We have all known people in our lives who exude compassion and empathy. They are around when we are going through a rough patch offering words of support and encouragement and backing those words with action. Acting with compassion and empathy is an intrinsic part of who they are.
History of full of examples of people who made the practice of compassion a way of life.
It’s a tempting thought to assume that the empaths are born this way.
However, strides in neuroscience present an entirely contradictory point of view.
Neuroscientists are of the opinion that the art of compassion is a skill akin to learning how to strum a guitar rather than something you are predisposed towards. And like any other skill, it can be honed through practice.
Researchers from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconson-Madison’s Waisman Center found that engaging in compassion meditation — where you practice feeling compassion for different groups of people, including yourself — seemed to increase a sense of altruism.
They found that just two weeks of compassion training changed the brain of subjects, activating brain regions associated with empathy and understanding.
This led researchers to conclude that compassion is a muscle and all it takes is a little training to develop it.
According the study researcher Helen Wang who was a part of the compassion experiement says,
Using a systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.
The Question is – How does one build the compassion muscle?
Researchers have found that when people who are psychopathic imagine people in suffering, the regions of the brain that trigger compassion and altruism remain inactive and do not connect with other important neural regions that help in compassionate decision making.
However, the brain’s ability to re-organize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life means that these tendencies are not fixed. Neural Circuitry is malleable and the brain can be rewired. Neuroplasticity means that compassion can be honed through practice.
So where do we start?
How about with the simple act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes!
Very often, our first response to an experience that is not aligned with our own thought process or is no longer a part of our experiential process is to judge the actions of people with scorn.
So the next time you see yourself passing judgement on someone, take a deep breath and imagine you are that person. Think of the circumstance that could’ve led this person to do what he or she did. Try to understand where he or she is coming from. This practice reinforces the neural networks that allow us to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ and ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’
This is not easy to do by any measure. It often takes decades of training the mind to reach a point of feeling aligned to the circumstance of someone who has done you wrong. However, through the daily choices of mindset and behaviour, the brain can be rewired to affect positive changes.
Mindfulness training using the Loving-Kindness method (LKM) is a tool that researchers are using actively to elevate empathetic response in people. LKM consists of a few simple steps of sending positive, loving thoughts to family and Friends, people who are going through periods of suffering and sending thoughts of self compassion and self love to yourself. Doing LKM practice literally rewires your brain by engaging neural connections linked to empathy. You can literally feel the shift in your brain and a more empathetically charged response to situations.
Many people use the technique of putting themselves in disagreeable situations over prolonged periods of time as method of heightening compassionate thinking. Interestingly, many people who’ve endured long periods of illness or traumatic experiences claim that these experiences made them more aware of the suffering of people and in turn more compassionate toward the pain of others.
Lastly, many studies have shown that doing good deeds is good for your health and activates the brain for compassion and empathy.
Gurudev, our spiritual guide and mentor and the inspiration behind the Hingori Sutras, spoke of making Seva or Selfless Service a way of life. He continuously reiterated the benefits of thinking beyond yourself in spiritual practice and everyday life and spoke of its far reaching benefits.
“The best way to activate positive-emotion circuits in the brain is through generosity,” Davidson, who founded the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at University of Wisconsin, Madison, said in a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “This is really a kind of exciting neuroscientific finding because there are pearls of wisdom in the contemplative tradition—that the best way for us to be happy is to be generous to others. And in fact the scientific evidence is in many ways bearing this out, and showing that there are systematic changes in the brain that are associated with acts of generosity.”
Dedicating some time each week to some type of charity work creates a win-win by reinforcing the empathetic wiring of your brain while making a contribution to reduce the suffering of someone less fortunate.
As part of a collaborative experiment with the Dalai Lama, Davidson’s team ran a simple experiment on eight “long-term Buddhist practitioners” whose had spent an average of 34,000 hours in mental training. They observed how the brains of the practitioners changed between a meditative state and a neutral state and made a remarkable discovery. The researchers noticed that the region known as the anterior insula was activated in the brain of the monks. The anterior insula is where a lot of brain-body coordination takes place.
“The systems in the brain that support our well-being are intimately connected to different organ systems in our body, and also connected to the immune and endocrine systems in ways that matter for our health,” he said. The brain scans showed that “compassion is a kind of state that involves the body in a major way.”
In another study, Davidson and his collaborators found that meditation improved immune response to an influenza vaccine—and the subjects were not “professional” Buddhist meditators, but people who had gone through an eight-week training program in mindfulness meditation. And a short “compassion training” course, Davidson and colleagues found in a 2013 study, exhibited more altruistic behavior compared with a control group.
Despite continuing research, it’s still not not entirely clear how compassion alters the brain to promote better health or better behavior. Gamma waves and lit up insula can only tell you so much about the linkages between the mind and the body, and, in turn, about what it really takes to think your way to a better character.
What the research does prove irrevocably is that the practice of compassion will lead self transformation, better health and in turn an infinitely better world.