It is said that a rabbi who had lost one of his two daughters in a fatal accident, wrote to Albert Einstein. The Rabbi requested Einstein to provide some words of wisdom to help his remaining daughter as she mourned her sister. He wrote this famous reply.
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”
The neuroscientist, Daniel Siegel, describes what he calls the “resonance circuits” in the brain. This follows the discovery of “mirror neurons” which fire in our brains in response to the intentional actions of others. He explains:
“We make maps of intention using our cortically based mirror neurons and then transfer this information downward to our subcortical regions. A neural circuit called the insula seems to be the information superhighway between the mirror neurons and the limbic areas, which in turn send messages to the brainstem and the body proper. This is how we can come to resonate physiologically with others – how even our respiration, blood pressure and heart rate can rise and fall in synchronism with another’s internal state. These signals from our body, brainstem, and limbic areas then travel back up to the insula to the middle prefrontal areas. I’ve come to call this set of circuits – from mirror neurons to subcortical regions, back to the middle prefrontal areas – the ‘resonance circuits.’ This is the pathway that connects us to one another.”
Our ability to empathise with others is dependent on these resonance circuits. For those of us (like those suffering autism) that find it difficult to relate well to others, have problems reading body language and “tuning in’ to the thinking of others, these circuits are relatively undeveloped. Fortunately our growing understanding of brain plasticity brings with it some opportunities for improving these connections.
Surprisingly the techniques for enhancing our ability to connect with each other have been with us for millennia. While not restricted to Buddhism, the condition that enables this improvement in our mental processing is called by Buddhists ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness is our ability to be fully present in the current moment. It is cultivated by various meditative techniques and has long been recognised as tool for improving our sense of well-being.
Mindfulness cultivates our self awareness. It allows us to dissociate from our emotional reactions. It gives us space between the stimulus and our response to select more appropriate behaviour. I have mentioned before that my friend and mentor, Dr Phil Harker teaches that the path to psychological health is to know yourself, accept yourself, and then forget yourself. Mindfulness is an enabler of self knowledge and building on that, self-acceptance. And indeed without self-acceptance the acceptance of others and the cultivation of empathy is nigh impossible.
There is then here a confluence between age-old religious practices, and modern psychology and neuroscience. It also reinforces what the researchers in positive psychology have found. According to Martin Seligman, one of the determinants of long-term happiness is the devotion to a cause greater than ourselves. Mindfulness thwarts our tendencies towards self-obsession. Just as Phil proposes, when we can put the self aside we are psychologically more healthy. And of course, when we are self-obsessed it is extraordinarily difficult to show compassion for others. As the title of this piece implies, when I know myself well, and can put my self aside, I am more likely to be able to know you, empathise with you and be compassionate.
Mindfulness facilitates this process. As a consequence, those who are adept at meditation (and other processes enhancing mindfulness) become more empathetic and as a consequence more compassionate. I would advocate that the world would be a better place (and its inhabitants much happier) if we could cultivate mindfulness more broadly. In this way we would be able to expand ‘our circle of compassion’ as Einstein referred to it. It again underscores that marvellous statement from the Dalai Llama – “If you want others to be happy, be compassionate. If you want to be happy, be compassionate.”
Let me finish with another quote from Dan Siegel:
“Many studies point to the power of mindful awareness to promote well-being in many domains of our lives. Why would this be the case? Why would ‘non-judgmental’ paying attention, on purpose in the present moment be a good thing? We have seen that non-judgmental may mean not grasping onto the inevitable judgments that the mind creates from the top-down processes of our cortical critics. The decoupling of this automaticity is in many ways what ‘waking up’ to have the time of your life really means.”