One of the great paradoxes of spiritual practice is that when we empathize with others — sharing their happiness but also their pain — we feel more fulfilled. We’re more alive. We’re happier.
You’d think it would be the other way around: that if we shared another’s pain we’d be more unhappy, and that if we were to steer clear of getting involved in other’s difficulties then we would be happier.
But we don’t seem to be built like that. Humans are inherently social beings, and need one another in order to be fully human.
We all seem to be equipped with brain cells — mirror neurons, they are called — that allow us to empathize with others. A mirror neuron is a brain cell that is active when we perform a certain task, like drinking a cup of coffee, and that also fires when we see someone else performing the same task. When Bill or Belinda picks up a cup of coffee these little mirror neurons start buzzing away like crazy, and we have the experience — without even realizing it, often — that we know what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, and we know what that experience is like. Mirror neurons are empathy cells. They mirror in your mind what I am doing. They give you the capacity to understand the situation that another person is in.
Empathy goes a lot further of course than knowing what it’s like to pick up a cup of coffee. When Bill picks up his cup and waves it around with excitement, I know what it’s like to be excited. My “being excited” mirror neurons are tingling in response to Bill’s excitement. I perhaps feel a little excited myself, as I recreate his experience in the mirror of my mind.
When Belinda picks up her cup of coffee dejectedly, I know what it’s like to feel dejected. I know Belinda’s depressed, but I also feel this because the mirror neurons that fire up when I get depressed are pulsing now. I feel an inner ache and I wonder, “What’s up with Belinda?”
But Bill and Belinda have their own mirror neurons, and so things now get really interesting. Bill sees me responding to his excitement with my own excitement and he feels his own mirror neurons jumping up and down, as it were, yelling “Look! He gets it too! He understands what it is I’m thrilled about.” Belinda’s mirror neurons respond to the shared pain I’m experiencing and she knows that I understand. Circuits have been completed. Emotions are flowing from one consciousness to another.
We’re connected to each other. We’re not alone. And our experience becomes richer and more satisfying when we connect. Each one of us contains a million half-loops that only come to life when they meet their other half in another person and complete a circuit of emotion and understanding.
In meditation — especially in the Brahmavihara practices (the cultivation of love, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity) — we actively cultivate our ability to resonate with others. These meditations are a kind of mirror neuron workout in which we practice overcoming some of the cognitive barriers that so often prevent us from connecting emotionally with others. They’re mirror neuron aerobics in which we exercise our ability to empathize.
This, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet been tested in the lab, but I’d be willing to bet that the signals that mirror neurons give out can be suppressed by negative emotions such as fear, envy, and resentment. (I should mention that mirror neurons have been studied in macaques and in birds, but because of practical and ethical difficulties they haven’t yet been directly observed in human brains. All the evidence, however, suggests that we have them too).
These negative emotions are the very things that we’re working to counteract in meditation. In the Brahmaviharas we work at connecting with the basic sense we all have that we want to be happy and want to escape suffering. In doing so we of course encounter ill will, attachment, resentment, etc. Those emotions manifest, and we practice acknowledging them, letting go of them, and then allowing our natural sense of empathy to kick in once again. In this way we allow the half-circuits of our own consciousness to connect with the half-circuits of another consciousness. In taking on others’ joy we become happier, and in taking on others sufferings we become more complete and more fulfilled.