Well, sure: the holiday season is, ironically, a time of stress. But we know there are high levels of anxiety that have preceded this supposedly joyous time and will surely follow us into the New Year/decade.
I don’t have to itemize the list: it’s as close as your newspaper or electronic device. All sorts of problems and calamities—natural and manmade—have been occurring just about everywhere.
We can’t change the world, but we do have some control over how we view the world and our place in it. And if enough of us exercise that control, we can make a difference.
How Can We Do That?
By learning from the fortunate fusion of Buddhist practice—validated and adapted by Western scientists. Science writer Daniel Goleman, who was interviewed in an article titled “Can Compassion Change the World?,” collaborated with the Dalai Lama on a book called A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World.
Long a collaborator with scientists, the Dalai Lama set forth his views on how to improve the world with the help of science. When the interviewer asked Goleman why compassion is so important, he said the Dalai Lama wasn’t speaking from “a Buddhist perspective; he’s actually speaking from a scientific perspective. He’s using scientific evidence…which shows that people have the ability to cultivate compassion.” [emphases mine throughout]
“This research is very encouraging, because scientists are not only using brain imagery to identify the specific brain circuitry that controls compassion, but also showing that the circuitry becomes strengthened, and people become more altruistic and willing to help out other people, if they learn to cultivate compassion—for example, by doing traditional meditation practices of lovingkindness. This is so encouraging, because it’s a fundamental imperative that we need compassion as our moral rudder.”
Goleman speaks of “muscular compassion,” and he explained that the term is necessary to demonstrate that
“compassion is not just some Sunday school niceness; it’s important for taking social issues—things like corruption and collusion in business and government, and throughout the public sphere…for looking at economics, to see if there is a way to make it more caring and not just about greed, or to create economic policies that decrease the gap between the rich and the poor. These are moral issues that require compassion.”
The Buddhist term for practicing compassion is Metta—and mindfulness meditators call it lovingkindness meditation. Sometimes lovingkindness appears as one word; sometimes two; sometimes it’s hyphenated. In the scientific literature, it’s abbreviated as LKM. My personal preference is lovingkindness, so for consistency, that’s what I’m using throughout this post.
A Quick Look at Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation per se, scientific studies have found, regulates attention to create a calm mind, and varied areas of the brain have been identified as showing changes (including increases in gray matter) among those who are regular practitioners—experts—as compared to novices.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who coined the term mindfulness and developed an eight-week course on Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction that is widely used, defines it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Practitioners, of whom I’m one, use a focus on the breath to calm the mind. Sometimes people get discouraged meditating and give up too soon because their minds wander, but expert meditators will tell you that every time the mind wanders, you’re becoming aware that it’s happening, and that’s a good thing. You simply return to breathing in and out.
There are many techniques to help you stay on track. That’s a quick look at a complex process that has been scientifically validated to reap benefits as you explore your internal self–mind and body–and your place in the world.
And Now, Lovingkindness…
Lovingkindness is an associated practice to mindfulness. Specific studies have also shown that practicing lovingkindness reduces stress, helps those in the helping professions prevent burnout, aids veterans with PTSD, and possibly even extends life.
One study found that the telomeres—the ends of the chromosomes that prevent deterioration and whose length is associated with longevity—were longer in women who routinely practiced lovingkindness than in those who didn’t.
The Goleman article led me to the work of Tania Singer, formerly the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science in Germany. (There’s an irony here that I’ll detail shortly.) Her professional life has been devoted to studying empathy and compassion.
I learned from her that the empathy I’ve always valued isn’t always such a good thing. Empathy, the ability to feel another’s pain, is clearly important for interacting with other humans.
But it can have a stressful side—empathic distress—that leads to potential burnout and a lessened desire/ability to help. The high rates of physician burnout and suicides are examples.
Compassion, on the other hand, doesn’t involve sharing another’s suffering, Singer has observed.
“Rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s wellbeing. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”
In fact, Singer and her group have found that the apparently similar traits of empathy and compassion involve different, and not overlapping, structures in the brain.
What’s more, because of the brain’s neuroplasticity (ability to change based on training), compassion training can lead to positive results.
“Compassion may, therefore, represent a very potent strategy for preventing burnout. In light of high prevalence rates of burnout and stress-related diseases in Western societies, we anticipate that the present findings will inform other intervention studies on the plasticity of adaptive social emotions….[and] hopefully help to design new training programs aimed at increasing resilience and coping strategies in many domains, including health care, educational settings, and high stress environments in general.”
I watched two videos of Singer, a prominent neuroscientist. describing her work, which includes programs with economists to try to draw up models that more closely adhere to the compassion that Goleman described. She was a compelling and delightful speaker.
However, In 2018, this woman whose life’s work has focused on empathy and compassion resigned as director of the Max Planck Institute after eight colleagues accused her of bullying them and some said she’d reduced them to tears.
Alas! She practiceth not what she preacheth! Hard to fathom, but her poor behavior doesn’t detract from the validity of her research findings.
And it certainly doesn’t seem indicative of what I’ve heard and read about leaders in the field of lovingkindness.
I consider Sharon Salzburg, one of the most respected and beloved teachers and authors on the topic, a personal guru on the journey into lovingkindness that I’ve been taking for a couple of years now.
I believe she’s a reliable guide into how the practice can help us all, physically and mentally, improve our relationships—and even help us enrich the lives of strangers.
Want to Try It?
Though Singer’s neuroscientific experiments took practitioners nine months, it doesn’t take that long to get the hang of it. For those who’d like to try it, here’s what you do.
Briefly, lovingkindness consists of repeating some simple phrases, silently, expressing good wishes. You can say whatever you choose, but Salzburg suggests some variation of “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease.”
Because so many of us are our most severe critics, traditionally, we begin by offering these unconditional good wishes to ourselves: “May I be happy, healthy, live with ease.”
We then draw an ever widening circle, extending these sentiments to those we love, to friends and acquaintances, to problematic people whom we wish we could more readily accept, to strangers, and finally, to the entire world.
And the practice of lovingkindness is portable: traditionally, you sit on a cushion, but you can just as easily be walking on a crowded street.
Jack Kornfield, another leading educator, has written that some people find it difficult to begin with themselves:
“We may feel that we are unworthy, or that it’s egotistical, or that we shouldn’t be happy when other people are suffering.”
If that’s how you feel, Kornfield says,
“Rather than start lovingkindness practice with ourselves, I find it more helpful to start with those we most naturally love and care about.” [Start where it’s easiest, he suggests.] “We open our heart in the most natural way, then direct our lovingkindness little by little to the areas where it’s more difficult.”
If you choose that sequence, you might then circle back to yourself after that. Or move on to people whom you find difficult. Eventually, you open your heart to strangers and to all living beings.
How can this approach affect our everyday behavior? Salzburg has a short series of videos depicting various scenarios. In “Street Lovingkindness,” she hones in on Grand Central Station in New York City, a hectic place, during Rush Hour.
But, says Salzburg, “Don’t rush. Take in the world. Look at the people,” and silently send your good wishes to strangers, possibly adding “May you be joyful, peaceful, contented.”
She has also noted: If you’re stuck in traffic because an emergency vehicle is snaking through, you might say to yourself “I hope whoever needs that vehicle is OK.”
Standing in line, she acknowledges, can be frustrating. You want to move faster, to get somewhere. Instead of fuming,
“take a breath, savor the moment. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice those in front and behind you. Fully acknowledge each person [mentally]: ‘May you be joyful, peaceful, contented.’ Just as we seek happiness for ourselves, may all beings be at peace.”
Suppose you’re sitting in your car, in a traffic jam.
“It’s stop-and-go, you’re making no progress. You’re frustrated, annoyed, stressed out, tired of being stuck. Pause, take a breath, feel your body being seated, your hands on the wheel. Look at the others, all moving together. ‘May we be safe, healthy, happy, be at ease.’”
Salzburg speaks of compassion to self as being restorative, rather than allowing ourselves to be overcome by events. She explores our thought processes: “I’m a terrible person.”
How is my holding onto negative thoughts healing me?, she asks. Detaching and running doesn’t work.
We can’t automatically make our pain—physical or emotional—go away, but holding on to our fear and projecting into the future adds to our suffering.
(There’s an oft-repeated phrase among mindfulness folks: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”)
Compassion, she says, is a unifying experience. It sparks the impulse to help someone else: we’re all vulnerable in some way.
“When a person says, ‘I’m overwhelmed,’ having a sense of community is a tremendous asset. Doing it all alone is hard. That’s the context for this practice.”
If you’d like to listen to a delightful interview with Salzburg, click on this link. Sarah Jones is a gifted actor who creates believable, very diverse characters with her voice and motions. She interviewed her friend Salzburg, asking questions as several different personae.
It’s great fun to listen to. In something many of us can relate to, one of the points she made was “Most days I can barely stand to read the news. But when I do lovingkindness, there’s a shift.”
Salzburg stresses that practicing lovingkindness doesn’t always mean saying “yes.” If you see a street person asking for money,
“whether or not you feel giving the cash would be useful is one thing, but whether you look at that person as a human being is another.”
It’s not new that we feel good about ourselves when we show kindness to others. But it’s something to relearn. In the supermarket where I shop, a tall, thin man is responsible for herding all the shopping carts.
I assume his job is simply to bring order to the carts that shoppers leave wherever they choose (usually not where the sign says “Return carts here”).
But he goes well beyond that job description. He is unfailingly gracious, smiling pleasantly and offering everyone a cart who approaches the store, or relieving us of the need to return them to the intended area.
Last week, as I was walking to my car, I had a sudden impulse. I turned around and walked toward him. He thought I needed a cart and was about to give me one. “I’m done shopping,” I said. “But you’re so good at your work, and so gracious and helpful, that I wanted to give you this.”
I won’t miss the money, and I’ll long remember the look on his face as he thanked me profusely and blessed me. It was a small act in the scheme of things, but it made both of us feel pretty darn good.
Salzburg has heard it all, and she says there’s a common idea that lovingkindness is stupid, or gooey, or yucky. I like Daniel Goleman’s term: Muscular compassion. And that should lead to action, Goleman said:
“The Dalai Lama often talks to people with great aspirations, and, after he’s gotten them all roused up, he says, ‘Don’t just talk about it, do something.’ That’s part of the message in my book: Everyone has something they can do. Whatever means you have to make the world a better place, you need to do it. Even if we won’t see the fruits of this in our lifetime, start now.”
My Wish for Each of You–and for Us All
As the new decade dawns, I repeat, as I did at the end of 2018, the words I’ve learned from Jack Kornfield and other mindful meditators:
May you be filled with lovingkindness;
May you be safe and protected;
May you be well in body and mind;
Strong and healed;
May you be happy.
And may 2020 find us in a country and world of greater unity, peace, greenness, and kindness. We can make small gestures to move us in that direction.