empathy

Dalai Lama’s American doctor wants more compassion in medicine

wildmind meditation newsPBS Newshour: Before he was a personal physician to the Dalai Lama, Dr. Barry Kerzin never imagined that a professional trip to Tibet would lead him down a decades-long path studying Buddhism and meditation. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro talks to Kerzin in India about his feeling that compassion and empathy are essential to medical training.

Sixty-eight-year-old California native Barry Kerzin began his career as a professor of family medicine at the University of Washington. He never dreamed it would lead to a pro bono house calls thousands of miles away in Tibet.

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Connection before kindness

love and relationships concept - closeup of woman and man holding handsI’ve had a lot of opportunity to teach metta, or “lovingkindness,” over the last two years. One thing I’m doing differently as a result is referring to metta as “kindness,” rather than “lovingkindness. The “loving” part of “lovingkindness” doesn’t, to my mind, add anything, but rather takes what’s a concrete experience and makes it seem rather abstract. It’s easy to picture what it’s like when someone is kind to you, but it’s harder to imagine someone relating to you in a way that demonstrates lovingkindness.

The simple word “kindness” seems to be an ideal term to translate “metta.” Kindness, after all, is simply relating to another being in a way that respects their desire to be happy. When we’re kind we take others’ feelings into account. We recognize that their feelings are not just important to them, but are as important to them as ours are to us. We want to act in ways that put them at ease and bring them happiness, and we don’t want to do anything to cause them pain.

Metta starts with empathy. I’ve realized that it’s common for us to try to cultivate kindness without first establishing a sense of empathy. We sit down, call someone to mind, and then wish them well. Now wishing someone well can lead to empathy arising, but if that doesn’t happen then our well-wishing can be dry and mechanical. In order to prevent that happening, I’ve been making a point of connecting empathetically with myself—and with others—before starting any well-wishing.

How do I do this? I drop in two reflections, and then extend myself an invitation.

The first reflection is this: “I want to be happy.”

I let this thought sink in. I check out whether it’s true for me right now. I think about times I’ve been happy or unhappy in the past. And I realize that I always have a desire for happiness (or perhaps something more like peace or wellbeing).

The second reflection is this: “It’s often not easy to be happy.”

I let that sink in, too. I recognize that happiness can be elusive, and the suffering can be an all-too-common visitor to my life. I realize that being human isn’t easy.

The invitation is this: “Recognizing that I’m doing a difficult thing simply in being human, can I offer myself support, encouragement, and kindness?” I find that there’s always part of me that wants to do this. The way of expressing support is simply to repeat the metta phrases. I’ll often say: “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others.” In this way I empathize with myself before beginning to wish myself well.

In the other stages of the practice I introduce the same reflections: My friend (or the neutral person, or the difficult person) just like me, wants to be happy, but finds happiness elusive. We’re both doing this difficult thing of being human. Empathetically knowing this, can I offer this person support and encouragement? Yes! “May you be well…”

There can be a sense of heart-ache when reflecting in this way—acknowledging that life is often difficult. Those feelings may be uncomfortable, but they aren’t bad. In fact they’re part of the empathy that makes metta possible. They should be accepted and received kindly.

The result of doing the practice this way is that my efforts to cultivate kindness feel much more grounded and real than ever before. My meditation is more heart-felt.

Cultivating connection and empathy before cultivating metta can bring our practice to life.


PS. A reader wrote complaining about my use of “kindness” instead of “lovingkindness” to translate “metta.” She said, “If it’s good enough for the Dalai Lama it should be good enough for you.” :)

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Empathy is actually a choice

wildmind meditation news

Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham: New York Times: One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic.

You’ve probably heard this saying before. It is thought to capture an unfortunate truth about empathy: While a single crying child or injured puppy tugs at our heartstrings, large numbers of suffering people, as in epidemics, earthquakes and genocides, do not inspire a comparable reaction.

Studies have repeatedly confirmed this. It’s a troubling finding because, as recent research has demonstrated, many of us believe that if more lives are at stake, we will — and should — feel more empathy (i.e., vicariously …

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Seven fun ways to teach your kids mindfulness

Kaia Roman, MindBodyGreen: I taught a mindfulness class at my daughters’ elementary school this week. Unsurprisingly, the kids taught me way more than I taught them.

While I was doing research to develop the class, I came upon a wealth of information about mindfulness programs in schools. For one, I learned that actress Goldie Hawn has been working with neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists and educators to develop a mindfulness curriculum for schools. I was thrilled to find out that their research reported that mindfulness education in schools has proven …

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No more (Buddhist) Mr. Nice Guy!

Recently Euan, whom I don’t know, wrote a comment expressing his dismay at a girl turning him down because he was “too nice.” Here’s what he wrote:

I only started meditating in December 2014 and was seeing this girl for a while, we went on a couple of dates, the first went well and the second went ok. We continued messaging each other but she seemed less keen, then today she told me she felt we didn’t click and didn’t want to meet again. She said I paid her too many compliments and was too nice. I’m just so angry because I felt like she was leading me on and we had been speaking for at least two months as I first met her in December but I went home to university and so didn’t see her again until 2 weeks ago where we had the two dates and I thought things seemed to be going well. I just want to know what I’m supposed to think I guess. From what I’ve learned for my short period of meditation is that we should love each other, but when someone tells me they don’t want a relationship because I’m “too nice” it makes me question what I’m doing. Like should I stop being nice to girls I want potential relationships with, and how am I supposed to not get angry at her for me being too nice. What is so wrong with the world that people don’t like being treated nicely, it perplexes me.

Sorry if this doesn’t read smoothly, I’m writing this immediately after I found out and my almost immediate reaction was to question how I am supposed to think like a Buddhist when bad things happen to me for being too nice.

Euan’s comment raised questions that I thought are worth exploring in a blog post.

Euan’s experience is not unique. I’ve been there myself in the past, and when I was young I found myself astonished and sometimes angry at the way some women I’ve been interested in gravitated to men who seemed to me to be jerks. And although my anger never turned into a general hatred of women, this evidently happens with some men. But I still had a lot to learn.

So I want to talk about “being nice,” from the point of view of a man who’s realized that “being nice” is not as “nice” as “nice men” like to think it is. I’m not advocating being unkind, and certainly not advocating ill will or hatred. I’d like to talk about how “being nice” is not actually kind, is a form of manipulation, and is not, in most cases, what women need or want. And I’m sorry, Euan, but some of this may be hard to read. I don’t mean to be unkind or to hurt your feelings, but instead want to act as a kalyana mitta (spiritual friend) who points out things we need to know but may not want to know.

What’s a “nice guy”? A “nice guy” is a man who thinks that the way into a girl’s heart (and bed) is by being agreeable and flattering. Here are a few characteristics of “nice guys,” drawn from a Wikihow article:

  • They offer to do things for a girl they hardly know that they wouldn’t normally do for just anybody else they know.
  • They avoid conflict by withholding their opinions or even become agreeable with her when they don’t actually agree.
  • They try to fix and take care of her problems, they are drawn to trying to help.
  • They try to hide their perceived flaws and mistakes.
  • They are always looking for the “right” way to do things.
  • They have difficulty making their needs a priority.
  • They are often emotionally dependent on their partner.

The psychology of “nice guys” has been written about a lot. Here’s a great analysis of the whole phenomenon from Geek Feminism Wiki.

Being a “nice guy” is a strategy. It’s not who someone fundamentally is, although “nice guys” are very conscious of and attached to their identity (self view) as “nice guys.”

The purpose of the strategy, as I’ve said, is to attract and keep a woman. A cartoon by Callmekitto about “nice guys” shows a woman jubilantly holding up a card, similar to one of those “Buy ten cups of coffee and get one free” cards. She’s saying to the young man beside her, “That’s the eight stamp on your Nice Guy Card! Now you can stop pretending to care about me as a person and we can have all that sex you deserve!”

Cartoon by Lauren Dombrowski, @callmekitto at Tumblr

Cartoon by Lauren Dombrowski, @callmekitto at Tumblr

The cartoon is brutally frank, but it’s making the point that acting as a “nice guy” assumes that relationships are a form of transaction: I’ll pretend to be the kind of person I think you want, and then you’ll give me sex and approval.

As the cartoon indicates, the man who is playing at being a “nice guy” isn’t actually relating to the woman as a full human being. He’s not being himself, and may even have lost touch with who he is. He doesn’t want to express his needs and won’t challenge his intended partner in any way because he thinks that risks pushing her away. In fact the opposite is the case. Few women want a partner who doesn’t express himself and who avoids conflict. A conflict-averse partner is neither going to stand up for you not stand up to you.

The “nice guy” is far from practicing metta, or kindness. Metta is based on empathy (anukampa), which is an awareness of the other person as a person — as a feeling being who has needs. In fact the “nice guy” role is based on craving. You desperately want something (sex, companionship, approval, the status of “being in a relationship”) and you go through the moves that you think will get you that thing. But there’s no actual awareness of the other person, which is unattractive, and so as a “nice guy” you’re constantly finding that you don’t get what you want. In fact it’s not just that you want the things I’ve mentioned: you deserve them. After all, you’ve given the endless compliments, you’ve refrained from expressing what you really want in just about any situation (“No, any movie you choose is fine with me!”), you’ve studiously avoided expressing any needs (“No, it’s not a problem that you stood me up”). You’ve been nice. You’ve cranked the handle on the machine, and how it’s time for your reward!

When the reward doesn’t come the first few times, you might be depressed. But then you get angry — but not just at the girls who rejected you, because you start to realize that almost no girl is going to give you what you deserve. And you do, you think, deserve the sex and the love you want, because you’re not even conscious that “nice guy” is a role you’re playing, and you think it’s who you are. So you both want and hate women, or “bitches,” as you may think of them. As another cartoon (actually it’s more of a “meme”) says, “Women never date nice guys like me. I hate those bitches.” Frustrated craving turns to hatred.

I want to re-emphasize that the “nice guy” is a role that men play. It’s not who they fundamentally are. So in criticizing the actions of “nice guys,” I’m not saying that there’s something irretrievably flawed about them. Just that they need to so some work in becoming more self-aware, braver, more honest, and more genuinely empathetic and loving.

The Wikihow post I linked to above has some advice for stepping out of the “nice guy” role, but I’ll say just a few words about developing the qualities I just mentioned.

  • Become more self-aware: Realize when you’re acting out of craving and expectation. Let go of the label of “nice guy.” Seriously, never refer to yourself or think of yourself as a “nice guy” ever again. The role has become a trap for you, and it’s preventing you from seeing who you really are. Take responsibility, and take a good look at yourself: if your attempts at relationships all end up the same way, the common denominator is you, not “women.”
  • Be braver: Don’t cling to your preferences, but don’t be afraid to express them. Express how you feel. If you’re upset or afraid or hurt, it’s OK to express those things. And I mean express them directly, in words (“When you stood me up I felt really hurt”), not throwing a tantrum or trying to punish the other person. The Buddha was not a “nice guy.” He called people on their bullshit.
  • Become more honest: Stop trying to be “nice” all the time. But being honest doesn’t mean saying whatever happens to be on your mind. For example, Euan said that this girl has been “leading him on.” He may think that telling her that is “honest.” Actually, saying “I think you’ve been leading me on” is technically honest, because he has had that thought. But saying “She’s been leading me on” isn’t the truth, but a story. What from Euan’s point of view seems like being led on, might well be, from the girl’s point of view, giving the relationship a little time in order to see if she actually likes this guy. When you take your interpretations and present them as if they were the absolute truth, you’re not being honest.
  • Become more genuinely empathetic and loving: Ah, right: there are all these tips you’ve read on “how to show empathy.” You nod, and look concerned, and ask questions, and reflect things back to the other person, and make little “uhuh” noises to let the other person know you’re listening. But those things are not empathy. They’re what empathy looks like, and they can all be done without any real empathy at all, without any real appreciation that the other person is a fully human being with needs and desires, who in all likelihood wants to be with another person who has needs and desires, and not with someone who is going through the motions of “being nice” and “being empathetic.” To be genuinely empathetic you have to be self-aware, prepared to take risks, and to be honest. Ask yourself, would you want to be with someone who was acting the whole time?

Euan said, “From what I’ve learned for my short period of meditation is that we should love each other, but when someone tells me they don’t want a relationship because I’m ‘too nice’ it makes me question what I’m doing. Like should I stop being nice to girls I want potential relationships with.”

Buddhism does teach us to have metta (kindness) and karuna (compassion) and to be empathetic, but that doesn’t mean “being nice” and it certainly doesn’t mean “being manipulative.”

The men a “nice guy” thinks of as “jerks” — the ones they see girls with all the time — are more enjoyable for just about any human being to be with, let alone a romantic partner, than any self-consciously “nice guy.” They aren’t acting. They’re more inclined to be honest about what they want and feel. When they give compliments it feels sincere because they’re not doing it all the time. They offer challenge. They call out bullshit. We all need that.

I’m not saying that every “jerk” is really a good guy. Some jerks cheat or are violent. Those are real jerks. But even a real jerk might be more fulfilling to be in a relationship with than someone you don’t know because they’re constantly playing a role, and when there’s the underlying threat, which isn’t that hard to pick up on, that they’ll turn nasty when they don’t get what they want. Better the devil you know than the one pretending to be “nice” all the time, perhaps.

So being a “nice guy” isn’t nice. It’s fake. So yes, “nice guys” should stop being “nice.” But that doesn’t mean being unkind. It doesn’t mean treating people badly. It means becoming self-aware. It means “manning up” and having the courage to be honest so that you can be in a genuine relationship with another human being rather than acting out a role in order to get a reward.

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How stress kills our ability to feel compassion

Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post: Stress isn’t just bad for our physical and mental health — it may also inhibit our ability to empathize with others, according to new McGill University research.

The study, recently published in the journal Current Biology, found that a drug that blocks stress hormones can increase the ability of both humans and mice to “feel” others’ pain.

The researchers studied the phenomenon known as “emotional contagion of pain,” a key component of empathy which has to do with our ability to experience the pain of strangers.

Previous research by …

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Meditation may physically alter regions of the brain

Sravanth Verma, Digital Journal: Harvard researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital reported that the practice of mindfulness meditation can physically alter regions of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

The study, to be published in January 2015, in “Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging” indicates that the brain’s gray matter may change as a result of meditation.

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” said …

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New research proves that not only does meditation calm you down, it actually alters your brain

Caitlin White, MTV News: Mindfulness exercises are even more powerful than we previously thought.

Many people swear by meditation and mindfulness exercises as a way to increase happiness and peacefulness, but now Harvard researchers have discovered that these exercises might also increase growth of the brain’s gray matter and have measurable changes upon brain areas that are associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

The study will be published in next January’s issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, but the Harvard-affiliated research team at Massachusetts General Hospital …

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Empathy versus compassion

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva

On the Boston Review, Paul Bloom has a provocative article titled “Against Empathy.” It’s not advocating an uncompassionate approach to life, and in fact central to his thesis is that there is a distinction between empathy, which he says can limit and exhaust us, and compassion, which he points out is more sustainable.

There’s one particular section where there are several references to Buddhism and to Buddhist practitioners:

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

Or consider long-distance charity. It is conceivable, I suppose, that someone who hears about the plight of starving children might actually go through the empathetic exercise of imagining what it is like to starve to death. But this empathetic distress surely isn’t necessary for charitable giving. A compassionate person might value others’ lives in the abstract, and, recognizing the misery caused by starvation, be motivated to act accordingly.

Summing up, compassionate helping is good for you and for others. But empathetic distress is destructive of the individual in the long run.

See also:

It might also be of little help to other people because experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout. This issue is explored in the Buddhist literature on morality. Consider the life of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person who vows not to pass into Nirvana, choosing instead to stay in the normal cycle of life and death to help the masses. How is a bodhisattva to live? In Consequences of Compassion (2009) Charles Goodman notes the distinction in Buddhists texts between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to empathy, and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided, as it “exhausts the bodhisattva.” Goodman defends great compassion, which is more distanced and reserved and can be sustained indefinitely.

This distinction has some support in the collaborative work of Tania Singer, a psychologist and neuroscientist, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, meditation expert, and former scientist. In a series of studies using fMRI brain scanning, Ricard was asked to engage in various types of compassion meditation directed toward people who are suffering. To the surprise of the investigators, these meditative states did not activate parts of the brain that are normally activated by non-meditators when they think about others’ pain. Ricard described his meditative experience as “a warm positive state associated with a strong prosocial motivation.”

He was then asked to put himself in an empathetic state and was scanned while doing so. Now the appropriate circuits associated with empathetic distress were activated. “The empathic sharing,” Ricard said, “very quickly became intolerable to me and I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to being burned out.”

One sees a similar contrast in ongoing experiments led by Singer and her colleagues in which people are either given empathy training, which focuses on the capacity to experience the suffering of others, or compassion training, in which subjects are trained to respond to suffering with feelings of warmth and care. According to Singer’s results, among test subjects who underwent empathy training, “negative affect was increased in response to both people in distress and even to people in everyday life situations. . . . these findings underline the belief that engaging in empathic resonance is a highly aversive experience and, as such, can be a risk factor for burnout.” Compassion training—which doesn’t involve empathetic arousal to the perceived distress of others—was more effective, leading to both increased positive emotions and increased altruism.

These are important considerations for spiritual practitioners. An ancient commentary, The Vimuttimagga, states that “sorrow is failed compassion.” What I take that to mean is that real compassion can’t arise when we’re caught up in our own suffering, which is what happens when we experience empathic distress.

I would say, though, that there are different meanings of the word empathy. A person completely lacking in empathy doesn’t care about others. In Bloom’s example of long-distance charity, a person without empathy will simply not give. Why should they? They have no interest in the wellbeing of others. The person who gives because they hear that others are starving is motivated by empathy. It’s not empathic distress; they don’t have to imagine starving, because they already know that starving is horrible, and because they care about people they want to help.

Bloom’s stance “against empathy” is only against a certain kind of empathy, and his arguments don’t apply to this other form, which happens to be the kind that’s most important in the practice of compassion.

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Is mindfulness the key to being a better boss?

wildmind meditation newsHCOnline: We’ve all done it. In a fit of fury or just plain annoyance, we’ve hastily typed a snarky email to a colleague and hit ‘send’ – without first thinking of the repercussions.

It’s known as action addiction – often when things happen we want to fix it, immediately. There’s even a neurological incentive to do so – we get a hit of dopamine from feeling like we’ve taken quick, decisive action.

It’s human nature to act before thinking, right? It is, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. The concept of mindfulness is not new – in fact as a concept it …

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