The young woman was trying hard to mask her pain. I sat in the warm sunlight enjoying its touch on my skin. I sipped my coffee as did most of the other patrons. Every time I looked up from the pages I was studying, my eyes were drawn back to the grieving woman. Was this some form of morbid curiosity compelling me, wondering what she was crying about, secretly feeling relieved that I was not grappling with such stress and strife myself?
As I examined my own mind I found that I was considering how wonderful it might be if I could just eliminate the afflictive emotions that were the source of her pain with a subtle unnoticed gesture, or a wizardly nod of my head.
I was practicing the cultivation of compassion. I have studied this practice for several decades, ever since my teacher An-shu Hayes brought to my attention the importance of balancing potentially lethal martial training with studies of the mind.
From the Buddhist perspective, compassion is more or less defined as “a state of mind that wishes to see the immediate object of that compassion be free of suffering.” There are several levels of compassion. At one level it is merely a wish to relieve the sentient being from suffering. This might be seen as sympathy; “Oh, that poor thing!” On the next level there is empathy, an effort to understand the suffering, and to genuinely imagine oneself in their place. This also includes a level of volition, an honest desire to help. Beyond this, Buddhists refer to Great Compassion, in which case the practice of compassion is extended toward all sentient beings.
In fairly recent studies of the brain many astounding breakthroughs are being made on the subject of how mind and brain interact. Specifically, how our minds can literally change the physiology of our brains. This is called neuroplasticity. The findings are ongoing and far too extensive for this short newsletter. In terms of cultivating compassion, beyond the value of balancing martial training, here are some key things to consider. It has been shown that focusing the mind on compassion changes the amount and intensity of activity in certain parts of the brain. Areas of the brain that become active during negative emotions like unhappiness and anxiety showed significantly reduced activity during compassion meditation practice. Conversely, areas of the brain associated with happiness and wellbeing jumped significantly in activity.
In very simplified terms you might think about it like this. The more I activate and strengthen the parts of my brain that are related to happiness, the easier it becomes to find and experience happiness. Imagine a frequently traveled road where ruts have been worn in practically guiding your car with little effort on your part. Likewise, the more I develop areas of the brain that support fear, worry, and anxiety, the more difficult it is to break the habit of moving into those states of mind. My mind becomes used to the ease of travelling the ruts I have carved in my brain.
It always seems obvious that the need for physical training is a given if you intend to improve in skill. Training as a requirement is assumed in pretty much every endeavor except learning to manage your mind and emotions. These recent discoveries are validating what meditation and contemplative masters have known for centuries. The list of benefits appears to keep growing.
Studies are suggesting that even simple practice is valuable. Aside from formal compassion meditation, make it a habit to spend a few moments focusing on and practicing the cultivation of compassion. There is certainly no shortage of opportunities in our daily lives.