From Hero to Zero

By Kavin Mistry | February 23, 2021

It was the height of the pandemic, the hospital ICUs were filled with COVID-positive patients, respirators were in short supply, everyone was stuck at home due to the lockdown watching the daily death tolls rise, the Jacob Javits Center in NYC had been converted to a makeshift hospital, and Grubhub couldn’t keep up with the takeout orders.

I was in a virtual green room waiting to address 8,000 business owners on how to boost immunity during these challenging times. Secretly, I was still struggling with how to impact a crowd whose psyche had been entirely hijacked by thoughts of survival and self-preservation.

I dared to lead with a probing question, “What do you think is the most enduring way to enhance immunity?” The digital responses were what you would expect: supplement with vitamin C, increase aerobic exercise, take turmeric, and so on. Then I told them that the most effective antidote against the virus is something that supercharges immunity and, according to emerging research from Emory University, also protects against stress, decreases depression, downregulates cortisol production, and reduces anxiety.

People looked up from checking their Facebook pages. I had piqued their curiosity. “The untapped panacea,” I continued, “is something you carry with you all the time but rarely use…compassion.”


Hetal Mistry, Padman (Sanskrit for Lotus), mixed media, 17″x12″



The synergy between compassion and immunity has been recognized since ancient times, and Western science is now catching up to that reality. Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson in Altered Traits talk about the high levels of immunity in monks who have over their lifetimes spent extensive hours in meditative practices that incorporate compassion. The authors also noted an improved immune response at the genetic level in meditators after long retreats. Furthermore, the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology reported increased telomerase activity in participants who practiced meditation and cultivated altruistic states such as compassion, resulting in a positive impact on immune cell longevity and overall immunity.

The Dalai Lama says compassion is a necessity, not a luxury, without which humanity cannot survive. Yet, given the daily number of reported virus-related deaths, have we not slipped into a collective emotional numbness? Can we really wrap our heads around the fact that thousands of people are dying every day in the US?

A related phenomenon I commonly see in frontline healthcare workers is compassion fatigue. There comes a time when people are stretched so much beyond their limits that they have nothing more to give. I fear that one consequence of this emotional overload is a spill-over effect onto issues such as racial injustice, climate change, and world hunger. This apparent widespread impassivity begs the question, “Are we in a downward spiral with regards to our humanity?” Where is this domino effect taking us?


Hetal Mistry, Dawn, mixed media, 12″x16″


Transactional Emotions

Several years ago, I realized that I was personally experiencing a similar negative spiral. Even though I had taken the Hippocratic Oath, genuine compassion was not flowing out of me. As a neuroimager, it was easy to hide behind a brain MRI scan without wholly connecting with the human being whose brain I was studying. To some degree, my emotions had become more transactional and less authentic. I was touching life with a latex glove.

I had read all the research studies on the benefits of compassion and, as a self-serving utilitarian, had implemented a superficial morning practice out of my fear of missing out. Yet, somewhere deep inside, I knew that there was more profound work to be done.

Ultimately, we are all searching for a more significant experience of life. That quest makes us seek expansion–of wealth, relationships, influence, and so on. I had done all of that, and yet there was still a void.

Then I came across an alternative paradigm in the book Inner Engineering by Sadhguru, which completely challenged my view of the world: “The less you are, the more life is.” Until then, I had viewed contemplative practices like mindfulness and meditation as wu wu stuff you do at spa resorts to calm your mind. As I dug deeper, I realized that the ultimate goal of meditative practices was not to dull the senses but to make one more alive. It wasn’t about stopping thoughts, which, if anyone else has tried, is like forgetting a pink elephant. It was about moving beyond the mind to see life as it is.


Hetal Mistry, Ekagratha (Sanskrit for oneness), mixed media 9”x12”

The Source of Compassion

This insight started me on a long journey to the source of compassion. It was time to take a deep dive inwards. I don’t promote any particular practice or discipline–the paths are many; however, the destination is the same. It all boils down to first taming our monkey mind to pay attention, like aligning all the iron atoms to form a magnet. This is easier said than done as the ape is unruly. The latter part of the journey, evolving from attention to awareness, is a never-ending process and perhaps one of the most challenging things anyone can set out to do.

The journey to awareness involves loosening the grip on who we are. In the process, I realized that we are so full of ourselves as we exist right now that we have no room to allow a grander version of ourselves to take hold. For me, the culmination of this process was an 8-day program of silence without TV, cell phones, internet, or any form of communication with the outside world in accommodations that, let’s just say, made Motel 6 look like the Ritz Carlton. By day five, I was nearing my physical limitations from sitting crossed-legged for most of the day while trying to maintain a steady focus. A part of me considered going home.

But then, on day seven, I had a transcendental experience that would leave me changed forever. It was like all the other days sitting in silence with my attention focused on the breath, except I was so exhausted that all my resistance was gone. I was in a deep state of “let go.” All my likes and dislikes had disappeared. All boundaries between me and everything around me were blurred. I could experience, knowing that we were not separate entities, everyone and everything around me, every blade of grass, each leaf swaying in the wind, and every cloud passing by.

The clarity of thought was unparalleled, without any influence from what had happened in the past or any contemplation of the future. It was as if instead of cleaning the window, someone just tore down the whole wall. At that moment, I was more alive than I had ever been in my entire life. In this awareness lives our compassion.

There is a light of awareness and compassion hidden within each of us that can illuminate the whole world. That light is obscured in our likes/dislikes, ideology, religion, and everything else we have picked up from the world. As this light expands beyond us and we become less the central character, the hero, our life experience deepens in this grand play.

When we truly feel connected with everyone as a collective humanity, nobody needs to lecture us about racism. When that awareness unfolds into an all-inclusive consciousness, the hero becomes a zero, then caring for the planet is a natural consequence. As we shift from our survival instincts, self-preservation, and scarcity assumptions to a sense of connection, compassion, and contribution, our well-being is enhanced. Each day then presents an opportunity to peel away another layer and spread more light of compassion in a world that needs it today more than ever.


Hetal Mistry, Resurgent, mixed media, 18″x20″



Copyright © 2021 Kavin Mistry


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