"The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all living beings, which are all part of one another and involved in one another."
Matthieu Ricard, PhD, molecular geneticist, Tibetan monk and called the happiest man on the planet from fMRI scans recently shared this on why we want to practice compassion. “Our minds are like gardens and they will grow naturally, but if uncultivated they are influenced by the weather and whatever seeds are in the winds. Some will grow big and others shrivel and in the end we may not like the results.”
We don’t have to look to far to see the state of affairs on the planet that seeds of aggression, greed, hostility, and hatred have been blowing in the wind. These seeds have grown into many unwholesome manifestations such as bombings, shootings, rape, slaughtering, etc. However, we can, also, with gratitude turn to many practicing meditations like tonglen, loving-kindness, compassion and equanimity. Our genetics and body system are equipped with the material that when properly and precisely instructed have the potential, capacity and ability to override the lower brain centers responsible for hijacking the possibility for more humane behaviors.
Neuroscience is continuing to show significant results with meditation. In published studies with Loving-kindness meditations (LKM), results show reductions in cortisol levels (stress hormone), increase in oxytocin secretion (bonding and trust hormone), lowering of heart rate and heart disease. Also, brain regions linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up on fMRI scans suggesting new neural wiring in action.
An important zone in the brain called the supramarginal gyrus where part of the mirror neuron system is situated, allows us to identify postures and gestures of other people. When this linking is unhindered from pathologies, we have the capacity to feel empathy. Our visceral organs have important neural pathways that link to these regions (we call it our gut instinct), therefore, informing us when we need to turn our attention toward ourself or another with a compassionate heart.
Considering the unsettling circumstances this beautiful planet is being subjected to on a daily basis, may we strive to relieve her suffering and the causes. Considering the fear that is driving people to harm one another and to harm our animals, may we strive to relieve others and our suffering and the causes. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama reminds us, if we want to know happiness, practice compassion. If we want others to know happiness, practice compassion.
“Once there was a tree....(read the story)…..and the tree was happy”. Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree
Just take this moment and check in with your day so far. Since your day began, how many thoughts have you had about what you want? How many about what you don’t want? How much of the wanting is about getting an object of desire such as a new job, relationship, sex, food, clothes, house, car, etc., fill in the blank. How much of the not wanting is about the exact same things?
Like a tasmanian devil, we are frantically seeking endeavors that consume our time and energy on gaining something, getting pleasure, improving our status, and getting approval. Yet, we can also assess that these same conquests bring pain, loss, disrepute, and attack.
The Industrial Revolution changed our lives, yet most of our desires began to revolve around acquisition of “things”. In the late 1880’s, Sears and Roebuck started mailing consumer good catalogues to customers. Their motto was “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake”; because there’s a money back guarantee and these "things" could be returned and/or replaced. Catalogue advertisers spent approximately 90 million a year (2.3 billion in today’s dollar). Today, a whopping 100 billion is spent for online advertising alone.
At any given time, we have just about any possible desire at our fingertips, literally. Google anything your heart desires and within seconds hundreds of thousands of opportunities will present itself. If your desire is for food, check out how many restaurants offer delivery to your home so no need to go anywhere. If you want entertainment, it’s endless. Sex, check out pornography, or the 2,500 dating websites promising your soulmate. And, of course, shopping opportunities galore for clothes, appliances, books, yoga mats, shoes, cars, homes, etc. all awaiting a buyer. And, as Shel Silverstein writes in The Giving Tree, “you may cut off my branches and build a house….then you’ll be happy”……but not really.
The United States is one of the most unhappy countries on the planet despite what’s available to us. This “what’s next syndrome” keeps us seeking and hoping and fused with a “believable” reality outside of ourselves. Consider making your “what’s next” a pause. Slow down the process of getting, having, wanting, and craving and take note of what's present in those moments. Observe how the wanting is mostly tied into a very frenetic, panicky energy and the not wanting with aggression and discontent.
There is a way of not falling into the trap of what’s next. Think of what’s been on your mind regarding a desire or some dissatisfaction. Now take it through this mindfulness exercise called RAIN (by Jack Kornfield):
· Recognize. This does require that we know we are doing this, so for now, consider a recent longing for something and bring awareness to your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations about this longing.
· Acknowledge. What is your awareness revealing in the form of thoughts, feelings, sensations. With your breathe, just allow this to be as it is.
· Investigate. With openness, curiosity, and nonjudgment, look at the narrative taking place in your mind. What story are you believing? What feelings arise in relation to this story? What sensations emerge when you tell this story?
· Non-attachment or non-identification. See if you can drop the personal pronouns from the storyline. The “I’, “me”, “mine”. Let them go and allow your mind to rest with your breath, with simple awareness.
Next time you feel the urge to “get something” or “get rid of something”, practice this process. Happiness is an inside job. Rearranging the furniture, so to speak, is only an attempt to keep you away from what’s really going on inside. It may be that the new pair of shoes or ending the relationship or enjoying sex is the most authentic way to proceed. But until we pause and look at what our mind wants us to believe or not believe, then we will continue on the “what IS next syndrome” ride that produces more of the same…..unhappiness.
After boy had taken everything the tree could give, it's leaves, branches, and trunk, the tree invited him to sit on his stump because the boy was an old man now and needed rest. Before we waste our entire lives on "what's next", rest now. Rest with ease and peace of what's now. Just as it is. However it is. Be mindful. Be authentic. Be happy…..and the tree was happy.
Sherri Aikin is a Fellow of Integrative Medicine, Nurse Practitioner, Sex Counselor, Mindfulness Facilitator, and Life Coach.
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