All the Systems of Which We Are a Part

Can meditation also have a social effect?

By Sicilia Francesca D’Arista

Sicilia, in the blue sweater, at the end of the last group retreat that she held.

When I graduated in Psychology, the thesis I presented was based on sociological, experimental research on the condition of young people in an earthquake camp in Naples. It was a “systemic” reading of that environment, which earned me some interest from my professor and the graduate committee.

Having moved to Amiata, I devoted myself to Clubs for Alcoholics in Treatment and to the psychoeducational approach to communication in families of schizophrenic patients, rediscovering that “systemic” approach, that is, based on the General Systems Theory.

Synthesizing to the fullest, the General Systems Theory states that each being can be considered as a subsystem of a greater system – his family, his work environment, his community, the world and the universe – and a higher level system of the parts of which he is composed, for example of his circulatory, respiratory, down to the molecular and psychic level. The GTS thus says that we are interconnected at the macroscopic and microscopic levels.

To my delight, I found the same perspective when I approached the MBSR program of mindfulness for stress reduction. Here, too, the group of participants creates a self-help group, and below I will explain what I saw.

I started applying this program in 2008, after attending a training course with Prof. Jon Kabat Zinn and his colleague Saki Santorelli, collaborating with the University of Siena on a trial offering an MBSR course to a group of psychology students who were asked to undergo an MRI scan of their brains before and after the training. The results were interesting in line with what is known about this program, in terms of reducing emotional distress, as measured on tests of anxiety, depression and more.

But what interested me most was an analysis of the change in brain function in people who had undergone the research. According to this different analysis in the brains of each of the participants new functional connections had been created, the same for everyone. In a nutshell, the individuals had changed their size in the same way after participating together in only 9 meditation meetings. It was therefore possible to read the group as a “system” and analyze how the individual affected the group and vice versa. 

Also at the same time, the Province of Siena asked me to design a training course for foreign caregivers of dependent elderly people. Generally these courses were not very effective mainly because of the language barrier, but also because these workers are engaged 24 hours a day 6 days a week and do not have the strength and desire to engage in study.

In the premise of this project I then framed the problem as arising from a condition of work-related stress and proposed to offer not only the specific and technical training on elderly care, but also to touch on the condition of stress and in some cases real burnout of the caregivers by offering ways to cope with it. We then integrated the classes with some psychological support sessions, music therapy and other types of help, and moments of recreation and socialization.

The classes were designed as if they were “clubs” that we called Circles of Care, with the teachers, the caregivers and one or two educators present.

At that time I had become interested in the work of Dr. MacBee who had introduced a mindfulness (MBSR) program in an elderly nursing home where she had seen the usefulness to the non-self-sufficient and often bedridden residents of having some of the family members or caregivers practice near them, near their beds. The elderly were calmer and more serene.

 Building on this experience and framing the circles “systemically,” I gave the caregivers the task of creating a welcoming atmosphere that could convey some self-awareness, necessary to deal with the stress that the caregivers were experiencing – far from home, with constant worries about their family members left to their own devices, now foreigners here and in their home country, struggling with a strenuous job. The suffering was clear and tangible, and it also spilled over into the quality of care. 

So I proposed the MBSR course, but not to the caregivers – primarily because of the language barrier – but to the educators. What was the assumption? That the educators who coordinated the Circles of Care (6 in the province of Siena) would approach the meetings from their own calm state of mind, in a nonjudgmental mode and taking into account the carers’ suffering, suffering that was neutrally defined as stress. 

The underlying theme, for the training to be of higher quality, was to address the transition from learning mere technical notions to the emergence of knowledge and the development of self-awareness. 

In fact, in the introductory and final documents I quoted two great teachers, St. Francis, the most beloved of Italians – to overcome the initial hesitancy that the world I was addressing would have at hearing about meditation – with a phrase from the saint that said, “No one could teach me what I should do,” and our teacher “The principle on which behavior is based is awareness, and awareness arises from the knowledge that the individual possesses. Only if we have the presence of mindfulness in daily life can the principle of compassion and universal love become concrete.” 

The caregivers who initially came to the Circles were frightened of possible judgment on their work and very strongly rejected the suggestion that they were being stressed. It seemed to them that being stressed was a weakness. They would get very angry. Then as they attended the circles and encountered the attitude of the educators, they relaxed and the following year new caregivers enrolled in the program asking specifically about that place where they could learn about stress, where they could relax. A tentative awareness about their condition was born. They also began to become aware of the gaps they had; some decided to start studying.

The Province of Siena was invited to Brussels and the Circles project was presented at the European Social Platform meeting, that year dedicated to care work where it was received with much interest.

Around the same time I was invited by the Chief of Oncology of the Health Authority of Siena to give a course for operators, doctors and nurses and also by the chief of Ser.T, the drug addiction service. Later in collaboration with the head of Ser.T we held a course with drug users at the San Gimignano prison.  The results were very interesting for me because we could see the transition from the inmates’ complete unawareness of the crime they had committed (these were people in high-security prison for mafia crimes) to the first glow of recognition of their responsibility.

In 2018 the Department dealing with staff wellness at the Local Health Authority of Siena, Grosseto, and Arezzo asked me for an MBSR course but Covid stopped everything and when scheduling resumed in 2021 the number of nurses, doctors, and health care personnel of all kinds requiring a stress reduction program exploded so that from 2021 to 2024 I taught 12 MBSR courses.

The courses went well, but during the course the problem emerged that once they were over the participants would need additional support to continue in practice. So with the management of the health authority we explored the possibility of having premises where we could continue the training by creating a kind of community of practice. The answer finally came and we structured Circles that we called Posillipo. Why Posillipo?

“Because Pausilypon, the name the ancient Greeks gave to the Neapolitan promontory, means ‘pause from pains’ to indicate the relief they felt before so much beauty.

A state of wonder where judgment is suspended to give place to pleasure.  

Similarly, it is possible to establish a pause in everyday life where one can find that relief and knowledge that comes from a calm, nonjudgmental mind, as we have explored in the MBSR courses.” 

Posillipo Circles, currently 7, one also on Amiata, are spaces where people gather a minimum of a couple of times a month and practice together one of the methods learned, a body scan or sitting meditation or yoga session. Following this they engage in an Insight Dialogue session, a way of dialoguing about whatever is on the person’s mind at that moment, without initiating a debate, but only in awareness of one’s own reaction to what is being said and heard.

The possible development of the Circles I have in mind now is to deepen one aspect of the MBSR program – that of meditation on loving kindness – to understand the difference between what one feels with ordinary empathy, which over time can become unsustainable and lead to burn out, and so-called sustainable empathy or compassion. 

The ability to share the feelings of others is called empathy.  Empathy makes it possible to resonate with the positive and negative feelings of others: thus, we can feel happy when we indirectly share the joy of others, and we can share the experience of suffering when we empathize with someone who is suffering. It is important to emphasize that in empathy we feel together, but we are not confused with the other; that is, we still know that the emotion with which we resonate is the emotion of another. If this self/other distinction is not present, we speak of emotional distress.
Although shared happiness is certainly a very pleasant state, the sharing of distress can sometimes be difficult, especially when the self/other distinction becomes blurred. This form of shared distress can be particularly challenging for people working in the helping professions, such as doctors, therapists, and nurses.
To avoid excessive sharing of suffering that can turn into distress, one can respond to the suffering of others with compassion. Unlike empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the other’s suffering: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being.”¹

“Compassion can be very helpful, especially if we understand that it is not always necessary to do or fix something. In my small group, I shared a quote from Pema Chödrön.
I had the opportunity to talk with her about burnout and asked her, “What can we do? How do we keep this heart open to compassion?”
And she said, “It will seem counter-intuitive, but we have to give up all hope of realization.”
And she didn’t mean give up, or stop worrying, but stop having expectations about how it will go.
Everyone wants to know that what they are doing is useful, but actually if they focused more on cultivating their intention, cultivating an attitude of compassion, they would always operate from a sustainable space.
It also needs to be said that we often immediately run to help the other person, which is nice, which is important, but sometimes we may need to make a stop along the way to recognize that it is difficult for us to absorb the distress and suffering of others.” ²

Daniel Batson in his research has shown that the ability to feel positive emotions for another person is not only a specific quality of a person or situation, but can also be influenced by training.
Studies of human brain plasticity, conducted via MRI on people trained in ordinary empathy and others trained in compassion, indicate the existence of two non-overlapping neural networks thus showing the existence of two different circuits. With different outcomes in relation to what the subjects studied feel toward the suffering of others. 

To train socially useful emotions such as compassion, recent psychological research has made increasing use of meditation-related techniques that promote feelings of benevolence and kindness. The most widely used technique is called “loving-kindness training”…a practice that aims to cultivate feelings of benevolence toward all beings.”

It has been shown that several weeks of regular compassion training can have a beneficial impact on the practitioner of strengthening his or her positive emotions, personal resources and sense of well-being during daily life. 

Interestingly, the beneficial effects of compassion training are not limited to the person being trained, but can also benefit the person receiving the feelings of benevolence.” ³

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¹ Empathy and Compassion by Tania Singer and Olga M. Klimecki  in Current Biology · September 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.06.054
² Eve Ekman
³ The studies of Batson et al. thus confirm the existence of a corollary of behaviors that goes by the name of empathic discomfort when people are trained to feel empathy and another situation when the person is trained in compassion, as illustrated above. In Singer and Klimeck

Sicilia Francesca D’Arista was born in the United States, but grew up in Naples from where she moved in the 1980s to live near Merigar. She has worked with the Social Policy sector of the Province of Siena and the Local Health Authority. In 2014, with other colleagues, she founded the Siena Center for Stress Reduction.

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