In some of us this title may arouse feelings of longing or loss. We may have felt a lack of loving care in our life from the beginning. Also, finding good role models may not be easy.
Holding a newborn in our arms, we might recognize the innate goodness of this little being. And yet the baby cries a lot. She seems to experience many forms of lack: lack of food, lack of comfort, lack of understanding. Those around the baby do their best, but sometimes things turn out differently than we think they will.
Last month we reflected on the difficult aspects of our life and some possible remedies. This month I’d like to focus on innate qualities built into our human nature. As we consciously acknowledge these qualities and integrate them into our life, our life can change for the better.
An experience of holding a newborn can be enchanting and might suddenly free us from our habitual stream of worries. All of us have felt the wish to care for others, and we have expressed this in certain moments as it came to us naturally. At the same time, we all can remember experiences that tend to limit this natural gift.
Loving kindness affects the brain
The acts of giving and receiving love bring feelings of warmth and spaciousness. This inner openness is at once highly sensitive to our own and other’s needs, and also can bring a sense of vulnerability. However, experiencing a loving connection makes us feel more alive. Brain research has discovered that certain areas of the brain show intensified activity in people who demonstrate loving qualities. Also, the brain regions that balance emotional reactivity are more active.
Neuroscience has also discovered that these same brain areas are intensified in monks who meditate on loving kindness and compassion. Many of these monks have practiced for long periods alone. This points to the fact that we can develop these qualities by mentally focusing on them. Similar to the use of visualization techniques by athletes, we can use our minds alone to practice activities we’d like to bring into our daily lives. We can use specific meditations that will engender an inner atmosphere from which loving actions will arise naturally. As this atmosphere becomes more open and loving, a certain orientation develops towards benefiting ourselves and others, no matter what.
The influence of our inner orientation
What can we say now about this inner orientation? In general, we notice that we feel differently after a challenging conversation than after a relaxing one. A difficult conversation might typically provoke feelings of irritation or empathy, depending on our inner orientation in that moment. So how we feel inside depends on how we are oriented inside. This is the interesting point—here is where we can influence our experience. The inner orientation determines whether our heart is touched and what tendencies we develop for future reactions.
Using the power of positive emotions
Putting these elements together: we can directly influence our capacity for feelings like love and compassion. We can train these qualities just as the monks in the research did. What we repeatedly practice determines what tendencies we create. We know the power of our habits, especially when we try to change them.
Acting out of upset causes us to strengthen those pathways in our nervous system. Acting out of a calm and considerate base will train other pathways. Using these circuits in our brain literally develops them, like creating a path through a field. Every time we go down the path we make it more visible and broader. This is personal evolution and not necessarily easy. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche once compared this process with launching a rocket from Earth into space. The first few meters require great energy, but soon the rocket gains speed and momentum. We might feel awkward in the beginning, as when we learned to drive a car, but perseverance allows us soon to find our own style.
– Loving kindness or Metta meditation guided by Sharon Salzberg:
Enjoy a good week full of loving attention and care for yourself and others,
To learn more about the science behind this training, you might enjoy Dr. Rick Hanson, Mathieu Ricard and Dr. Richard Davidson:
– Dr. Rick Hanson on how i n general attention practices change the brain:
– Mathieu Richard : “Change your mind change your Brain”
– Richard Davidson: