Posted on March 28th, 2020

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

Genuine compassion is based on the rationale that all human beings have an innate desire to overcome suffering and be happy. As an integral part of the Buddhist spiritual path, compassion is a state of mind that is non-violent, non-harming and non-aggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering.  Compassion is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility and respect towards the other. It brings about a sense of affinity and closeness with others. Reaching out to help others can induce a feeling of happiness and a calmer mind. Developing compassion and altruism has a positive impact on our physical and emotional health.

Clinical Psychologists Elisha Goldstein and Stefanie Goldstein reveal that research shows that feeling compassion causes our heart rate to slow, which makes us more relaxed and calm and leads to the release of the bonding hormone” oxytocin, which helps us to feel more connected and affectionate toward others. Also, it activates regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and pleasure. Researchers have discovered that people who actively practice compassion and altruism have lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and higher expression of antiviral and antibody genes than people who lived for greater self-gratification or pleasure. Adopting an altruistic or unselfish lifestyle is a critical component of good mental health. Studies have shown that those regularly involved in volunteer activities helping others, display feelings of warmth, more energy and elation. They have a distinct feeling of calmness and enhanced self-worth. These caring activities provide an interaction that is emotionally nourishing and relieves one from a variety of stress- related physical disorders.

Metta bhavana” is a popular from of meditation practiced by Sri Lankan and other Theravada Buddhists. The word Mettā (Pali) or Maithri (Sanskrit) implies loving-kindness, benevolence, friendliness, amity, goodwill, gratitude, kindness and appreciation of others.

Mettā signifies a strong wish for the happiness of others caring for the well-being of another living being, not expecting anything in return. This practice includes reciting specific words and phrases to evoke a boundless warm-hearted feeling,” or visualizing suffering and wishing well for those who are suffering. It is practiced as a means of cultivating and expanding our natural capacity for an open and loving heart that evokes compassion and joy in the happiness of others. The practice begins with the meditator cultivating compassion or benevolence  towards oneself and then towards others, including one’s loved ones, friends, teachers, strangers, enemies, and finally towards all sentient beings. The primary aim of Metta bhavana, is to send unconditional love, positive feelings and best wishes to others starting from familiar people to all the living beings in the universe expecting nothing in return. One needs to first direct compassion, and positive feelings towards oneself before directing them towards others as it would naturally be difficult to radiate love and positive feelings towards others unless one has them within oneself. Those who practice self-compassion ruminate and experience less resentment, and have higher emotional resilience. It is an effective way to control aggressive feelings including anger and has a therapeutic effect on reducing stress and anxiety. Self-compassion provides emotional strength allowing us to admit our shortcomings, forgive ourselves, motivate ourselves with kindness, care for others, and be fully human. Each one of us possess the potential to free ourselves from mental states that perpetuate our own suffering and the potential to find inner peace for ourselves and contribute to the happiness of all around you. If we learn to cultivate inner calm and altruistic love, our lives certainly would not lose any of its richness. Rapidly expanding research clearly demonstrates that self-compassion is related to emotional wellbeing, lower anxiety and depression, maintenance of healthy habits such as diet and exercise, and more satisfying personal relationships.

A Contemporary Scientific Field

‘Metta’ or Compassion meditation is a contemporary scientific field that demonstrates the efficacy of metta and related meditative practices. Richard J. Davidson (Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as well as Founder and Chairperson of the Center for Healthy Minds) has shown metta to induce changes in the brain’s tempo parietal lobe. The benefits of metta practice are increasingly identified by contemporary research. Meditation on compassion or benevolence is considered a good way to calm down a distraught mind and an antidote to anger. Someone who has cultivated benevolence will not be easily angered and can quickly quell anger that arises, being more caring, more loving, and more likely to love unconditionally. to harbour ill will or hostility. Cultivating benevolence is thought to contribute to a world of love, peace, and happiness. Meditation on benevolence is considered a good way to calm down a distraught mind and an antidote to anger. Someone who has cultivated benevolence will not be easily angered and can quickly quell anger that arises, being more caring, more loving, and more likely to love unconditionally. Compassion meditation and mindfulness meditation are complementary, going hand in hand enhancing the positive effects of both practices.

Inner Transformation and Self Understanding

Bhavana or Buddhist meditation practices, involve inner transformation leading to calm and peacefulness and self understanding at the deeper level, or complete awareness and understanding of one’s inner self”, and realization of the true nature of what one conventionally understands as oneself or self”. By unlocking the innermost mystery of who you are, you are free to commune with the ineffable mystery penetrating all existence. Buddhist meditation practices help one to develop a state of consciousness that leads to self understanding and a state of awakening to realities of life, and eventually to the ultimate meaning of life. Inner discipline involves combating or resisting negative states of mind such as anger, hatred, greed, and jealousy, and the cultivation of positive states of mind such as compassion, kindness, tolerance and caring. These are basic ethical values without which human existence becomes hard and meaningless. Inner discipline is the basis of a wholesome life. It is the fundamental method of achieving health and happiness.

It is through ‘bhavana’ practices that one develops peace and tranquillity of mind. With peace, comes the end to fears and expectations, anxiety and stress, and the ability to see yourself as you truly are, or in other words, a deeper understanding of the ‘self’. Using self-directed neuroplasticity through meditation, we can return our brains to their natural states of joyful peace, opening the way to our own path of awakening. We spend a lot of time and effort to improve the external conditions of our lives, but in the end it is always our mind that creates our experience of the world and translates this experience into either our well-being or suffering. Training our mind is important if we want to develop emotional balance, inner peace and wisdom that would lead to well-being. We have within ourselves the potential to develop these qualities using the mind-training bhavana or meditation practices. If we want to observe the subtlest mechanisms of our mental functioning and have an effect on them, we must refine our powers of looking inward. In order to do that, our attention has to be sharpened so that it becomes stable and clear. We will then be able to observe how the mind functions and perceives the world. Buddhist Meditation practices, especially samatha” and vipassana”,  help us to unmask the causes of our stress, discontentment and suffering and to dispel our mental confusion and turbulence. It helps us to develop our own understanding of ourselves that comes from a clear view of reality. 

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

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