Meditation Can Shift the Brain

How to increase empathy and compassion.

Posted Apr 17, 2019

We dream that our children will be improved versions of ourselves—smarter, more athletic, more attractive, more successful. We often go to great lengths to make this happen. Parents can become desperate around college placement, as we have seen in the college admissions scandal. Rather than just one destination in a child’s lifetime journey, parents mistakenly believe that college selection determines destiny. In my decades of clinical practice, I’ve watched people with limited means use precious savings to pay for exam tutors and college consultants to provide their children with every advantage, only to become bitter and enraged if their investment makes a minimal difference. Parents become so caught up in their fears and worries that they lose perspective as well as their moral compass. “Opportunity hoarding” is one example of this anxiety on steroids.

There is a story that when Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist, came to America in the 1960s to lecture on his ideas about the stages of child development, someone would inevitably ask, “How can we speed these stages up?” The question became so ubiquitous that he came to call it “the American question.”

His response to this desire for things to be bigger, better and faster embodied some Zen wisdom: “Why would you want to do that?” He didn’t see any virtue in pushing kids ahead of their limits, feeling that it wasn’t healthy. The question is still relevant: At what cost are we pushing them? Piaget trusted that children would find their way in their own time. He emphasized the importance of mutual respect and cooperation in child development and socialization.

What is particularly troubling about recent events is not just that we drive our kids toward unrealistic goals, but that some so readily ignore others in the desire for their own children to get ahead. How can we develop empathy and a commitment to the common good?

Robert Thurman, who is a professor of Buddhism at Columbia University (and yes, the actress Uma Thurman’s dad), tells a story about what living compassionately might look like. “Imagine you’re on the New York City subway,” he says, “and these extraterrestrials come and zap the subway car so that all of you in it are going to be together…forever.” How do we respond? If we’re going to be together, we need to find a way to get along. If someone is hungry, we feed them. If someone is having a panic attack, we help them. Whether we like it or not, our lives are connected. Living on planet earth is a lot like being on the zapped subway car: We’re all in it together.

Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg teaches the practice of metta, or lovingkindness, helping us realize that our lives are linked and that in fact, the happiness of others doesn’t take away from us. Research shows that lovingkindness meditation can actually change the brain, making us more empathic. It dispels the notion of an us and a them.

All human beings want to be happy. We are all vulnerable to change and loss. We are all in this together. And, when people are acting in unskillful or selfish ways, we can recognize that they’re suffering as well.

This is a streamlined version of the lovingkindness practice. A good place to start is by looking for the good in yourself. Begin the meditation by offering kindness to yourself by saying silently, May I be Safe, May I be Happy, May I be Healthy, May I live with Ease. Don’t worry if your mind wanders, just return to the phrases. Looking for the good in ourselves helps us see the good in others.

Then think of someone who has helped you, a person who has been kind to you or has inspired you. Get an image of that person, or say her name to yourself, and wish her what you’ve wished for yourself. May you be Safe, May you be Happy, May you be Healthy, May you live with Ease.

Don’t worry if it feels strange or awkward, these phrases are the way to connect with others.

Now think of someone who is hurting or having a difficult time. Get an image of him, say his name, and offer to phrases to him, May you be Safe, May you be Happy, May you be Happy, May you live with Ease. Often we get in the habit of ignoring the humanity of others. With this practice we can experiment with being open and aware, taking an interest in others.

Finally, offer your well-wishes to all living beings everywhere, May all beings be Safe, May all beings be Happy, May all beings be Healthy, May all beings live with Ease. This is a practice you can do sitting, with eyes either open or closed, standing, or walking. You can do it in the playground, at a PTA meeting, or in rush hour traffic (eyes open please).

Salzberg writes that this meditation has the power to change our story and our perception of the world, moving from a view that it is a “dog eat dog world” to one where we are all vulnerable, all suffering, and all wanting connection and happiness. We can move from a sense of fear and isolation to an appreciation of our connection and our innate kindness. It is a profound way to remember that we all matter.

References

Salzberg, S. (2011). Real Happiness. NY: Workman Press.