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Sahaja Meditation Cultivates Empathy and Compassion
Sahaja meditation improves all our relationships by helping us cultivate and nurture emotional qualities such as empathy, compassion, and kindness. These qualities help shift our perspective from self-oriented to other-oriented, counteracting the natural human tendency to be self-centered. We know that, throughout our lives, the ability to understand and share another person’s experience is shaped by experience and environment, but is there an actual physiological basis for empathy and compassion? After all, many studies have shown that similar neurological activity can be seen in the brains of both a person who’s in pain or distress and a person who’s merely witnessing their pain. Are some of us hardwired for it and some of us not?
Empathy Begins at the Cellular Level
If you’ve ever watched a movie and tensed, winced or flinched when the villain raises a knife to slash someone, that’s your mirror neurons firing.
Mirror neurons are specialized nerve cells in the insular region of the brain’s frontal cortex that generate empathy.
In that split second, you can understand how that poor victim feels — it’s as if it’s happening to you.
Mirror neurons were accidentally discovered in the mid-1990s. Giacomo Rizzolatti and a team of Italian neuroscientists were studying monkey brain systems that regulate intentional hand movements and discovered a system of neurons that specialize in the “walking in another’s shoes” function (Rizzolatti et al, 1996, 2001, 2004). They found that neurons in the premotor areas of the frontal cortex that prime movement sequences (such as grasping an object) were actually activating milliseconds before the hand movement had even occurred. These mirror neurons also activated when the monkeys simply observed another monkey making that same movement sequence. It was as if the monkeys were imitating — mirroring — another’s movements in its mind.
We humans have an incredibly complex mirror neuron system that encompasses our entire sensory system, and allows us to simulate the emotional lives of others. Mirror neurons also function as a cognitive subsystem that enables the mind to simulate and then imitate the observed movement sequences of others. So in addition to forming the biological basis of empathy, mirror neurons may also form the basis of learned, imitative and contagious behaviors. These regulatory systems are believed to develop almost immediately in baby behaviors, especially contagious behaviors, such as a newborn baby responding to a laugh with a laugh, as in this popular video of quadruplets laughing at each other, which very well may trigger some contagious laughter from you, too.
In emotional contagion, we “catch” an emotion from another person at a subconscious level. But many movement skills can’t be solely taught through contagion or through verbal instruction, as anyone who’s ever tried to help a baby learn to walk or teach a child to ride a bicycle knows. Often, imitation is the best teacher. And that applies to moral behaviors, as well.
Children learn empathy best from parents who react empathically to others. The lesson is more impactive when empathy is demonstrated, rather than just “taught.”
Mirroring enables us to “read minds” and predict others’ intentions or behaviors, which may help explain the broad appeal of observing virtuoso performances by others who are engaged in, for example, sports, dance, or music. We enjoy observing and predicting their movements, and in our minds, perhaps, it is as if we are performing ourselves.
So, thanks to mirror neurons, all social animals — from dogs to humans — may be hardwired for empathy, while absorbing and integrating cultural and environmental influences along the way.
The mirror neuron system seems to be involved not in the rational sort of empathy involved in deliberately imagining yourself in another’s shoes but in the deep, automatic empathy of really feeling what another person is feeling.
But what happens when something goes wrong with the mirror neuron system? Autistics, for example, don’t have the ability to understand, from observing other people, what it feels like to be sad, angry, disgusted or surprised, nor do they naturally grasp the significance of those emotions. A study published in the January 2006 issue of Nature Neuroscience found that malfunctioning mirror neurons play a central role in the autistic child’s social isolation or inability to connect. Autistic children are, in essence, unable to create self-consciousness, thus they are unable to unable to understand the consciousness of others.
But researchers are making a concerted effort to explore meditation as a strategy to override malfunctioning brain systems and the debilitating symptoms of autism. Recent research suggests that meditation may prove effective for autistics at both the behavioral and molecular levels. Mantra meditation, in particular, has been found to be useful in children between 3 and 14 years of age (Sequeira, Ahmed, 2012).
If meditation can enhance empathy and compassion in individuals who have had, from birth, little or no capacity for empathy and compassion, imagine what it can do for the rest of us.
Compassion has been described as having a radiating effect, spreading kindness and forgiveness to others, even those who have treated us badly. Thus, compassion has the potential to neutralize a desire for aggression, punishment or revenge. Meditation effectively strengthens self-control and character development simultaneously.
Meditation Enhances Empathy and Compassion
Mindfulness can function as “empathy training,” and mindfulness can be developed through meditation (for more, see Sahaja and Mindfulness). Mindfulness has been shown to increase several aspects of compassion and empathy, especially perspective-taking and empathic concern (Wachs, Cordova, 2007; Barnes et al, 2007). Attunement, which is an aspect of mindfulness, plays a critical role. Empathy and compassion emerge from attunement to oneself and to others. The ability to focus on and connect with the mind of another person engages neural circuitry that enables two people to “feel felt” by each other, to resonate with the inner world of another, to feel connected (Siegel, 2007). Children need empathic attunement to feel secure and to develop well. Adults continue to need attunement throughout their lives to feel close and connected.
A 2016 Sahaja meditation study using the brain structure imaging techniques of MRI and Voxel-Based Morphometry (Hernández et al, 2016) found that long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume in the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and left insula. These are regions associated, in part, with emotional intelligence — as well as in right hemispheric regions (insula, ventromedial orbitofrontal cortex, inferior temporal and parietal cortices) associated with, among other traits, feelings of empathy, compassion, and altruism.
Enlarged gray matter volume in this area of the right temporal lobe is associated with socio-emotional abilities such as greater empathy and interpreting the intentions of others, important capacities that facilitate the emotions of love and compassion (Saxe et al, 2003; Morishima et al, 2012).
The finding of enlarged gray matter volume in Sahaja practitioners suggests that the long-term practice of Sahaja may increase neuroplasticity, thus enhancing our ability to continue increase empathy and compassion over time.
Other recent fMRI studies have found that meditation enhances the urge to respond to another person’s sounds of distress or pain (Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., et al, 2008). Meditation may alter the activation of brain circuitries linked to empathy, which influences our ability to cultivate positive emotion. What does empathy look like in the brain? In this study, both novice and experienced meditators showed an increased empathy reaction when in a meditative state. However, fMRI scans of experienced meditators revealed much greater activity (compared to novices) in the brain network that regulates empathy (insula and anterior cingulate cortices) in response to emotional human sounds of distress and increased activity in brain regions previously linked to mentation (thought) about the emotional states of others. Experienced meditators also demonstrated a much greater ability to detect emotional sounds and voluntarily generate compassion.
The deeper and more intense our meditations, the greater our capacity for empathy and compassion.
What’s the difference between empathy and compassion?
Empathy and compassion are often conflated, but they are actually different qualities. Being empathetic does not necessarily that you are compassionate. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of others and even share their pain, while being aware that it’s someone else’s emotion.
Empathy is not intrinsically good or pro-social. It’s morally neutral.
For example, talented psychopaths are capable of empathy, but they often use that knowledge and understanding of others’ emotions to manipulate them. So even though they have empathy, they lack compassion.
Compassion is empathy (the ability to understand and share others’ feelings) plus sympathy or concern and perhaps even feeling the pain of others when we see them suffering. Empathy is a precursor to compassion that hopefully leads to compassionate action that might alleviate someone else’s suffering.
Empathy confers the simple acknowledgment “you are not alone.” Compassion is kindness in action.
Can we train ourselves to be compassionate through meditation?
Research suggests that we can, just like we can learn to play a musical instrument or develop specific athletic skills. fMRI studies have found that compassion meditation — focusing on compassion and empathy for others during meditation — increases empathy. Compassion meditation activates areas of the limbic (emotional) system (the insula and temporal parietal juncture, which are involved in empathy and emotion sharing, including detecting emotional states in others) in both novice mediators and monks (Lutz et al, 2008). Another study found that just four minutes of meditation resulted in increased feelings of social connectedness and positivity toward strangers (Hutcherson, 2008).
How empathy and compassion manifests in Sahaja
The bedrock of Sahaja meditation is the powerful feminine energy of Kundalini that is awakened during the Self-Realization process. Once awakened, the Inner self unites with the all-pervading cosmic energy of the universe.
Inherently, both these energies represent the power of love and compassion. In that sense, you achieve the power of love and compassion innately on day 1 of the practice of Sahaja meditation.
This is like how the engine that is fitted in the automobile is the ultimate driving force and the reason for its existence, its purpose and utility. Self-Realization or initiation into Sahaja meditation therefore awakens the most fundamental power of our existence, the power of love and compassion.
The manifestation of compassion, to a large extent, is intrinsic and innately established once you start practicing Sahaja meditation. This means that you’ll feel an automatic, innate feeling of empathy – a heightened awareness and consideration of the environment and people around you and compassion – the desire to be kind and considerate to them at all times. This also means that Sahaja meditation is far superior in the ability to develop and increase compassion as it needs very little focus or explicit training – the more you draw upon the energy inside, the more compassionate you can become.
Also, this type of compassion is not a mental exercise of trying to developing compassion or a mental note to oneself to be kind others. You feel kind and compassionate from within, many times to your own surprise. With each meditation session, your connection of the energy to the all-pervading power gets strong and hence the compassion also gets stronger and more entrenched inside you.
As you progress in the journey of Sahaja meditation, there is further reinforcement of the quality of compassion by improving your fourth energy center, the heart chakra.
Since the power of compassion is the driving force in Sahaja, it also lays the foundation for developing other qualities. Forgiveness is enhanced as we feel greater compassion towards others and a better understanding for the mistakes they make.
Hutcherson, Cendri A., Seppala, Emma M. and Gross, James J.. “Loving-Kindness Meditation Increases Social Connectedness,” Emotion 8, no. 5 (2008): 720–724.
Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ (2008) Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. PLoS ONE 3(3): e1897.
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Sequeira, S., Ahmed, M.. Meditation as a Potential Therapy for Autism: A Review. Autism Research and TreatmentVolume 2012 (2012)
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