Can We Train Ourselves to Be More Compassionate?
Some believe that compassion is an innate quality that not all of us possess, but studies suggest that it is in fact a learned behavior and one that could be harnessed to create a kinder and more empathetic world.
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison say that through compassionate meditation, positive emotions such as loving-kindness can be learned in the same way as playing an instrument or becoming proficient in sport.
The study, which was carried out by Richard Davidson and his team of investigators at UW-Madison, was the first of its kind to utilize functional magnetic resonance imaging (an MRI technology that measures brain activity) to identify how exactly the brain systems that are directly involved with empathy are affected when practicing a voluntary generation of compassion.
After working with a group of 16 Tibetan monks who were well versed in the art of compassion-based meditation, the researchers took 16 age-matched participants with no previous training and taught them the fundamentals in two weeks by asking them to first focus on their loved ones wishing them well-being and freedom from suffering, and then to generate the same feelings without thinking of anyone in particular.
All 32 subjects were placed in the fMRI scanner and exposed to a series of negative and positive vocalizations. The scans revealed that the long term meditators experienced significant brain activity in the insula, the part of the brain that deals with bodily representations of emotions, as well as the area that processes empathy by perceiving the mental and emotional state of others, supporting Davidson’s beliefs that “people are not just stuck at their respective points” and that we can train ourselves to be kinder and more compassionate.
Other studies examining the same issue also point to yes, further demonstrating that we can become more caring if we actively practice a compassionate mindset.
A More Harmonious World
This isn’t the first we’ve heard about the effects of meditation on promoting virtuous behavior — Buddhists have long believed it could lead us to greater love for all sentient beings — but up until now we’ve never had any scientific proof.
So what impact could this have on the general population?
From children that engage in bullying to adults that are prone to depression, cultivated compassion can help us to regulate our own individual thoughts and emotions, along with helping us to think about not just our own suffering but the suffering of others, directing our society as a whole down a much more harmonious and all encompassing loving path.
It may sound unbelievable, but choosing not to be kind is actually a far too common every day experience that many of us do without even realizing it. Whether we walk pass the homeless man declining to part with our money, either because we want to save it or we are too afraid to engage with him, or we change the channel to avoid hearing the latest news story about the cruelty animals endure to end up on our plates, we’ve become experts at suppressing compassion, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
The world could certainly use more kindness and maybe meditation is the key?