Thursday, January 14, 2010

Worried Little Faces: Metta to You All

This being a Thursday, I went this morning to the nearby yoga studio for a brief sit with a few others. The leader, Linda, has us sit facing the wall, as she does in her tradition. It seems that in our own little sangha tradition, my spot has become the cushion next to Linda's. Which means that on Thursday mornings, I face this:

For as long as I can remember (or, as long as grounded outlets have been standard), I have read such outlets as faces. Worried little faces.

So if my meditation needs direction, I sometimes direct loving-kindness to these worried little faces. That is what I did this morning. I started by directing loving-kindness, or metta, to myself, as is traditional, and then directed it to others.

I first learned about metta meditation from Sharon Salzberg (from her wonderful book, Lovingkindness), and so the phrases I use in my own metta meditations are based on hers. I tend to silently recite:

May I be safe.
May I be healthy.
May I be happy.
May I live with ease.

I sometimes add,

May I be free from fear.

If I am on the subway, or on the street, and I see someone who seems to be in distress, I sometimes direct metta to them:

May you be safe.
May you be healthy.
May you be happy.
May you live with ease.

At the very least, this often helps me not to take on their suffering, not to allow their sadness or lost-ness to trigger such feelings in me. If I feel my heart going out to worried electrical outlets, imagine the boundary-lessness I experience with someone with tears flowing down her face.

I like to read the original sutta now and then, which I would like to memorize at some point. Here is part of it:

May all beings be happy.
May they live in safety and joy.

All living beings,
whether weak or strong,
tall, stout, average or short,
seen or unseen, near or distant,
born or to be born,
may they all be happy.

Let no one deceive another
or despise any being in any state,
let none by anger or hatred
wish harm to another.

As a mother watches over her child,
willing to risk her own life
to protect her only child,
so with a boundless heart
should one cherish all living beings,
suffusing the whole world
with unobstructed loving kindness.

Standing or walking,
sitting or lying down,
during all one's waking hours,
may one remain mindful of this heart
and this way of living
that is the best in the world.

(translation by Gil Fronsdal; line breaks are mine)

I know that some people feel aversion to this teaching, feeling that just wishing that everyone would be nice to everyone else is worse than useless in the task of ending the massive suffering of our world. I remember feeling that way, too. But now I believe that wishing happiness for myself and others is certainly not the worst thing a person can do. And if you do it sincerely, it won't be the only thing you do, for intention directs action, and cultivating lovingkindness for others surely cultivates kindlier intentions toward them. Then at least my own actions may be kindlier, and I won't be causing more suffering.

And then there is the brain research which shows that regular meditation on compassion seems to change the brain. In one study, monks who had spent at least 10,000 hours in meditation -- and even lay people with much fewer hours -- showed brain activity that is different from those who don't meditate in this way. Here is an excerpt from an article about one study, posted on the Dalai Lama's website:

Prof. Davidson [at U. Wisconsin/Madison] ... used fMRI imaging to detect which regions of the monks' and novices' brains became active during compassion meditation. The brains of all the subjects showed activity in regions that monitor one's emotions, plan movements, and generate positive feelings such as happiness. Regions that keep track of what is self and what is other became quieter, as if during compassion meditation the subjects opened their minds and hearts to others.

More interesting were the differences between the monks and the novices. The monks had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. They also had stronger connections from the frontal regions to the emotion regions, which is the pathway by which higher thought can control emotions.

In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most dramatic brain changes. That was a strong hint that mental training makes it easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy.

"This positive state is a skill that can be trained," Prof. Davidson says. "Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of the brain in an enduring way."

What this means to me is that the more we practice cultivating compassion and empathy, the more spontaneously we will be able to behave with compassion and empathy. We may be able not only to create less suffering, but to ease more suffering, through compassionate action. Our consciousness and even our physical brains seem to have the capacity to develop in this way.

Wonderful! (As Thay might say.)

P.S. I was interested in what kind of compassion meditation, exactly, the subjects engaged in. It may have been tonglen, but I'm not sure. However, I found a related study, from a different institute, which described the meditation in detail.

The compassion meditation program employed in this study was designed and taught by one of us (Lobsang Tenzin Negi).... Although secular in presentation, the compassion meditation program was derived from Tibetan Buddhist mind-training (Tibetan lojong) practices. These practices derive largely from writings ascribed to the Indian Buddhist masters Shantideva (8th Century) and Atisha (11th Century) (The Dalai Lama, 2001) .... Lojong-based compassion meditation has two primary elements: an initial phase in which various arguments are examined that challenge one’s common sense notion of other people as falling into the categories of ‘‘friend, enemy and stranger’’ and a second phase in which one practices developing spontaneous feelings of empathy and love for an ever expanding circle of people, beginning with the self and extending eventually to those with whom one has conflicts and/or dislikes.

["Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress," Emory University School of Medicine; Psychoneuroendocrinology (2008)]

1 comment:

  1. What a wondrous blog! A total gift!
    Many thanks! I've shared this wisdom on Facebook.

    Connie Nelson Ahlberg
    Writer in Residence


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