Friday, April 11, 2008

Seeds of Compassion, Day 2: The Scientific Basis for Compassion

Did you know that brain researchers can actually see a difference in brain activity when a person is feeling compassion? Did you know that children actually grow more when cared for by a loving caregiver? Do you know what the Dalai Lama's two different kinds of compassion are?

Today was a day to discuss the Scientific Basis for Compassion.

As many know, the Dalai Lama is very interested in the research of scientists. He doesn't feel that science is a threat to spirituality and religions. If anything, he sees how science can augment our beliefs gained from other areas in our life.

Today the Seeds of Compassion events started off at the University of Washington Bank of America Pavilion. I had to drive since I only had half an hour to get from the first event to the second. Aside from the guilt I felt about driving (and always do), I was out $11 for the parking - sheesh, no press parking!? But this was a small price to pay for the chance to attend this wonderful event.

I must say that the care given to the press is fabulous (either that or they want to make sure the press don't mill about randomly taking photographs where they shouldn't). After checking in (via the media entrance - so cool!), I was personally escorted to exactly where the press seats were located - a big block at the back of the floor seating. Not exactly close to where the Dalai Lama would be sitting but I wasn't about to complain.

Overall, though, my feeling about the life of a press person was a little less glamorous than last night. Unfortunately I saw many people jaded by the process (probably mainly the grunt workers who do all of the unglamorous work). I'm sure this is an oversimplification but many seemed completely undaunted by the fact that the Dalai Lama would be on stage soon. It could be that they simply weren't interested in this event or the Dalai Lama but it reminded me of how easy it is for us to become bored even with the extraordinary (let alone the ordinary).

I worry that if I had that kind of job day in and day out that I too would slowly forget how special even the ordinary moments of being part of the media could be. Not that we should feel arrogant or above others, but delighted in our great fortune! However, that having been said, the press were definitely there to report and that they did!

Today's first event was attended by Daniel Goleman (Moderator), Richard Davidson, Alicia Lieberman, Daniel J Siegel, Andrew Meltzoff and, of course, the Dalai Lama. Many of these names you will recognize from studies on the importance of social and emotional "intelligence."

The second event was attended by Mark Greenberg (Moderator), His Holiness the Dalai Lama, John Gottman, Mary Gordon, Roger Weissberg, Karen Gordon and Bob Marvin. Another great panel who focused on social and emotional interactions throughout the life span.

Both times when the Dalai Lama entered the room, everyone stood and applauded. He bowed many times and beamed his generous smile for all. It was an awesome moment!

For some reason I knew that the Dalai Lama had quite a sense of humor but for the life of me I can't remember where I had seen him (YouTube??)! His way was so natural and comfortable: He sat cross-legged on his chair and listened to what each panelist had to say (often with the help of his translator) and nodded in understanding. When asked a question by one of the panelists, he gave his answer thought, sometimes turning to his translator for help with a given expression or word.

Many times during the day I was struck with the contrast between the easy-going, relaxed, humorous, even silly nature of the Dalai Lama and the mature, elegant, adult-ness of the panelists. I was again filled with the realization of our seeming need to exhaust ourselves with the need to be cool and mature and wanted (not that the panelists were acting in such ways).

There sat the Dalai Lama teaching us about how to attain a compassionate nature and it was almost too simple for us to grasp: Have we created such a complex world? Are we unable to find true compassion because of the constructs of our surroundings which won't allow this to happen? The Dalai Lama indicated this when he said that he firmly believes that we are in our current predicament because of our own man-made constructs (and he emphasizes the word "man" vs "women"). He suggests that we have created such a level of complexity that we now must live in this world based on what we have constructed. We are now dependent upon the world for our survival and happiness. He emphasized that it used to be that a community would depend upon itself and together they would have a vested interest for one another and each member in the community (as we do for a family). Nowadays we have created such a web of global complexity that we ultimately feel helpless.

The solution to our current situation, he urges, is to understand that every action and choice we make ultimately influences every other person on this world (even if we can't feel the direct connection and see the ultimate results as we do in a smaller community). We need to take responsibility for the complexities which we have constructed and learn to find compassion for our whole global community.

Will science help us realize the importance of compassion and empathy in not only our lives but in the world as a whole? Perhaps it will be science which can help bring us back to our intrinsic intuition of what is right and good? Will understanding the workings of compassion in our minds give us answers?

Aside from the general premise of the discussions today, here are some key points which I took away from the event (you can see the events yourself here and form your own conclusions:

(1) Everyday when we wake up, let's look at our children and promise ourselves that we will always see them as valued, cherished, and precious to us - even when they are acting poorly - and find ways to continually treat them with the compassion which we would want in return. This is the first step in creating global compassion. Just because our children are small, it doesn't mean they aren't learning in leaps and bounds - preparation for their adult lives!

(2) Babies learn when they are excited, attentive and attuned with that which they are engaged. How a child feels affects how they will learn - this goes from infants all the way through to adults (but the younger we are creates patterns for later in life).

(3) We need to stop thinking that raising our children to be emotionally and socially enriched means tons of play-dates and activities. Examples within the family are the basis for how our children will learn what it means to be emotional and socially involved.

(4) Children learn more in their first 5 years of life than the rest of their lives put together (Meltzhoff). Babies brains are extremely plastic and their favorite plaything is us: their parents! They have an innate sense of curiosity and will learn everything they can on their own if we just let them go about it!

(5) We CAN change our brains when we get older. We aren't stuck forever in a specific pattern. But this may mean work on our part. The Dalai Lama recommends "reflective meditation." Not necessarily the kind of meditation where we sit and watch the thoughts of our mind. Instead we should practice a kind of meditation where we reflect on elements on which we need to focus.

(6) A large element of creating compassion in ourselves and others is simply responding to others as if to say, "I see you." "I hear what you are saying." "I acknowledge that you said something to me and I heard it (even if I don't agree)." The same is true for children. Show them that you are there for them. Pick up babies when they are crying! Each time you do this you are teaching them that you love them and that they can rely on you. Look your toddler in the eye (at eye-level) and tell him that you understand that he wants that toy and that you know how much it hurts that he can't have it. Give him an outlet for expressing the feelings he has inside when he wants something so much that it makes him cry.

(7) The pre-frontalcortex is where the ability to remain calm in a stressful situation resides. It is also where empathy resides and where we can regulate our emotions (Siegel). If we understand how the brain works in this way, then when we get frustrated or angry with our children, we can understand that it is also possible to calm ourselves down. It takes time and focus but this IS something we can work on to change in our brain patterns by creating more constructive patterns.

(8) We need to learn to override our desire for short-term gain for the long-term gain when it comes to our reactions and emotions (Dalai Lama). We lash out and when we do so it feels good for the short term but it has long-term consequences. The right path is to think about the long-term goal of happiness which comes from always striving for compassionate thinking.

(9) There are two kinds of compassion: (1) biased = limited and (2) unbiased = unlimited (Dalai Lama). The biased/limited is found biologically in most animals. Unbiased/unlimited comes with the help of intelligence. The understanding that we are all one in the same human species and we need one another to survive. Limited compassion can not extend to our enemy but unlimited can - primarily through training our mind with a concentrated effort (not a religious effort but through common sense and experience).

(10) When we are younger we are more able to forgive: we argue often but then quickly make up and forgive (Dalai Lama). We let things go, we don't hold on to them and let them fester. But as we get older, we hold onto bitter angers and hate - this is what we need to try and dissipate within ourselves so that compassion can take its place.

(11) Now that we all have such a high degree of knowledge about how we should treat one another, the key is turning all of this knowledge into action (Talaris Institute Founder).

(12) A University of Pittsburgh study with children in orphanages showed that children who do not have any bond with a caregiver tend to be aggressive and violent. However, when these same children were provided a bond with a continual, comforting care from a caregiver, the children actually start to grow more physically and their aggression decreased! This is the influence that a loving bond from parents can produce. Suffering emotionally can affect the whole body.

(13) The kind of interaction from both mother and father is important. Mothers tend to repeat an activity with a child over and over again, even if the child isn't very interested. Fathers tend to get bored with an activity if a child isn't interested and will either focus on something else or leave the child to seek out the father and engage him. In this way, a child learns different methods of interaction and social engagement. (Gottman)

(14) Schools need to do much, much more than they are doing in helping to provide more social and emotional education. School should NOT be just about academics. This can easily be added into everyday interactions: for example, a new child comes to school and the class discusses how to best make the child feel comfortable. And parents need to understand, support and appreciate this in the school system rather than just looking at academics! (Gordon / Weissberg)

(15) 67% of parents in the USA end up going through a very difficult time (some divorce) when their first child is born. It is as if they weren't prepared for the effort and changes involved with a new baby in their lives (Gottman). This surprised the Dalai Lama who said that what it indicates to him is the lack of responsibility that parents are taking when they start a new life. If they have no children and decide to go their separate ways, that is one thing. But if we decide to start a family, then it is our responsibility to do all that we can to make it work. The Dalai Lama feels this needs to come through via some kind of educational system (if it isn't being automatically learned in the home as a person grows up).

(16) Finally, the main point that the Dalai Lama wanted to emphasize at the end of the event was that compassion is not just wishful thinking, it is about ACTION. Compassion needs to move beyond our conceptualizations and into action - we need to start by treating our children with compassion and then go from there: our spouse, our mother and father, our neighbor, our grandparents, etc.

This was a wonderful day full of information! I will head off to bed now and see what awaits me tomorrow. Luckily we have some wonderful friends who will take care of our kids tomorrow during the event! What would we do without wonderful neighbors, families and friends?

1 comment:

Amadeus said...

I have listened carefully the contributions of Dalai Lama and known scientists expecting SYNERGY of faith and science, heart and mind. It didn't happen!