Dacher Keltner at UC Berkeley, has devoted many years to research on the vagal nerve and what is now called the nerve of compassion. The vagal nerve is a nerve that originates in the brainstem (lower brain, unconscious area) and runs through many visceral organs including the heart. Studies find that the stronger the vagal tone, the more compassionate one is. It is suggested that high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, promotes altruism, compassion, gratitude, love, and happiness.
This helps explain that during compassion meditation one feels the ever expansive and warmth in the chest region. This nerve, known as the rest and digest or tend and befriend nerve, is responsible for that activation. This part of the nervous system is our relaxation response and not only reduces heart rate, but also reduces inflammation. Inflammation is the beginning process of any disease, be it depression, insomnia to heart disease and cancer.
Studies show that meditating on compassion shifts resting brain activation to the left hemisphere, specifically pre-frontal cortex, which is the seat of happiness, biologically speaking. Oxytocin, coined as the trust hormone, also activates this nerve as if priming for compassion and helping relaxation.
As we practice mindfully with compassion meditations, we are showering our bodies with great benefit, which is a kind and loving act of self-care. As we send compassion out for the wish to alleviate others afflictions, we are still receiving great benefit. Jon Kabat-Zinn provides this reminder, “In Asian languages, the word for “mind” and the word for “heart” are the same. So if you’re not feeling mindfulness in some deep way as heartfulness, you are not really understanding it. Compassion and kindness toward oneself are intrinsically woven into it. You could think of mindfulness as wise and affectionate attention.”