Here, in New England, we’re bracing ourselves for a winter blizzard. Unfortunately, because of the nasty storm predictions, I decided to reschedule this weekend’s Yin training at Fresh Yoga, in New Haven, CT, to July 11-14. Alas, safety comes first.
But this gives me a moment to carry on with the contemplations on the Eightfold Path. And this installment will address the ‘intention of harmlessness’ or, said more positively, the development of compassion.
Something I’ve always appreciated about the pragmatism of Buddhism is how it sees qualities of mind as things that can be systematically developed. From this perspective, it doesn’t really matter how you start coming out of the block. The basic idea is that if you work at it, you can increase your capacity.
In the Buddha’s words:
“If one frequently thinks sensual, hostile, or harmful thoughts, desire, ill will, and harmfulness become the inclination of the mind. If one frequently thinks the opposite way, renunciation, good will, and harmlessness become the inclination of the mind.” (Majjhima Nikaya 19)
Of course, this is the central premise of neuro-plasticity, that our actions and thoughts literally etch themselves upon our brains, increasing the likelihood of their recurrence. But what’s helpful to remember is that even if you’re deficient in, say, some of the fuzzier qualities of the heart (like I am), there’s hope! You can massage it and work at it and gradually transform that inner-Grouch into a beaming lama of sorts.
But, you may ask, how do we do that in meditation? Well, it turns out that the brain is rather efficient at assigning double-duty to certain neural structures. As Rick Hanson in the Buddha’s Brain reports, “The insula and linked circuits activate when you experience strong emotions such as fear or anger; they also light up when you see others having those same feelings, particularly people you care about. The more aware you are of your own emotional and bodily states, they more your insula and anterior cingulate cortex activate — and the better you are at reading others (Singer et al. 2004).”
So all that time spent alone on the cushion, mindfully monitoring your physical and mental states, turns out to thicken your mental hardware for empathy, the ability to step into another’s shoes.
And, in my opinion, empathy is the proximate cause for compassion. Here, I borrow Bhikkhu Bodhi’s definition of compassion: ‘compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering.’ However, in order to wish another being to be free from suffering you first have to recognize that they are, in fact, suffering, which requires empathy.
Here’s a great TED talk by the inimitable neuroscientist VS Ramachandran called, The Neurons That Shaped Civilization, which investigates the neural basis for empathy even more.
Originally published on February 8, 2013