New research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison finds that we can acquire a greater capacity for compassion through meditation training, in much the same way as athletes or musicians train to improve their skill.
We’re in the midst of a revolution in brain science. The long-held dogma that brain connections are unchangeable after age five, is being usurped with findings that the brain is more plastic than we thought.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a study in PLoS One this week, showing that our capacity for empathy can be learned and mastered – as one might learn to play soccer or piano. The skill here comes from meditation.
They studied the fMRI scans of 32 subjects, half were trained meditators including the Olympians of meditation, the Tibetan monks. The others were age-matched novices.
In the brain scanner, all were subjected to emotional sounds (like a baby laughing or woman screaming.)
They found that the insula (the area of the brain responsible for physical feelings of compassion) was highly active in the experts. And the right temporal-parietal juncture (an area connected to understanding anothers’ emotional state) was also much more active in experts than in the novices.
It may not be proof that we can turn a schoolyard bully into Ghandi, but it shows meditative training has a significant impact.
I can’t help but notice the enormous energy most people expand to avoid suffering in their own lives and the life of those they cherish. Nevertheless it looks to me as if this very avoidance brings much more suffering.
Not only the Buddha promises – he does so categorically if I’m not mistaken – that there is an end to suffering but similar promises are made by mystics, spiritual masters, enlightened beings etc., and these promises are behind much of psychology and advertising as well. On the other hand I know from studying my own life and that of others that we cannot avoid suffering and that it is part of the depth of being human.
I’m not a masochist that enjoys suffering. Nevertheless, the further I go on my path in this life the more I see that all feelings and emotions are enhanced. And suffering is one of these feelings.
No, suffering doesn’t diminish once one has embarked on the spiritual path. Rather it becomes more and more subtle! I don’t suffer from the romantic ‘nonsense’ that Hollywood sells as a fulfilling relationship (or lack thereof) anymore – love is quite beyond romanticism – rather I keep discovering deeper and more subtle ‘cramps’ inside me (disregarding the environment and the suffering I see there and sometimes resonate with; a suffering that also is more and more clear and perceptible).
Yet, with the ability to give all this suffering space in me more and more I see the transfiguration of this suffering into what I would call ‘human depth.’ I don’t, of course, when I accept suffering “strategically” (accepting it so that it will change). Suffering, difficulty, problems – to accept these is not very hard if one sees clearly that sufferings do not disappear by not wanting to perceive/have them. And it doesn’t disappear by applying the label “illusion” either. And why would it? It’s part of being embodied and alive.
Suffering is real, just as joy is. If we do understand this and live it, then the suffering loses it’s sting…