meditation and compassion

Meditate on this: You can learn to be more compassionate

CompassionScientific American: People who practice meditation can enhance their ability to concentrate—or even lower their blood pressure. They can also cultivate compassion, according to a new study. Specifically, concentrating on the loving kindness one feels toward one’s family (and expanding that to include strangers) physically affects brain regions that play a role in empathy. Read more here.

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Meditation or medication?

Cliff Bostock, Creative Loafing Atlanta: In January 1991, I woke up one morning in the blackest depression of my life. There was nothing unusual about the day, although Operation Desert Storm had begun the day before. I remember lying in bed, listening to reporters on CNN describe what sounded like a video game. No death or blood.

For months afterward, I felt as if I awoke every morning covered in black soot. I’d have to spend a few hours sweeping the soot away before I could do anything productive. The psychic pain of depression this deep is difficult to describe. Contrary to what many people think, it can produce a physical sensation, pain that cannot be exactly located. For me, it was this pain that made me contemplate suicide continually. The wish was not so much to die as to end the pain with a violent act.

I made a contract with my therapist that I would not kill myself until I’d given a tricyclic antidepressant time to take effect. As I’ve written before, I recall the exact moment the drug took effect. I’ve heard many people over the years report the same experience. For me it was as if my heart suddenly revved up and I became fully present in my body. The depression vanished.

As is also true of many others, I realized that I’d probably been depressed most of my life. A few months later, my doctor switched me to the relatively new drug called Prozac. This produced a phenomenal change in me, not only treating my depression, but making me far more productive in my work and more extroverted than I’d ever been.

My doctor told me I’d likely need to be on the drug the rest of my life. My depression was not situational. In fact, my bout of suicidal thinking came during a good period of my life. Like many others, I seem to be predisposed to depression.

I certainly didn’t mind the idea of being on an antidepressant the rest of my life, if it continued to work so well. Unfortunately, though, after two years, the drug had little effect and I returned to a state of dysthymia – low-level depression. I tried many other antidepressants but nothing ever returned me to the state I enjoyed as a newcomer to Prozac.

I’ve got plenty of company. Repeated studies of the drugs have also demonstrated another surprise. Although the actual figures are debatable, the placebo effect is remarkably high in the use of antidepressants, particularly in treatment of mild depression. It’s no wonder they seem to lose effectiveness after a period. Considering that antidepressants are among the most prescribed drugs in the country, finding a way that more effectively treats depression is a priority in the mental-health field.

To many Atlantans, it was probably a surprise last week that the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, has become part of the effort to find an effective, long-term treatment. Here to accept a professorship at Emory, the Dalai Lama conducted a daylong conversation with scientists on the subject of “Mindfulness, Compassion and the Treatment of Depression.” Incredibly, 4,000 people showed up to hear the conversation – which ought to be indicative of the topic’s importance, as well as the Dalai Lama’s celebrity.

I did not attend, but like many others who have been engaged in a meditation practice for some time, even if fitfully, it is no surprise that an increasing body of evidence suggests that it not only can reduce the pain of depression but actually help restructure the brain, which the new science of neuroplasticity has observed in studies of Buddhist monks.

The direct benefit of meditation is that it develops awareness – or “mindfulness” – of the way one’s thoughts and feelings arise spontaneously. With practice, it becomes increasingly easier to leave behind the array of symptoms (including physical ones) that add up to the experience of depression – or any other habitual way of thinking, for that matter.

This is especially true in the practice of compassionate mindfulness. Studies have shown that compassion can literally be taught (which is one reason I believe meditation should be taught in public schools). When we approach the world and ourselves with compassion, suffering paradoxically becomes less burdensome.

Read the original article…

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The Mind and Life conference

Marissa Kimsky, Emory Wheel: While scientists are searching for a cure-all pill for mental disorders, new research shows that the cure may not be in a bottle, but could rather be found in Tibetan meditation.

Hundreds gathered in the Woodruff Physical Education Center to hear discussions on this pioneering research on meditation and mental disorders. This research was presented in a dialog in the 15th Mind and Life conference: Mindfulness, Compassion and the Treatment of Depression.

Mind and Life was organized by a scientist and an entrepreneur in 1987 to establish a dialog between Buddhist philosophers and scientists. It has proven to be extremely successful, encouraged countless studies on the benefits of meditation. The organization has inspired an initiative to teach Buddhist monks science, and it encourages a common goal between researchers and Buddhists to improve minds, lives, societies and the world.

Emory, one of the leading institutions for meditation research in the country, hosted the conference for the first time on Saturday, prior to the installation the Dalai Lama as a presidential distinguished professor on Monday.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama entered the room and immediately showered the crowed with affection. He lowered into a bow and clasped his hands together, blessing the audience.

The Dalai Lama was an extremely active participant throughout the conference, asking several scientifically in-depth questions and suggesting new directions for future research projects.

Co-founder of Mind and Life Adam Engel reflected as he opened this conference.

Twenty years ago, when the conference series began, the Dalai Lama had a request of the scientists.

“First investigate the positive effects of meditation,” the Dalai Lama said. “If you find it successful, please teach it to your society in a purely secular manner in order to benefit everyone.”

This has been the goal of the researchers for the past 20 years. Researchers Richard Davidson, Helen Mayberg, Charles Nemeroff, Charles Raison and Zindel Segal presented findings from multiple successful neuroscience projects geared towards improving the mind and mental balance. Buddhist scholars at the conference, including the Dalai Lama, John Dunne and Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, connected these studies to Buddhist philosophy.

This was not necessarily an easy task for the Buddhist scholars.

“Speaking to the Dalai Lama on Buddhism is like speaking to Jesus on Christianity,” Dunne said.

Throughout the conference, both Buddhist scholars and scientists agreed that depression could be characterized by the sufferer’s inward focus.

Buddhism strives to accomplish the opposite — to turn one’s perspective outwards through compassion and mindfulness meditations.

Both of these forms of meditation were investigated by scientists in their experiments. Psychological and physical evidence showed that individuals suffering from depression were able to overcome the symptoms through compassion meditation.

Davidson used samatha, a Tibetan Buddhist form of mindful meditation, in his studies and found that it improves concentration. The functional MRI brain scans taken during this practice showed more activation in the frontal-parietal areas, regions of the brain designated to higher cognition.

Raison foresees using meditation to prevent more than just depression. He also thinks it can help prevent diseases associated with stress, such as depression, anxiety, heart failure, high cholesterol, cancer and diabetes. “Our interest is in looking at meditation as a potential strategy to protect against the emotional and medical diseases that arise from stress,” he said.

Dean Robert Paul and University President James W. Wagner also spoke at the event. Paul said he sees Emory’s research moving towards developing meditation as a prescription within preventative psychiatry, the medical practice of preventing mental disorders.

Mind and Life is also working to facilitate inter-religious dialog. Currently centering prayer, a contemplative Catholic tradition is also being investigated by other Mind and Life researchers and the conference strives to integrate various other contemplative traditions into the studies as well. Dunne believes that the research benefits not only neuroscience but an enormous array of disciplines.

“Mind and Life research also helps build a greater research network on contemplative based interventions,” Dunne said.

Original article no longer available…

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Marguerite Young: “Every heart is the other heart … the individual is the one illusion.”

Marguerite Young, from the cover of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling

“Every heart is the other heart. Every soul is the other soul. Every face is the other face. The individual is the one illusion,” wrote Marguerite Young in her novel, “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling.”

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.

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Wildmind’s latest meditation CD to be launched October 16

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The Heart's Wisdom

We’re delighted to announce that Wildmind will be launching a new double CD of guided meditations on October 16, 2007.

The double CD is a guide to the four meditations known as the “Brahmaviharas” (Divine Abodes). These practices include the Development of Lovingkindness (Metta Bhavana), the Development of Compassion (Karuna Bhavana), the Development of Empathetic Joy (Mudita Bhavana), and the Development of Equanimity (Upekkha Bhavana). The meditations are led by Bodhipaksa.

To the best of our knowledge this is the first time that all four Brahmavihara meditations have appeared on CD.

The two CD set comes with a 12 page booklet with detailed instructions about the four practices.

The title, “The Heart’s Wisdom” refers to the insights we can gain through the practice of the Brahmavihara meditations, such as:

  • You cannot choose what happens to you in life, but you can learn to choose how you respond emotionally to those events.
  • All beings want to be happy and free from suffering
  • We can cultivate loving-kindness for a person regardless of whether we like them, dislike them, or have no feelings towards them at all
  • In sharing another’s suffering we find ourselves becoming more fulfilled
  • Approached with mindfulness pain becomes a skilled teacher, pointing out with exquisite clarity what’s wrong with our approach to life
    happiness arises from skillful thoughts, words, and actions
  • The less we cling to our expectations, the happier we will be
  • Equanimity is not indifference

The Brahmaviharas culminate in the Development of Equanimity, an insight meditation in which we contemplate the conditioned nature of happiness and suffering as we wish all beings well.

The meditations will be available as MP3 downloads in advance of the launch of the CD. The date of the launch will be announced in the blog.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time.”

Martin Luther King Jr

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation for such method is love.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I feel it when driving — that desire to get back at the person who cuts me off, or who tailgates, or who nearly hits my car while talking on a cellphone — that surge of fear and anger that causes the heart to beat faster and the hands to tighten around the steering wheel and the thoughts to turn to revenge. If I wasn’t holding the wheel my hands would be fists, ready to defend, to injure if necessary.

Then my higher cortical functions kick in, the gray matter overriding the reptilian brain that’s telling me to lash out. Anger hurts, I recall. I remind myself to breathe into the belly, to relax my body, to keep a safe distance. I repeat my driving mantra: “Driving’s not a competition. Just get there safely.” And I remind myself that the other driver is a suffering being and wish him (sometimes her) well. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.” I remind myself to acknowledge and accept the fear that I’m experiencing, compassionately allowing it to be there, seeing it not as a problem to be solved but as just part of the richness of my experience. And as I do these things I start, sometimes remarkably quickly, to feel happy, to be living from my heart again, to have a sense of balance, well-being, and compassion. Nonviolence works.

See also:

Dr. King’s nonviolence went beyond dealing with merely personal problems and was one of the most potent political tools in transforming 20th century America, leading to the end of some of the most egregious forms of racial oppression that had degraded and humiliated millions of people solely on the basis of the color of their skin.

The nonviolent approaches that King advocated are part of a direct lineage that runs back to the Buddha himself. King was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, who helped avoid what could have been a bloody end to British rule in India. Gandhi is the man who shamed an empire into dissolving itself.

Gandhi’s nonviolence was in turn inspired by the example of King Ashoka of India, who lived approximately 304–232 B.C.E and who established the first nation committed to abstaining from violence. King Ashoka was a Buddhist convert, giving up a lifetime of brutal conquests that had built an empire with uncountable corpses, grieving widows, and orphaned children as its foundation. Disgusted, Ashoka disbanded his armies, sent missionaries of peace around the world, imported medicinal plants to help his people, established a public health care system for people and animals, and abolished capital punishment. As H.G. Wells put it, “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history … the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone.”

Nonviolence then is a powerful tool that has been passed down the millennia and that has transformed societies and saved millions of people from death, injury, and injustice. But it’s not the only powerful idea in the world, as we can easily see by reading newspapers or catching the news on the radio or TV. In the world around us we see a profound conviction that violent retaliation (or acts of preemptive violence) is a valid and effective strategy for attaining political and social goals: from the 9/11 attackers and suicide bombers in the Middle East, to the US-led invasion of Iraq and the genocide in Darfur.

It’s true; violence is sometimes necessary and justified. The most clichéd but nonetheless valid example is the rise of Hitler. At the time his ill-equipped army made its tentative march into the Rhineland he could have been stopped by even a minimal show of force. His poorly-armed troops had orders to flee at the least sign of opposition. But the European powers, still revolted by the carnage of the first World War, decided to let the matter slide, and in doing so gave the Third Reich access to the industrial tools and raw materials it needed to build a near-unstoppable military force. The rest, as they say, is history.

But more often violence represents the triumph of the reptilian brain over the higher cortex, the primacy of the fear/anger response over reason, more broadly strategic thinking, and a rational consideration of the consequences of our actions. Ironically, the example of the Allied Powers failing to act to oppose Hitler’s rise was the self-same reptilian brain trumping higher thought, although in this case the brain-stem produced a paralyzing fear accompanied by wishful thinking that ignored the clear evidence of a looming menace.

Turning to our own time, it was obvious to me, and to millions of other ordinary people, that the results of invading Iraq would be far more catastrophic than those of continuing to contain Saddam’s Baathist regime with sanctions and the ongoing United Nations inspections. But apparently that was not obvious to those who wielded power.

Perhaps the further away we are from the actual decision-making process the easier it is to think rationally without the reptilian brain-stem screaming that we must do something.

The clarity that living at a distance from power brings is, I believe, the reason why ordinary people — and especially those who profess to live a life of reflection and of commitment to spiritual values — need to voice their concerns to those in power. We’re in many ways more in touch with the world. It’s our children, after all, whose lives will be put at risk. We have to become the conscience of our leaders when they are too overwhelmed by primitive impulses (including, unfortunately, not just fear and pride but also the profits to be made from their investments in oil and Halliburton) to think clearly.

It’s a major undertaking requiring a great deal of self-awareness and commitment when we decide to practice nonviolence in our own lives — eschewing not just the grosser forms of violence but also subtler forms of manipulation, verbal abuse, and even violent thoughts. But it’s not enough that we simply practice a kind of “personal spirituality,” a form of practice that affects only ourselves and those with whom we are in direct contact. Our silence in the political and social realm is what enables governments, corporations, and other collective bodies to make bad decisions. Nonviolence — love — is not a passive virtue but one that seeks to transform the world in which we live.

So I urge all who believe in the power of nonviolence, who reflect even dimly the shining light of the Buddha, Asoka, Gandhi, and Dr. King, to act: to write to the editor, to donate to campaign groups, to email our political representatives, to write in blogs or to comment on the blogs of others — even to march in the streets. We’ve been indoctrinated to think that we are unimportant, and that our voices do not count. And as long as we believe that it will be true. But Gandhi and Martin Luther King refused to believe those lies. They spoke up, they acted, and they changed the world. Let’s see if we can too.

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Bob Thurman talks on interconnectedness and compassion

Bob Thurman

In December 2006, Dr. Robert Thurman talked to an exclusive audience at the TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) in New York City. Dr. Thurman discusses themes of interconnectedness, technology, and compassion. In this 12 minute talk he explains that in an interconnected world we can have instant access to the suffering in the world and that this can help to encourage our spiritual development.

He also discusses breaking through the misconception that we are separate from others and entering a state of compassion, and the paradox that in empathizing with the sufferings of others we actually become happier because we release ourselves from the iron bonds of self. Compassion, he says, is fun.

Bob Thurman became a Tibetan monk at age 24. He’s a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, and co-founder of Tibet House US, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Tibetan civilization.

Thurman’s focus is on the balance between inner insight and cultural harmony. In interpreting the teachings of Buddha, he argues that happiness can be reliable and satisfying in an enduring way without depriving others.

He has translated many Buddhist Sutras, or teachings, and written many books, recently taking on the topic of Anger for the recent Oxford series on the seven deadly sins. He maintains a podcast on Buddhist topics. And yes, he is Uma’s dad.

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“Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place” by Melvin McLeod

Support local booksellers: Buy from Indiebound (US) or Bookshop.org (UK).

Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place by Melvin McLeod, editor. (Wisdom Publications, 2006. Paperback, $16.95).

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

There are some books on engaged Buddhism that tend to be rather polemical or academic in style. ‘Mindful Politics’ is not one of them. Its editor hopes that it will serve as a guide or a handbook for those who wish to draw on Buddhism to help make the world a better place. His hopes are well justified. It is an anthology that draws on the accumulated experience of much learning – rich in flashes of insight and practical wisdom. Anyone who feels some connection between the transformation of self and world is sure to find some fresh perspectives and directions among its many and varied contributions.

All but a few of the contributors are American or America-based. Given the subject matter of the book, it is perhaps surprising that this bias is unexplained and barely acknowledged. And yet its rootedness in the American Buddhist experience is also a real strength. This is a book that could not have been compiled twenty or thirty years ago. It bears witness to a generation of practice in the West and engagement with real-life suffering in the world. It is a sign that the Dharma has not only taken root outside of the East but has begun to bear fruit, too. The result is a collection of pithy writings that have an immediacy and accessibility to any Western reader.

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It is not, as several contributors point out, that Buddhism offers an alternative political program, nor even that it has the answer to every political question. Most of the book is about how we might bring about change, rather than what change we might seek to bring about.

There are some notable exceptions to this. The cause of peace has long been widely accepted as a Buddhist political value. To this end, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh both advocate a more effective, democratic United Nations. The Dalai Lama suggests that we each need to develop a sense of ‘universal responsibility’ for humanity. This means thinking beyond both individual and national self-interest.

Are there other basic political principles that we can agree on as Buddhists? Stephanie Kaza makes a clear, concise case for environmentalism, via non-harm, interconnectedness and systems thinking. Sulak Sivaraksa also cites interconnectedness in his response to globalization. Jigme Thinley, Home Minister of Bhutan, enlarges on the idea of ‘Gross National Happiness’ as an alternative economic agenda that his government is trying to pursue. And David Loy introduces his incisive analysis of institutionalized greed, ill will and delusion. This is the idea that the traditional root poisons can take on a collective dimension, and that they need to be addressed on that level as well as in our own hearts. All of these writers offer tools for clear thinking. Their ideas will be useful not only to those who are actively involved, but also to those who simply wish to make sense of politics, or figure out for whom to vote.

One of the most direct and thought-provoking pieces comes from the feminist political thinker bell hooks. She sees Buddhism as a means of letting go of all forms of ‘dominator thinking’. In order to do that, however, the institutions of Buddhism in the West need to transcend the ‘politics of race and class exclusion’ with which they themselves are permeated.

Most of the contributors focus on issues that may arise for the practitioner who might engage in politics, or who might even in some small way wish to be a positive influence. What if, for example, I find myself consumed by anger – how do I not bring more rage into the world? There is a wealth of practical wisdom in this book on that subject from which to draw. Pema Chodron, Ken Jones, Ezra Bayda, and Rita Gross all speak from many years of personal experience and give very useful from-the-heart advice and reflections on cultivating patience and non-enmity. These are teachings we need to constantly remind ourselves of if we really want to break the cycle of reaction, polarization, and revenge.

Other questions may arise. I want to change the world, but where do I start? Do what you care about, advises Stephanie Kaza. How do I know what is the right action in a situation? Don’t be afraid to stay with ‘not knowing’, advises Bernie Glassman. And do I protest like Allen Ginsberg or engage in the system to transform it, as advocated by Chogyam Trungpa? Do whatever works, suggests Joseph Goldstein – whatever helps you to cultivate mindfulness, compassion and wisdom.

Some of the contributions paint a picture of what a politically engaged Buddhist might be like. Charles Johnson describes the ideal as someone who is ‘peace embodied – nonviolent, dispassionate, empathic, without attachment to recognition or results. David Loy identifies the three important Buddhist contributions as spiritual practice, nonviolence and the humility that comes from a sense that our liberation is inseparable from that of all others. And from the Order of Interbeing come the fourteen mindfulnesses, or political precepts. These are very practical guidelines for involvement in the world. Any of these chapters would be worthy of careful study, particularly by any group of engaged practitioners.

There is a still deeper level of questioning underlying all of the contributions to this book. What can it mean to live in a world of great suffering and danger? How can I seek happiness and peace in such a time? How do I even stay sane? Occasionally such questioning comes to the fore, as in Margaret Wheatley’s ‘four freedoms’. From her own years of practice, during which she has borne witness to much suffering, she describes how she has learned to practice being free from hope, free from fear, free from safety and free from self. Somewhere beyond these is the place we need to be coming from. There lies the wisdom that does not seek results and yet contains the most potential for change. The most poignant glimpse of it, containing, perhaps, the crux of the whole book, comes through a passing quotation from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche – ‘when you recognise the empty nature, the energy to bring about the good of others dawns, uncontrived and effortless.’

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Altruism hard-wired to pleasure centers in brain

Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman

Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman of the US government National Institutes of Health have shown that helping others makes us happy and that altruism is hard-wired into the brain, according to the Washington Post.

When volunteers were asked to imagine two scenarios — keeping a large amount of cash for themselves or giving it away — the more generous scenario activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex.

Altruism, the study suggests, arises not as the result of high-minded philosophy, but is wired into the brain.

The study represents one more way in which scientific research — and particularly brain-imaging — is illuminating the way in which human beings are inherently wired for moral decision-making. Research by Professor David Richardson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has shown that cultivating lovingkindness and compassion leads to a greater sense of wellbeing.

Neuroscientist neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio and his colleagues have also recently shown that patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers. Such brain-damaged patients lacked the moral qualms most people experience when making choices that harm some people but bring benefits to others, and adopted a cold and clinical form of decision-making.

As a results of other studies Harvard researcher Marc Hauser has proposed that people in all cultures have similar moral processing mechanisms, although the way that these manifest is culturally conditioned.

The sum total of these research studies suggests that empathy is not only the key to moral behavior, but that it is also a way of becoming happier. By performing or even just imagining acts that benefit others we directly benefit ourselves. This confirms the experience of generations of meditation practitioners who have found that lovingkindness and compassion meditation brings feelings of happiness and even bliss.

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The Dalai Lama: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Dalai Lama

While it’s quite clear that others may benefit from our compassionate activity, the second part of His Holiness’s observation flies in the face of an assumption that is, for most of us, extremely deep-rooted: that is, the assumption that my individual welfare is best served if I primarily focus on my interests.

But recent scientific research on happiness and brain function suggests that we do help ourselves — by becoming happier — when we help others.

Time magazine recently named Professor Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as one of the world’s 100 most influential thinkers. For years Davidson has been researching happiness, sometimes studying Buddhist monks in his lab, the Brain Imaging Laboratory, to examine how feelings of well-being correlate with activity in the brain.

See also:

In experiments run by Davidson and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers studied the brain functions of experienced meditators. Each of the practitioners – six were Buddhist monks and two were lay people – had completed over 10,000 (and up to 50,000) hours of meditation, which is about the same amount of time it takes to become expert in a musical instrument.

These experienced meditators were compared with a group of 10 students who had undertaken a week of meditative training involving 45 minutes of practice a day.

Davidson’s principal tool for examining the meditators was functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which reveal in real time which parts of the brain are most active. In earlier experiments Davidson had shown that fMRI can image where different emotional states take place in the brain. When people experience negative states such as anxiety or depression, brain areas that are most active are the amygdala and the right prefrontal cortex. When people experience positive emotions — happiness, love, confidence, etc — activity in the left prefrontal cortex is heightened. So remember: left is positive, right is negative.

In the more recent study, brain activity was studied both when the meditators’ brains were in a neutral state and while they cultivated unconditional loving-kindness (metta) and compassion. For the beginners there were only minor changes in brain activity between the neutral state and the meditation on lovingkindness, but for the experienced meditators there were massive changes — the degree of change being correlated with the number of hours of meditation each individual had done.

When the experienced meditators generated strong feelings of compassion there was a strong increase in activity in the left (or positive) side of the prefrontal cortex and a decrease in activity on the right (or negative) side. Developing compassion, then, results in the same kinds of brain activity that are shown when someone is in an particularly strong state of wellbeing and happiness. Meditators of course have long known experientially that feelings of love and compassion are accompanied by feelings of happiness, wellbeing, and even of bliss, but in scientific circles these subjective observations have to be backed up by measurements before they can be trusted as reliable data.

But why does compassion make us happy?

Three reasons spring to mind: diversion, perspective, and connectedness.

  1. First is “diversion.” As His Holiness wrote in Ethics for the New Millennium, “When we worry less about ourselves, the experience of our own suffering is less intense.” Taking our focus away from what’s wrong in our lives helps us to be less self-obsessed. Compassion therefore diverts our attention away from problems which, when focused upon, loom large in our minds. Compassion in effect displaces negative emotions from the mind because we can only focus on one primary emotional state at a time.
  2. Second, concern for others reminds us that we are not alone with our problems, and that others have even greater difficulties. From time to time in our lives we’ll be struggling with our normal quotient of suffering — worrying about paying bills, bickering over some disagreement, for example — when we encounter real suffering, such as bereavement or a serious accident. At such times we realize that we’ve been giving undue attention to problems that are, in reality, not such a big deal. So compassion helps us to put our own difficulties into perspective.
  3. But third, the very act of connecting with others in a compassionate way enhances our lives in a very positive way. We are at heart social beings, and we cannot be truly happy unless we establish positive connections with others. Compassion and love give our lives a sense of meaning and fulfillment, and compassion is inherently pleasurable and rewarding. When we are caught up in our own anxieties and longings we are not fully able to connect with others and so our experience is impoverished. Compassion is therefore enriching.

This doesn’t of course mean that we should neglect ourselves and be concerned only with others. Compassion for others is ideally an extension of a healthy self-cherishing attitude in which we take our own needs seriously. In Buddhist practice compassion is developed for all beings, including ourselves, and in fact in meditations such as the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) and karuna bhavana (development of compassion) we begin by cultivating love towards ourselves. Ultimately, however, the best hope we have for attaining happiness ourselves is to pay more attention to the wellbeing of others.

Finally, for anyone daunted by the thought of 10,000 hours of meditation (that’s three hours a day for nine years, in case you’re wondering) remember that even those who had been meditating for 45 minutes a day for only a week showed greater happiness and even improved immune function. That’s a big reward for a modest effort.

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