The impact of contemplative practices like meditation, which can rewire the brain, are finally bringing modern science up to speed with ancient wisdom. Mindfulness and compassion — the practices of cultivating a focused awareness on the present moment and extending a loving awareness to others are part of all wisdom traditions.
Compassion is a central component of what it means to be human, but we don’t necessarily know how it works in the brain or why we’re wired to be compassionate towards others. Recent findings in neuroscience and neurobiology teach us that we can change the brain through changing the mind. Studies have shown that mindful awareness increases the connectivity of separate areas of the brain. “The mind can actually get the brain to do something very specific to the brain — integration. A mindful brain is an integrated brain”, according to psychiatrist and mindfulness expert Dr. Daniel Siegel.
We can increase our capacity for compassion through integration. We can increase integration in the brain through mindfulness and compassion practices. By increasing integration we naturally become more mindful and compassionate.
Research has shown that mindfulness meditation stimulates the growth of integrative fibers in the brain. University of Wisconsin professor Richard Davidson’s studies on Tibetan Buddhist monks found that meditation on compassion can produce powerful changes in the brain. When the monks were asked to meditate on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion,” their brains generated powerful gamma waves that may have indicated a compassionate state of mind. The study is a powerful evidence that empathy can be cultivated by “exercising” the brain with lovingkindness meditation.
A Harvard and Northeastern University study has demonstrated that meditation can improve compassion and altruistic behavior. The researchers found that participants who had meditated were more likely than non-meditators to lend a helping hand to an actor with crutches who was pretending to be in pain.
Mindfulness and loving compassion are the techniques that integrate our mental systems. These are the research-proven traditions from thousands of years ago.
Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley writes: “It has long been assumed that selfishness, greed, and competitiveness lie at the core of human behavior, the products of our evolution. It takes little imagination to see how these assumptions have guided most realms of human affairs, from policy making to media portrayals of social life. But clearly, recent scientific findings challenge this view of human nature. We see that compassion is deeply rooted in our brains, our bodies and in the most basic ways we communicate. What’s more, a sense of compassion fosters compassionate behavior and helps shape the lessons we teach our children.
Can we visualize friends, enemies and neutral people as equally wanting happiness and not wanting suffering? The realization of such equality is the foundation for cultivating compassion which is the further wish that everyone be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.