely perfect point, that’s absolutely spot on, you've articulated that beautifully, and that that's crucial to somehow surviving, and not just surviving, not being terrified to live, in the 21st century, because there's so much on the media that if you go back to those emotional centers, we've got that attempts to trigger our fear center all the time that I'm concerned for the children of the 21st century that haven't got the freedom of hope. I think we're living it in unusual times in that and that's why for my autonomy – and I'm very much into being an independent person as well – there is something about the media that triggers both my drive system and my want system, that's what they predominantly articulate, and I think life is a lot better than all the fears. It's dreadful for some awful awful situations that we both know that are current at the moment that are beyond awful, but as you so clearly said there I'm powerless, we are powerless, partly. Give a bit of money, you definitely say prayers for it and give intentionality but beyond that… whereas if I spent too much time looking at that it would drain me of any ability to be with my neighbour, be with my husband, be with my family, be with the people I work online with. It would drain me of hope, which I don't think is healthy on any level.

Catherine: Yeah, yeah, so we talked about sort of the palliative care and the compression of self and you you said you began to kind of draw together the threads of that along with the work of Teilhard de Chardin. I don't know very much about Teilhard de Chardin. Maybe you'd like to…

Siobhan: Poor man died in total obscurity silenced by his order and his church. He was French Jesuit and Jesuits in case you people don't know are one of the branches of priests of the Catholic Church that evolved from an Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century, and what they're very much known for and where they take in education, science and spirituality. And Teilhard de Chardin was a paleontologist and a scientist as well as being a Jesuit priest who was also in the First World War as a stretcher bearer, so saw horrendous suffering, and he went off to China to do some archaeological digging. So began to continue to think about what is the nature of God in the 20th century as it was then and began to tie together science and religion and evolution. And this is my limited understanding of this man who was a mystic, was a theologian in that he brought new ideas that were totally misunderstood by his order and church in the 20th century, and what he talked about was that the cosmic Christ is coming into being, that God the Father somehow gave birth to the cosmic Christ, and through the universe we are part of the body of Christ and somehow the body of Christ is going towards what he called an Amiga-Point, is, when all is in all, all is in back to God, going back to God, and something we are partaking in so this really sanctifies our life and gives every life purpose. So my tiny little life, my one atom of the body of the cosmic Christ is significant to everybody else's well-being, and somehow through this we are all on the planet of the Earth integrated in some energetic way. Now he also was very, very critical of Christianity in the 20th century, all branches of Christianity, in that he said we're holding a theology of the 16th century-ish or something like that. What we haven't done and it rung so true when I read his words, we have kept God so small that the universe is so big, our God is so small that youngsters have no interest in our God anymore. We need the God of evolution that is bigger than evolution, and that is intimate with us, that is like that new physics concept that got a Nobel Prize last year around entanglement theory, that God is totally entangled in each and every part of our lives, and that somehow God is love, but God is relationship and that God desires a relationship with me, but needs me to respond to God in some way. And I'm blown away constantly by the humility of a God that wants a response from me, and that all came from the work of Teilhard De Chardin. Some of his followers are beginning to develop more in line with science as it's evolving. It's very hard to read his original stuff. I've tried a few of his books. Not only is he supremely intelligent. He also creates new words that mean nothing and he writes really long paragraphs about things that nobody else has written about. So I'm at the edge of my ability to understand tiny amounts. So that is my understanding of him and he's becoming much more talked about now as our current Pope Francis quotes him. So he has been rehabilitated into the heart of the Catholic Church by some, not by all. But what he's saying is really, really challenging to all of our churches that we somehow need to allow God to be God and this bigger God within the universe and to be able to share that good news with others.

Catherine: Yeah. One of the things that I have been wrestling with in recent months is the fact that our view of God is very much based around the cosmology of the Bible, which is our little planet, originally a little flat planet where comparatively cosmologically the moon and the stars and everything are sort of almost within touching distance. And yet we know that the universe is vast and mysterious. And so how does our understanding of God need to shift? And I can see as you were using words, you're saying that will be very, very unfamiliar that idea of the evolution of God and the cosmic Christ and all of those things, how that shift to an understanding of God that is big enough to sort of, or bigger than, our understanding of the physical universe is a big shift to make. 

Siobhan: Oh, it's huge. And it's exciting. I find it totally exciting and freeing. It's both big and huge, but it also puts man, woman even more important, the little life, because there is something about the time we're in as well. And a lot of people feel there is no meaning, no purpose. They're so tiny. There's a lot of despair in the world at the moment. But this kind of interpretation of both the enormity of God linked with theology that my incarnation is important. I think both of those are deeply exciting and deeply attractive to a very cynical world. 

Catherine: So join the dots for us as to how Teilhard de Chardin's thinking connects for you with compassion. 

Siobhan: Hmm. Once I understood compassion as not an emotion, not being nice, not just being kind to people, not just being about love as we know it in the Western way, it's a motivational structure that if I believe, which I do believe, of a God of evolution, that the God of evolution somehow has created the circumstances that survival of our species is dependent on a psycho-physical structure of compassion within me, then this God who loved us so much, the Trinity are doing everything they can to help save us. But somehow compassion is core to who God is, and God has made compassion core to who we are and has given us the biology to help our survival, not just now and not just historically, but going forward. To approach suffering and to do something about it, it takes both altruism and courage and wisdom to come through. So I just feel what a creative God that has created compassion to be core of who we are and that we're only discovering the subtleties of it now and also that we are made in the image of God and God is compassion and the core of me is compassion. My deepest self, I believe, and my truest and best self is compassion. I think how wonderful that is that I am made in this image and compassion is one of the chief threads of it really, as I understand it.

 Catherine:  As you're talking, your description of compassion feels very, very close to that concept of agape love. 

Siobhan: Yes, please say more. You're right, I haven't thought of it. Yes, please say more. That's really interesting.

 Catherine:  Well, the idea that there are different kinds of love, but one of the primary loves that God shows us is that sort of love which is not just about emotion, but it's about actually reaching out and doing something for the other in an entirely selfless way. So Christ's sacrifice on the cross would be the supreme example of agape love that doesn't sort of rely on the other. 

Siobhan:  And I think you're right. I think there's elements of that. But what I wouldn't want to do is make it so extreme that it, and either of us wouldn't, but it is only once you go to that level of self-denial because within – and that's the balance. And I think within Christianity sometimes we have gone to the point of you give up everything of yourself to give to others. And that can be true sometimes, but there is a balance in the flow of compassion just to kind of round it off that there is that flow from me to you. Then I need to have the ability to be able to receive compassion. And the third flow then is I need to be able to give it to myself.

Catherine: Yes, I think perhaps more helpful than thinking about Christ's sacrifice in the context that you're talking, when Paul talks about love being the thing that we should aim for, doesn't he, in that beautiful passage in Corinthians, is that love is patient, it's kind, it doesn't envy, it doesn't boast, it's not proud, it doesn't dishonor others, it's not self-seeking, it's not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. It rejoices not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres. That feels very close to, I think that's the agape love that I was talking about. And he says in the end, these three remain faith, hope and love. And it's that kind of love which I think he described really well that feels like it's very linked to compassion. 

Siobhan: Yes, I think you're absolutely right there. Catherine:  Yeah. 

Siobhan: And talking about the flow of compassion reminds me of something that you said earlier about what you gain from being compassionate to others that sort of links with the fact that that's how we're made, it's part of our biology. So it's the most natural thing in the world to be compassionate to somebody else. And so there is an automatic flow back because we are living in our true selves, I think

 Catherine: If you're generous to others, there's a real feedback to feeling great about yourself. So that flow is incredibly important when we're in balanced, good mental health. 

Siobhan:  Yes.

Catherine: Well, if there wasn't any fun in it, you wouldn't have managed 30 years.

Siobhan: Oh, no. Oh, it was a wonderful thing to have been part of. Wonderful.

Catherine: Yes. Yeah. This has been really, really interesting. Very, very rich. Thank you. I'm wondering if there's anything you feel is important at this moment to say that we haven't already talked about? 

Siobhan: No. Just I'd encourage people to share this. There's an amount of Professor Paul Gilbert and a load of him on YouTube. Encourage your friends because I actually think this is a great self-help, self-knowledge approach that is very practically based. Just share the knowledge with anybody that would be interested. So thank you for asking me to share this, Catherine, with you on your podcast. 

Catherine: Well, thank you very much. And if there's anything that you've got in terms of sort of links and suggestions for further reading, then I can stick them in there, the blurb that goes with the podcast. 

Siobhan: Catherine, thank you. 

Catherine: Thank you very much.



Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you'd like to get in touch, you can email You can find a transcript of this podcast at And that's also the place to go if you're interested in the Loved Called Gifted course, or if you'd like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching. Thank you for listening. [Music]

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