- This article first appeared on The Huffington Post, February 16, 2017. Used with Permission, 2017.
We are at a critical point in our planetary history, and we’re polarized in our views about how to protect both ourselves and our environment. We may all agree that the time is critical, but there is no consensus on what is needed to help—some might say heal—our planet. Many feel the key issue is human safety and the remedy is to protect our species and our resources. These “others”—and I am among them—contend that our sense of separation is what produces both individual and planetary suffering.
I propose that a key to planetary change is the sense of unity experienced in meditation and a feeling that naturally emerges from this unity awareness: compassion. My premise is that once we, as human beings, go beyond the illusion of separation, we become happier individuals and this leads to a healthier planet.
I will address this premise, and I also want to explore the nature of compassion itself. Is compassion an innate human characteristic? Or is it something that we must learn? Can we cultivate compassion?
I am both a neuroscientist and a meditator, and I have over forty years’ experience with both. Meditation expanded my perspective beyond a materialistic scientific foundation and gave me an awareness of an energetic connection not only with other people but also with a greater consciousness than my own. It is within this expanded consciousness that I feel my connection with all others. A natural component of this sense of interconnection, of being part of a greater whole, is a profound feeling of compassion—compassion for others and for the planet as a whole. I would say that, at its heart, compassion is the sense that what happens to another is also happening to oneself.
These experiences prompted in me a desire to study meditation and to measure its effects. As a scientist, I wanted to know whether meditation leads to measureable changes in the brain and to our behaviors. I also wanted to look at evidence that suggests the presence of an overarching consciousness of the kind I had experienced in my own meditations.
Research on meditation
One way meditation and conscious awareness have been studied is through first-person accounts of meditation and near-death experiences. These accounts have shown that in meditation, when the mind becomes still, many experience a strong sense of unity and interconnection. One thing that I found astonishing as a neuroscientist is that this experience of expansive awareness is also reported in near-death experiences, when the brain itself is inactive. This suggests that, under certain conditions, we can perceive a consciousness that is vast and goes beyond the scope of our own brain.
In contrast to these first-person accounts, scientific researchers have examined the effects of meditation on brain function and its associated behaviors. My own research shows that meditation improves attention and that this is associated with structural changes, specifically in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the frontal lobes, responsible for decision making and impulse control. Other studies have shown that meditation reduces stress, improves emotional well-being, that is, our happiness, and assists in maintaining equanimity. These behavioral changes are associated with changes in the hippocampus and the amygdala, the centers controlling our emotions.
Can meditation influence compassion?
Now let’s look at the relationship between the interconnectedness arising in meditation and an increase in compassion. Is compassion an innate human characteristic? Or is it something we have to learn? Interestingly, human beings appear to come into the world with innate sense of caring. The neuroscientist Richard Davidson reports research that such compassion is present early in life. In this study, infants shown video clips had a clear preference for encounters that were altruistic over those that were selfish or aggressive. Davidson concludes that even the very young are drawn to compassion.
If so, then what happens to our innate sense of goodness as we get older? It may be that there is a natural human tendency to erect barriers in an effort to protect ourselves from suffering. Ironically, it is these barriers that create suffering and keep us from experiencing unity and expressing compassion. Many studies have shown that the practice of meditation increases our compassion—our empathy for all and for the planet. Paul Condon and colleagues compared a control group with two groups of meditators in an eight-week study whose results showed that both types of meditation caused a significant increase in altruism. Those who meditated were five times more likely to take action to relieve another’s pain.
Scientists have also shown that meditation is associated with changes in brain structure within the neural circuitry associated with compassionate action. This includes increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and increased activity in the ACC, associated with positive feelings, and decreased activity in the amygdala, which is associated with distress. Thus, Davidson suggests that rather than becoming depressed by others’ suffering, meditators develop a disposition to attempt to alleviate suffering.
In recent decades, neuroscience has called attention to the concept of activity-dependent neural plasticity. In other words, our brain changes as a result of our actions. Even after we reach adulthood, our brains are constantly being shaped by our experiences and by what we think. Much of the time, we are unaware of the forces around us that are continually influencing our brain. We do, however, have some choice in this process. We can consciously choose to engage in activities and with forces we hope will influence brain plasticity in a way we prefer.
How can we begin to make this fundamental shift in our conscious awareness from political polarization to one of unity and interconnection? Quieting our mind through meditation increases the experience of interconnectedness with everyone and everything around us and also with transcendent consciousness. And this, in turn, leads to an increased capacity for compassion and for actions by which we can heal ourselves and the planet.