The first week of The Compassionate Brain series focused on the link between compassion and neuroplasticity of the brain. First let us start with some definitions:
Neuroplasticity: The brain’s ability to change due to environmental changes or training. These changes can be both structural and functional. All events in our lives affect the neuroplasticity of the brain. Just reading this post is changing the neuroplasticity of your brain.
Compassion: A recognition of another’s suffering and a desire to end that suffering.
This episode focused on the research work of Dr. Richard Davidson where he used functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to study the minds of Buddhist practitioners while they were meditating. The study involved experienced practitioners, those who have had at least 10,000 hours of practice at the art of compassionate meditation, and novice practitioners, who have only had seven hours of practice over a two week period, with a control group of individuals who have never practiced compassionate meditation.
The results showed that adopting a stance of compassion led to a cascade of changes within the brain. Experienced practitioners radiate compassion and even novice practitioners begin to behave more altruistically over a two week period.
Focusing on another’s well-being is more beneficial to self well-being than focusing on one’s own well-being. This is a profound statement, in my opinion. If I focus on the well-being of others, using compassion, then it will help me more than focusing on myself?
This may sound all well and good, but how am I supposed to focus on someone else’s happiness when I’m a mess? Begin practicing in a simple way for a short amount of time. As little as 8 minutes can cause measurable behavioral changes. If you have trouble focusing, direct your thoughts to some one you love or care about. Can’t think of someone? You can do this for yourself or even a pet. Just focus on someone, anyone, friend or foe. (You may want to start with friend and work your way up to foe.)
OK, but what about someone who is mean to me? How do I muster compassion against mean people? Start by realizing that they are suffering and not seeing the world clearly. They don’t really want to behave like this but they don’t know any better. Understanding their suffering generates compassion, allowing us to challenge the behavior but not the individual.
It’s not easy to change your behavior. You need to train yourself to develop concern for another and break out of the “me” mode. Reframe the issue. You can make changes in your local environment, even if it’s a hostile environment. Practice compassion. Tell people you care about them. You’ll feel better for it.
Studies have shown that meditation is a complete mind-body practice. If you want to learn how to perform Buddhist compassion meditation, there are many references to be found online.
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