"If one practices the skills of well-being, one will get better at it."
~ Dr. Richard Davidson
We are subjected to distressing images through our media—bombarded. So we enter into a state of moral distress and futility. We see that something else needs to happen. Children need to be protected, we have to stop rape and violence toward women in the Congo, and we feel this profound moral conflict. And yet we can't do anything about it and we enter into a state either of moral outrage or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just, you know, don't want to deal with it or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness or freeze. I think a good part of the globe is going numb.
I think what we're seeing is not actually compassion fatigue, but empathic distress where there's a resonance, but we're not able to stabilize ourselves when we're exposed to this kind of suffering. When we are more stabilized then we can face the world with more buoyancy, we have more resilience. You know, we've got more capacity to actually address these very profound social and environmental issues. So that's why I call these things edge states because they really call us to our edge... A near enemy to compassion is sorrow and that's that sorrow, that's me getting wrecked by the picture of the child in the newspaper so that I can't actually help them.
The theme of compassion has been important in Western culture and it certainly is important in Eastern culture, but it's a kind of fuzzy word. Antoine Lutz and Richie Davidson and others have been finding that certain areas of the brain light up when people are in states of compassion, and that they feel amore acutely the experience of another's suffering, but also they let go of it much more quickly.
One of the features that the neuroscientists have discovered is an area of the brain that's associated with the capacity to actually distinguish self from other. In other words, if there's such great resonance when you're in the presence of suffering with the other, you go into empathic or over-arousal. If I'm sitting with a prisoner on death row or I'm sitting with a person suffering from intractable pain, I can feel this resonance. I can sense into their suffering, but I also have simultaneously this insight—it's that person suffering and this is me. I'm not experiencing it in reality. It's true, but it's not...
From my point of view, the experience of grief is profoundly humanizing and we need to create conditions where we are supported to grieve and where we're not told, "Why don't you just get over it?" "Or, "It's time" or such as that. We in our lives experience one loss after another, and it can be loss of a breast, loss of a loved one, a child going into adulthood, which is a way of loss for many parents, loss of identity, loss of capacity.
My own experience of aging is that there are capacities I had ten years ago that I no longer have, and I have to reflect upon those losses. And, of course, the loss that all of us will face in anticipation of death. It is something that brings great depth and meaning into our lives and also helps us to articulate internally our priorities. What is really important for us? So for me as a human being and not identified as a Buddhist or a woman or a Western person, but as a simple human being, I value the experience of grief.
See also: Davidson, R. J., & Begley, S. (2012). The emotional life of your brain: How its unique patterns affect the way you think, feel, and live--and how you can change them. New York: Hudson Street Press. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/726817983
The Dalai Lama has frequently urged us to be kind toward others and has suggested that kindness is a direct route to happiness. Modern research has borne this out and indicates that kindness and compassion toward others is associated with peripheral biological (i.e., biology below the neck) changes that are salubrious.
Equanimity can be cultivated through simple contemplative practices and is associated with being attentive to the present moment and not getting lost in worrying about the future and ruminating about the past.
Modern research indicates that the average adult American spends nearly 50% of his waking life mind wandering—not paying attention to what he is actually doing. By learning to remain aware of the present moment, we can free ourselves from being slaves to the past and future. This in and of itself can powerfully facilitate well-being and reduce suffering.
Excerpt from "Tired of Feeling Bad? The New Science of Feelings Can Help," by Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley, Newsweek, February 20, 2012:
When it comes to your Emotional Style, we know that changes to the neural structure of the brain are possible. We don’t know exactly how much plasticity the brain has, but we do know that some neurally inspired interventions—forms of mental training that target patterns of brain activity—can work. Mental activity, ranging from meditation to cognitive-behavior therapy, can help you develop a broader awareness of social signals, a deeper sensitivity to your own feelings and bodily sensations, a more consistently positive outlook, and a greater capacity for Resilience. Do you feel yourself to be too negative in outlook? Pay heightened attention to the ways in which you can be more generous and upbeat, through processes therapists call “well-being therapy.” Are you very Self-Aware, so much so that your internal chatter threatens to take over your day-to-day life? Practice observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations nonjudgmentally moment by moment.
This practice, known as “mindfulness meditation,” is one of the most effective tools for changing our Emotional Style. In patients with depression—whom we call “Slow to Recover” on the Resilience scale—every disappointment and setback is shattering. These patients need to increase activity in the prefrontal cortex (especially on the left side), to strengthen the neuronal highways between it and the amygdala, or both. Mindfulness meditation cultivates greater Resilience and faster recovery from setbacks by weakening the chain of associations that keep us obsessing about and even wallowing in a setback. It strengthens connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, promoting an equanimity that will help keep you from spiraling down. As soon as your thoughts begin to leap from one catastrophe to the next in this chain of woe, you have the mental wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind does this, note that it is an interesting mental process, and resist getting drawn into the abyss.
If you look at the history of the behavioral sciences and the intersection of behavioral sciences with biology, the 1960s was the heyday of behaviorism, when the environment was actually emphasized as being the primary cause of our behavior and there was no attention to the mind, no attention to biology, and the pendulum was very far to the extreme of considering what is inside the head to be really irrelevant, and we begin as a tabula rasa, an empty slate, and the environment through conventional mechanisms of learning determines who we are.
And then, in many ways, I think the pendulum swung in the opposite extreme for quite some time, where everything was attributed to our genes. And there were voices among public intellectuals who were pulling into question any programs, for example, like Head Start and other programs to help disadvantaged individuals because the claim was that it's all in our genes anyway and there's nothing much we can do about it. That's a bit of a caricature, but, you know, I think it really does contain the kernel of truth in some of those statements.
And I think that what modern neuroscience is teaching us is that, in fact, there is a lot of plasticity, that change is indeed possible, and the evidence is more and more strongly in favor of the importance of environmental influences in shaping brain function and structure and even shaping the expression of our genes. So it's not that genes are unimportant. It's just that they're much more dynamic than we previously understood.
The work with long-term practitioners that we've done, as well as we're continuing to do, is important because it sort of defines the further reaches of human plasticity and transformation...when we study these experts, we see things in their brain that have not been reported before in human brains.
There is a brain rhythm that is called gamma oscillations, and gamma oscillations are recorded through the electrical activity of the brain. When you observe gamma oscillations in a normal conventional person who has not gone through this kind of training, you see the oscillations for very short periods of time, typically one second or less. What we observed in the long-term practitioners during certain kinds of meditation, particularly meditation on compassion, was that these gamma oscillations persisted for a much longer period of time than has ever been reported. They persisted for minutes continuously at very high amplitude. This was just something that had not been observed before.
We know a little bit about what the phenomenal logical correlates are in these long-term practitioners, and the clearest is a quality of clarity of their perception. They are very good at providing granular accounts of their experience because they spend a lot of time interrogating their own minds. And actually, the word meditation in Sanskrit, one of its meanings, comes from the word familiarization. We can think of these individuals as being just utterly familiar in a very deep way with their own mind, and that familiarization allows them to provide very granular reports. When they give those reports, it turns out that they could scale the extent to which their experience has this quality of clarity, and that quality of clarity turns out to be very highly correlated with the presence of these gamma oscillations. The more clarity, the more gamma.
There are literally hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices. And so often in the West, we have this idea that meditation is one thing and that every kind of meditation will produce the same kinds of effects, and that's just simply not true. The contemplative traditions from which we draw have literally hundreds of different kinds of practices and they are designed for different kinds of people or for a person in different situations. They are understood within their own traditions to produce different effects and, biologically and behaviorally in the laboratory, they produce different effects. And it's kind of the way I often talk about it lay audiences is that the word meditation is kind of like the word sports. There are many different kinds of sports that can be performed. Some are more active, some are less active, some are performed in groups, some not. The same is true of meditation.
I'd like to believe that some of the work that we do may have some implications or relevance for kind of on-the-ground, in-the-trenches psychotherapy or related strategies for behavior change in several ways. One is a kind of meta-level which helps a client or patient understand that, based upon everything we know about the brain in neuroscience, that change is not only possible, but change is actually the rule rather than the exception. It's really just a question of which influences we're going to choose for our brain. But our brain is wittingly or unwittingly being continuously shaped. Another thing is the idea of practice. The classical model of Western psychotherapy which is, you know, a client coming to a therapist for an hour a week for a 50-minute session without doing daily practice in between just flies in the face of everything we know about the brain and plasticity.
So if we want to make real change, that's not a good prescription for doing it. If we want to make real change, more systematic practice is necessary, in my view. This is something that comes directly from neuroscience. And I think that certain kinds of psychological therapies are now understanding that, so certain kinds of cognitive therapies, for example, do assign specific kinds of homework or practice for people to engage in on a daily basis. So I think there's growing recognition of that.
I think that most people still don't think of qualities like happiness as being a skill rather than it's typically conceptualized as a fixed trait and some people have more of it; some people have less of it. But if you think about it more as a skill, then it's something that can be enhanced through training. Fundamentally, I think that the kind of mental exercise that we're talking about is no different than physical exercise. People understand that they can't just do two weeks of physical exercise and then expect the benefits to remain for the rest of their lives. And the same thing with mental exercise.
...and I think that that's a very different conception of happiness, one that is a more enduring and I think more genuine in the sense that it's a kind of happiness that is not dependent on external circumstances.
Excerpts from Roundtable: Meeting of the Minds, Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2005:
Richard Davidson: Our initial work certainly indicates that meditation changes brain function. One of our hopes now is that a broader range of scientists will be inspired to examine the potential impact of contemplative practice on different behavioral domains. One of our goals is to launch studies that look at the impact of meditation on attention and the brain systems that support it.
We’ve been talking with experts who do experiments in which, for example, a person is required to focus on a specific object and ignore distractions. One question is whether training in meditation facilitates one’s capacity to do this, and, if it does, which parts of the brain are being affected.
There are well-developed procedures in cognitive psychology for exploring such questions. The classic one is the Stroop Test. In one version of this test, the word “green” might be printed on a card in red, and the subject’s task would be to name the color in which the word was printed (red), ignoring the meaning of the word (green). Classically, people are slower in responding when the color of a word is inconsistent with the name of the word than when the two are the same: when the word “green” is printed in green, people are able to say “green” faster than when they’re looking at the word “green” printed in red. What this requires is that we inhibit our automatic response and focus our attention on the instructions given by the experimenter.
B. Alan Wallace: Shamatha [a meditative practice of calming the mind] is specifically aimed at controlling attention. When the word pops up, if you’re able to control your attention, you can say to yourself, “I’m not going to see the whole word. I’m going to focus on the middle of the word and ask only one question: What is its color?” If you’re looking at the whole word, the meaning of the word will compete for your attention, and you’ll be slowed down.
Attention training has broad applications. It would be helpful in the fields of education, mental health, and athletics as well as increasing individual creativity and problem-solving skills. And attention practice is crucial for cultivating the profound virtues of the heart and mind—lovingkindness, compassion, bodhicitta [awakened mind], and the realization of emptiness.
If, when anger or another afflictive emotion arises, you can say to yourself, “Never mind the object of my anger and the context; isn’t this interesting?” and investigate your own emotional state instead of merely reacting, you can also cultivate greater emotional balance and mental health.”
“Now we mostly have monks and other religious figures preaching about these ideas [compassion training]. It's quite another thing to have a hard-nosed neuroscientist like me suggest that such training may have beneficial consequences for how we act toward others as well as promoting health. Most people accept the idea that regular physical exercise is something they should do for the remainder of their lives. Imagine how different things might be if we accepted the notion that the regular practice of mental exercises to strengthen compassion is something to incorporate into everyday life…I've been talking about happiness not as a trait but as a skill, like tennis. If you want to be a good tennis player, you can't just pick up a racket—you have to practice."
"The more you focus on something — whether that's math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain...What we need to do is study those moments where people feel that they're getting beyond their brain, and understanding what's happening in the brain from a scientific perspective, what's happening in the brain from their spiritual perspective..."
~ Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been scanning the brains of religious people for more than a decade.
"It's as if the present moment expands to fill all of eternity, that there has never been anything but this eternal now."
~ Michael Baime, a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Tibetan Buddhist who has meditated at least an hour a day for the past 40 years.
"You can sculpt your brain just as you'd sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym. Our brains are continuously being sculpted, whether you like it or not, wittingly or unwittingly."
~ Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin
[Thanks Connie! Thanks Pete!]
"We have no idea how much plasticity there really is in the human brain until we see what intense mental training, not some weekly meditation session, can accomplish. We've gotten this idea, in Western culture, that we can change our mental status by a once-a-week, forty-five minute intervention, which is completely cockamamy. Athletes and musicians train many hours every day. As a neuroscientist, I have to believe that engaging in compassion meditation every day for an hour each day would change your brain in important ways. To deny that without testing it, to accept the null hypothesis, is simply bad science."
"I believe that neuroplasticity will reshape psychology in the coming years. Much of psychology had accepted the idea of a fixed program unfolding in the brain, one that strongly shapes behavior, personality, and emotional states. That view is just shattered by the discoveries of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity will be the counterweight to the determanistic view (that genes have behavior on a short leash). The message I take from my own work is that I have a choice in how I react, that who I am depends on the choices I make, and that who I am is therefore my responsibility."