empathy

Nine ways that a meditating brain creates better relationships

Psychology Today: It’s never too late to have a brain that’s wired as if it had a happy childhood

Therapists get this question a lot: “Okay, so now that I understand how my history made me a mess when it comes to relationships, what now? It’s not like I can go back in time and change my childhood.”

The “what now” is that there’s increasing evidence that the simple practice of mindfulness meditation can re-wire your brain. In key areas, you can literally change and grow neural connections which support finding and creating better relationships. And in nine different ways, your brain can become more like those who grew up knowing how to love and be loved in healthy, sustainable ways.

As a psychologist helping others find their way to greater emotional well-being, I find that the most compelling benefits of a regular mindfulness meditation practice are a set of nine documented results. (I mentioned them in my previous post, Mindfulness Meditation + Neuroscience = Healthier Relationships.) I’ve seen the results confirmed through my psychology practice, in myself, and in the lives of my friends and colleagues.

At least seven of these nine benefits bear a remarkable resemblance to the characteristics of people who grew up with healthy, attuned attachments. Childhood attachment experiences have a huge impact on how we are wired for relationships, throughout our lives.

So, if we can change our brain to work more like those people with healthy attachment histories, we too can have a brain that’s wired as if it had a happy childhood.

NINE WAYS THAT A MEDITATING BRAIN CREATES BETTER RELATIONSHIPS

When I first learned about these from Dan Siegel, MD, I was stunned that something as simple as mindfulness meditation could make such inroads with the challenges of finding and creating healthy relationships. Take a look at these benefits:

1. Better management of your body’s reactions.

Stress and anger lose their grip on your body more quickly and easily. When you get home from a hard day at work, you aren’t still carrying the pent-up tension and frustration in your body, and so you won’t be driven towards an angry reaction to your partner’s benign comment.

In a way, it’s like re-setting your body’s “alarm” button when it’s gotten stuck in the “ON” position. Vital to your relationships is your ability to (a) recognize that that’s what’s going on, (b) understand what is happening in your brain and body that is keeping you there, and (c) un-stick that alarm button.

2. Emotional resiliency.

Being able to correct or repair unpleasant moods more quickly, without just sweeping them under the rug of resentments, frees you up to be less stressed by emotional upset, and more available to the next good thing.

Regulating your emotions doesn’t mean ignoring them, denying them, or cramming them deep inside (they eventually erupt anyway, but in festered form). The trick is to be able to get yourself back to baseline with relative ease and efficiency.

3. Better, more “tuned in” communication.

Research on attachment and healthy brain development shows that having someone be attuned to you — they listen and “get” you without distortion, and respond in a way which is actually contingent upon you instead of just their own inner stuff — is one of the chief ways that your brain gets organized for well-being.

That’s true in childhood, and we’re now learning that it’s also true for adults. Mindfulness meditation helps you to be a more attuned communicator. Even better, new evidence suggests that the more you practice this kind of “attuned” communication, the more likely that your significant other will get better at it, as well. (More on that in another post.)

4. Response flexibility.

We often have a fairly limited repertoire of how we respond to those situations that just “set us off.” Some people always blame and yell when they feel ashamed; others cry whenever receiving criticism, even if it is constructive and positive.

The habits of our nervous system can seem like electrical surges, leaving us vulnerable to making a real mess when we don’t mean to. Having an emotional circuit breaker makes a real difference — creating the space for you to have a more mindful, conscious response. Mindfulness meditation, by beefing up areas which essentially buy us a tiny bit more time before we respond in a knee-jerk way, improves response flexibility.

5. Improved empathy.

There are some common misconceptions about empathy. Being empathic isn’t about being a doormat, or mind-reader. It’s also not about fear (I need to read this person really well so he doesn’t get angry and hit me).

Being able to “get” and understand another person’s state of mind is essential for healthy relationships, but being able to do so without losing your awareness of your own state of mind is vitally important. Getting your brain to let you perceive someone else, without your protective gear and lenses, and without getting lost in their “stuff,” is something that mindfulness meditation does extremely well.

6. Improved insight (self-knowing).

Getting to know yourself in a real way, and within a coherent framework (How did I get here?), results in being far less vulnerable to getting lost when it comes to being in relationship with others.

When we meditate regularly, we’re practicing our ability to notice what our brain is up to — what the thoughts are, what the feelings are. We become increasingly able to tell the difference between those momentary and ever-changing events, and who we really are.

Through meditation practice, the brain gets re-wired and “remembers,” more often and more easily, who you really are – not just your thoughts and feelings, so they don’t carry you away.

7. Better modulation of fear.

If you’re able to be more comfortable with things which once scared you (He’s going to leave me; I’m not enough for her), and not as reactive to emotional fear, you change your entire experience of being in an adult-to-adult relationship with others.

It’s important in relationships to have ready access to being able to soothe yourself when you’re afraid, so that your reactions and interactions aren’t overrun by your fight-flight-freeze response. There is compelling research on the brain mechanisms underlying the flexible control of fear, and those are remarkably similar to the brain areas which change in response to mindfulness meditation.

8. Enhanced intuition.

There’s actually increasing neurochemical and cellular evidence of a sort of second brain in our gut (okay, viscera). Most of us are familiar with having some kind of “gut feeling,” usually in response to something that has our attention. But what about all of those times when we’re an auto-pilot, or distracted? Is the information in our gut turned “off’?

Hardly. Our viscera, and the rest of our body — our muscles, eyes, ears, skin, and so on — are telling us something. Most of the time, we ignore these messages, but the mindfulness practice of being more aware of what your body is telling you enhances the ability to be attuned to yourself, and what you unconsciously know — what we can refer to as “intuition.”

Becoming emotionally “smarter” — by using the extra information from your non-brain parts — enhances your ability to be in mindfully aware, conscious relationships with yourself and with others.

9. Increased morality.

In addition to healthier, happier relationships with your partner and circle of friends, is there anything that comes from the first eight benefits?

The research on mindfulness shows that when people learn to meditate and practice regularly, their perceptions of their place in the world begins to shift — something corroborated by family members. They become more broadly compassionate, more likely to act on their highest principles, and demonstrate greater interest in the social good – what can very reasonably seen as living with higher morals. It’s like having a healthier relationship with your whole community, not just the people closest to you.

An impressive list! It does take practice — and the practice is simple, but not easy. (Of course, with all of these benefits, there may be some other personal work to be done, if deeper unresolved issues are involved — meditation alone doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for dealing with old wounds and their influences on you.)

The good news is that some of the research shows that you can see changes with as little as twenty minutes of practice a day (and some experts say that you can benefit with even less than that – the trick is to be sure it is a regular, daily practice). I invite you to give it a try.

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Meditation training lessens doctor burnout

UPI: Training in mindfulness meditation and communication can alleviate the psychological stress and burnout experienced by many physicians, U.S. researchers say.

Dr. Michael S. Krasner, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York who was the study leader, says the training can also expand a physician’s capacity to relate to patients and enhance patient-centered care.

Mindful communication utilizes the techniques of meditation to help people maintain an open and non-judgmental outlook as they tackle everyday tasks, Krasner explains.

“From the patient’s perspective, we hear all too often of dissatisfaction in the quality of presence from their physician,” Krasner said in a statement. “From the practitioner’s perspective, the opportunity for deeper connection is all too often missed in the stressful, complex and chaotic reality of medical practice.”

Seventy physicians from Rochester, N.Y., completed a series of assessment surveys designed to measure burnout and empathy, characterize beliefs about patient care, personality and mood.

The training involved eight intensive weekly sessions that were 2.5 hours long, an all-day session and a maintenance phase of 10 monthly 2.5-hour sessions.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found the trained primary care physicians experienced improved well-being, including significant decreases in burnout and mood disturbance, while empathy increased.

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“Self, meditating,” by Robert Wright

New York Times: This Friday I’m heading up to rural Massachusetts in hopes of getting born again — again.

Six years ago, in the same locale, I attended my first and only silent meditation retreat. It was just about the most amazing experience of my life. Certainly it seemed more dramatic than my very first born-again experience — my response to a southern Baptist altar call as a child, which I wrote about in this space last month.

I came away from that week feeling I had found a new kind of happiness, deeper than the kind I’d always pursued. I also came away a better person — just ask my wife. (And neither of those things lasted — just ask my wife.)

So with the retreat approaching, I should be as eager as a kid on Christmas Eve, right? Well, no. Meditation retreats — at this place, at least — are no picnic. You don’t follow your bliss. You learn not to follow your bliss, to let your bliss follow you. And you learn this arduously. If at the end you feel like you’re leaving Shangri-La, that’s because the beginning felt like Guantanamo.

We spent 5.5 hours per day in sitting meditation, 5.5 hours per day in walking meditation. By day three I was feeling achy, far from nirvana and really, really sick of the place.

I was sick of my 5 a.m. “yogi job” (vacuuming), I was sick of the bland vegetarian food, and I wasn’t especially fond of all those Buddhists with those self-satisfied looks on their faces, walking around serenely like they knew something I didn’t know (which, it turns out, they did).

Yes, the payoff was huge. But it’s unlikely to be as big this time around. It’s famously hard to replicate the rapture of your first meditation retreat. Last time, during the first half of the week, my apparently prescient unconscious mind kept filling my head with that old song by Foreigner, “It feels like the first time, like it never will again.” I’ve never especially liked that song, and during those first few days it joined the list of things I hated.

What I hated above all was that I wasn’t succeeding as a meditator. Now, as the two leaders of this retreat were known to point out, you’re not supposed to think of “succeeding” at meditating. And you’re not supposed to blame yourself for failing. And blah, blah, blah.

Well, they were right: To “succeed” I really did have to quit pursuing success, and quit blaming myself for failing. And some other things had to go right.

And what was “success” like? Well, to start at the less spiritual, more sensual end: By the time I left, eating the food I’d initially disdained ranked up there with above-average sex. I’m not exaggerating by much. When I first got there, I didn’t understand why some people were closing their eyes while eating. By the end of the retreat, I was closing mine. The better to focus on the source of my ecstasy. I wasn’t just living in the moment — I was luxuriating in it.

Also, my view of weeds changed. There’s a kind of weed that I had spent years killing, sometimes manually, sometimes with chemicals. On a walk one day I looked down at one of those weeds and it looked as beautiful as any other plant. Why, I wondered, had I bought into the “weed” label? Why had I so harshly judged an innocent plant?

If this sounds crazy to you, you should hear how crazy it sounds to me. I’m not the weed-hugging type, I assure you.

And as long as we’re on the subject of crazy, there was my moment of bonding with a lizard. I looked at this lizard and watched it react to local stimuli and thought: I’m in the same boat as that lizard — born without asking to be born, trying to make sense of things, and far from getting the whole picture.

I mean, sure, I know more than the lizard — like the fact that I exist and the fact that I evolved by natural selection. But my knowledge is, like the lizard’s, hemmed in by the fact that my brain is a product of evolution, designed to perform mundane tasks, to react to local stimuli, not to understand the true nature of things. And — here’s the crazy part — I kind of loved that lizard. A little bit, for a little while.

Whether I had made major moral progress by learning to empathize with a lizard, let alone a weed, is open to debate. The more important part of my expanding circle of affinity involved people — specifically, my fellow meditators.

At the beginning of the retreat, looking around the meditation hall, I had sized people up, making lots of little judgments, sometimes negative, on the basis of no good evidence. (Re: guy wearing Juilliard t-shirt and exhibiting mild symptoms of theatricality: Well, aren’t we special?) By the end of the retreat I was less inclined toward judgment, especially the harsh kind. And days after the retreat, while riding the monorail to the Newark airport I found myself doing something I never do — striking up a conversation with strangers. Nice strangers!

My various epiphanies may sound trite, like a caricature of pop-Buddhist enlightenment. And, presented in snapshot form, that’s what I’m afraid they’re destined to sound like. All I can say is that there is a bigger philosophical picture that these snapshots are part of, and that I had made some progress in apprehending it by the end of the retreat.

The “apprehension” isn’t just intellectual. This retreat was in the Vipassana tradition, which emphasizes gaining insight into the way your mind works. Vipassana has a reputation for being one of the more intellectual Buddhist traditions, but, even so, part of the idea is to gain that insight in a way that isn’t entirely intellectual. Or, at least, in a way that is sometimes hard to describe.

On Thursday night, the fifth night of the retreat, about 30 minutes into a meditation session, I had an experience that falls into that category, so I won’t try to describe it. I’ll just say that it involved seeing the structure of my mind — experiencing the structure of my mind — in a new way, and in a way that had great meaning for me. And, happily, this experience was accompanied by a stunningly powerful blast of bliss. All told, I don’t think I’ve ever had a more dramatic moment.

This retreat is coming at a good time for me. In June I published a book that I’ve been feverishly promoting. Publishing and promoting a book can bring out the non-Buddhist in a person. For example, when book reviewers make judgments about your book, you may make judgments about the reviewers — ungenerous judgments, even.

Also, you’re inclined to pursue the fruits of your activity — like book sales — rather than just experience the activity. Checking your Amazon ranking every 7 minutes would qualify as what Buddhists call “attachment.” And attachment is bad. (Oops: I just made a judgment about attachment.)

In fact, in general I’ve been living like someone who hasn’t been meditating with much regularity or dedication, who has strayed from the straight and narrow. It’s time to start anew.

At the end of my first retreat, still reeling from that Thursday-night experience, I told one of the meditation teachers about it. He nodded casually, as if the insight I’d had was one of the standard stops on the path to enlightenment — but far from the end of the path. Through truly intensive meditation, he said, the transformation of your view of your mind — and your view of your mind’s relationship to reality, and your view of reality itself — can go much deeper than I’d gone.

That would be interesting! But this week I’d settle for half as deep.


Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of “The Moral Animal,” “Nonzero” and, most recently, “The Evolution of God.”

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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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“Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.” Ann Landers

ann landers

In the long run we inevitably hurt ourselves more than others do. Someone in the past did something that we found hurtful. They did or said something, or failed to do or say something, and we experienced physical or emotional hurt. It’s bound to happen. Each instance of hurt only happened one time in our past, and yet we have the faculty of memory that allows us to recall that incident over and over, and thus hurt ourselves over and over again. That’s how in the long term we can end up hurting ourselves more than the other person did.

Of course we often don’t think of this is as hurting ourselves. We tend to take the mini-dramas that unfold in the mind as being real, and indeed we respond to them as if they were real. When we recall someone saying something cruel to us we feel hurt in much the same way we would if they were here, now, speaking those words.

It’s absurd, really, that we do this — that we keep running through painful scenarios in the filmhouse of the mind. We watch the same movies over and over again, experiencing the same pain over and over again. It’s a form of self-torture.

In fact we often embellish the hurt, imagining whole scenes that never actually happened or imagining that we know the thoughts and motives of another person, as if we were omniscient. Sometimes we even invent scenes that might take place in the future, rehearsing for conflict. These imagined arguments and conflicts may never happen — the future is always uncertain — but we manage to feel the pain of them right now. Self-torture.

I sometimes find myself replaying clashes from the past. Sometimes I think I’m doing it to try to convince myself that I was in the right: “Look how awful he is. Hear the terrible things he says. I’m the injured party. I deserve sympathy.” But when I notice that I’ve slipped into one of these resentment-fests I often try to break out of it by thinking “Who’s arguing with whom?”

It’s obvious when I think about it that I’m arguing with myself. The figure in my imagination who looks like that Fred isn’t really him. It’s not a real person. It’s just neurons firing in my brain, creating a virtual reality representation of Fred (that weasel!) through which I can talk to myself. I create a virtual representation of Fred (the louse!) from one set of neurons and one of myself from another set, and the two parts of my brain have a battle with each other. Isn’t it crazy! And yet we do this all the time.

And it’s so hard to let go of our resentments sometimes. We can keep noticing resentful thoughts arising and try to let go of them and we can keep doing this literally for years and the thoughts will still keep emerging.

Ann Landers’ quote (Esther Lederer was her real name) is a good reminder about the ways in which, through resentment, we give space in our minds to people we have conflicts with. Although of course it’s not really them we’re renting space to.

As well as stopping myself short by reminding myself that both parties in these resentments are myself, I’ve found that I need to have empathy for myself. That, ultimately, is what I think I’m looking for in harboring these resentments. I want sympathy. The drama I’m imagining in my mind is played out for an audience. So who’s the audience? It’s me. But it’s not the same me who’s involved in the argument. That me, remember, is a virtual reality version of myself, conjured up to play a part in a struggle with the virtual Fred (that no-good hound!). No, I think who I’m looking for sympathy for, ultimately, is my real self. And it’s because I’m not giving myself empathy that I have to play the fantasy over and over again.

So why am I not giving myself empathy? Generally it’s because I’m too busy identifying with the virtual-reality me who’s busy fighting with Fred (the snake!). I’m too busy taking his part, thinking I’m being attacked by someone else, to realize that both actors in the drama are parts of me.

So what does it mean to give myself empathy? It means that rather than taking the part of the virtual me against the virtual Fred (the bounder!) I need to realize that I am in pain. The whole drama is unfolding because I, for some reason, am in pain. This isn’t the virtual me I’m talking about, but the real me. So I need to empathize with my pain.

First I need to acknowledge the pain and accept that it’s there. That’s often hard to do because we can feel a sense of shame around feeling pain, as if it’s a sign of failure or weakness.

Next I need to accept the pain. Pain is not something “bad” that has to be banished from our experience. Pain is unpleasant, but it’s simply another experience. So we need to allow pain to be there.

Next I need to send metta (lovingkindness) to the pain. I have to love my pain. Loving my pain doesn’t mean that I want more or it. It’s not a masochistic act to love your pain. Rather, it means relating to the part of ourselves that is in pain, not blaming ourselves and not seeing the pain as something to be gotten rid of, but simply offering the hurting part of ourselves our compassion. Sometimes this is wordless, and other times I use phrases from the Metta Bhavana (lovingkindness) meditation practice: “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.”

I find that in doing this I’m addressing the underlying sense of hurt that gives rise to the recurrent resentment. When I wish my pain well in this way I find that there’s a sense of reconciliation and even of relief, because I’ve finally realized exactly what it was I was looking for. When instead of simply appealing for sympathy we actually give it to ourselves we start to become healed. We’ve begun to address the underlying cause of our inner dramas and we realize that we no longer have such a need to rent out space in our head to conflicts.

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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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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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