You Can Learn to be Kinder!

A study shows compassion meditation strengthens altruism.

Jul 26, 2020

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People yearn to improve themselves, with many seekers turning to self-help books and seminars to gain wisdom. Yet true greatness rests within. 

Yes, you can learn to be kinder! A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that after just seven hours of training, one can become kinder and, in turn, desire to help others. This can promote a sense of happiness and fulfillment. 

Understanding the importance of developing kindness, Buddhists implemented a meditation practice called Karuna, meaning both  “compassion” and “self-compassion” in Sanskrit and Pali.

To practice Karuna meditation, as described by the meditational nonprofit Mindworks, one sits quietly and focuses on their breath, then thinks about someone they know who is suffering. They imagine their pain and try to feel it in their heart. In their mind, they repeat the following three statements: “May your difficulties be relieved.” “May you know wellness and peace.” “May your heart be at ease.” The same practice is then done for someone who has helped them, an acquaintance, themselves, and for all beings, as explained on Dharmanet.

Dr. Richard Davidson, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds (as well as a good friend of the Dalai Lama), trained people how to do Karuna meditation in his study.

Helen Weng, who worked with Davidson and was the lead author of the study, told the University of Wisconsin-Madison News, “It’s kind of like weight training. Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.” 

In their compassion study, researchers tracked the brain response when participants thought about someone suffering, observing brain activity in the inferior parietal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for empathy. There was also more activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which regulates emotion as well as produces positive emotions. The participants were later observed playing a game.and they demonstrated more empathy and a stronger desire to help the needy than did the control group. 

Since people can learn to be kinder, this type of mindfulness may have many positive repercussions. It can be especially helpful when taught to school children, as well as to bullies and people with antisocial behavior. Dr. Davidson recently completed a compassion study on teachers, showing that mindfulness training improved their ability to teach, plus it reduced stress and burnout. 

Positive change starts with the self, externally and internally. Try to keep the body healthy with physical activity and, in stillness, strengthen that altruism muscle. Breath by breath, practicing compassion can make the world a better place.

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NICOLE NATHAN BEM, CONTRIBUTOR
Nicole is an editor, blogger and author who has recently left her urban life in order to be more connected with nature. In her spare time, she’s outdoors hiking in the forest, mountain biking or tending to her new permaculture garden.