Compassion in Action Matters

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Acts Motivated by Compassion are a Force for Good

Most of us are familiar with the Dalai Lama and his emphasis on spreading acts of compassion throughout the world. On the website, A Force for Good, His Holiness explains that “when we act with compassion, the seeds we plant today can change the course of our shared tomorrow.”  Those seeds, in the Buddhist faith, are called ‘Karma.’ Karma is the intention with which we act. When we act from a place of kindness and understanding, our actions will bear good fruit.  Some of these results we can experience immediately, such as when we offer a seat on the subway to someone and, as a result, feel good about ourselves.  An act such as this can also ripple out to influence others.  For example, when others see someone act in a kind way, they are likely to do so as well.  In this way, our actions can start what is referred to as a ‘virtous cycle,’ meaning that the initial act of kindness is perpetuated through others.

Actions, all actions, are preceded by thought.  This is why the Buddha emphasized the importance of knowing the mind.  Until we are aware of our own mind, and the thoughts running through it, we can’t do anything to change it.  But once we do gain a degree of mindfulness, it’s imperative to note our negative thoughts and avoid clinging to them.

young man staring into a candle

Everyone experiences sadness. The important thing is not to dwell in sadness.

Equally, or perhaps even more important, is to actually cultivate positive thoughts.  Looked at from a purely scientific perspective, we know that every thought causes neurochemical changes.  Some of these are temporary and some lasting.  For instance, when people consciously practice gratitude, they get a surge of rewarding neurotransmitters, called dopamine, and experience a general alerting and brightening of the mind.  The mind wants to experience this neurological ‘hit,’ readily responding to our every positive thought or action.  And, unlike with drugs or alcohol, the effects go in only one direction–positive.  So, by doing good in thought and deed, we not only affect those around us, but our mood, and even our brain chemistry, changes for the better.

girl feeding a squirrel in a park

You don’t have to feed the world. Start with feeding a squirrel. Just start!

The reverse is also true, so it is important that we watch our thoughts, and our motivation, often.  The Buddha said that, “Whatever the mind frequently ponders, that becomes the inclination of the mind.”  If we purposely focus our thoughts towards love, compassion, and understanding, our minds will naturally incline in that direction.  Conversely, if we spend a great deal of our day focusing what’s wrong in the world, others and ourselves, we’ll more readily see the bad side of everything.  Howard Eichenbaum, a neurobiologist from Boston University, asserts that “you can produce profound changes in the brain with training,” adding, “that’s a big deal.”  It is a big deal.  Almost as big a deal as what the Buddha said over 2,600 years ago, words that bear repeating:  “Whatever the mind frequently ponders, that becomes the inclination of the mind.”  So, what will you spend your time thinking about today?

Compassion on the Brain

The Dalai Lama’s emphasis on the importance of compassion created interest beyond the Buddhist community.  Stanford University has an entire department in the medical school devoted to compassion and altruism research.  In addition to the spiritual imperative of cultivating attributes such as love, kindness and altruism, scientists now say doing so produces measurable differences in the brain.  These qualities, they say, can foster neuronal growth, or, ‘neurogenesis.’ Moreover, much of this activation occurred in the frontal lobe, which is associated with concentration, behavior, and problem solving, and also in the hippocampus, associated with memory. So, by engaging in loving-kindness (Metta) meditation, we strengthen our ability to listen, understand, and solve complex problems, including those involving disagreements with others. With our memory strengthened, we can learn from our experience and hold onto those lessons.

monks compassion study

Tibetan monks viewing FMRI brain scan results at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research

Wanting to be more kind and compassionate is a worthy goal.  The ability to actually be kind, however, is something else altogether.  And, let’s be real, in New York City, being kind isn’t always easy.  What does make acting from a place of compassion is being content, happy.  So the first order of business is to begin doing things that will bring a sense of ease, calm and happiness.  Mindfulness just may be your answer.  In a trial with 41 biotechnology employees, one group received mindfulness training while the other didn’t. After a period of four months, the group who received the training showed a significant increase in left-right prefrontal cortex, the area that reflects positive emotions.  So, whenever you practice mindfulness you are giving your brain a happiness training.  Let’s hear it for mindfulness!

Science Verifies the Buddha’s Teaching

2,500 years ago, the Buddha already knew the benefits of living with a mind motivated by loving-kindness and compassion. Buddha didn’t need to see results of brain scans or longitudinal studies measuring happiness.  He was the all-seeing, all-knowing, self enlightened one.  He emphasized the importance of caring for all beings.  In taking care of ourselves, we take care of others,  and by taking care of others, we are taking care of ourselves.  All the good we do will come back to us, in the form of stronger friendships, greater resilience in the face of problems, and durable happiness.  Why not see for yourself?   Set aside five minutes a day for meditation.  Focus  on the good in yourself, your friends, your family and perhaps even strangers who helped you in some way.  Give it a try for just two weeks.  See how five minutes of focused meditation may change your life, and that of others.

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