Suffering, due to causes such as disease, aging, hunger, or loneliness, can be found throughout the world. We ourselves are encountering life’s difficulties daily. There is also much to appreciate in the kindness and mutual support shown by so many members of our human family. And there are the opportunities life provides to serve and act in selfless, generous, patient ways toward our brothers and sisters.
At the root of human suffering is our excessive self-centeredness; a fixation on our own needs rather than the greater good. In contrast, feelings of compassion, empathy, and loving kindness, which shift our focus outward, restore us to happiness.
Some positive emotions are innate while others need to be cultivated. Negative emotions are also in us. When they are subtle, they appear so natural and native that we do not realize them as being harmful. If not contained, they can be detrimental. When provoked, we instinctively become defensive and often respond angrily, with no thought for what the other person might be experiencing. And when we succeed in a task, we often feel we deserve recognition and praise, overlooking any contributions made by others. This self-centered attitude can lead to dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and even depression.
Buddhism teaches that “I” is like an illusion. If we search for that “I” among the physical and mental parts that make up each of us, we won’t find anything concrete or independently existent. Neuroscience teaches us that our sense of self is an evolutionary adaptation and is subserved, at least partly, by a neural network connecting the posterior parietal lobe with the pre-frontal cortex and the limbic system, seat of the so-called reptilian brain. When activity in these areas is altered through techniques such as meditation, electrical stimulation, or cognitive behavioral therapy, the strong grasping for a sense of self diminishes. We become less anxious, calmer, and more joyful.
We recently had the opportunity to witness the diminishment of grasping at a sense of self, along with the great peace it brought to a troubled state of mind. A woman made a pilgrimage to Dharamsala, 5,600 feet in the Himalayas, to seek spiritual guidance. She was in tears as she described the various troubles that had befallen her. When asked “Where is this miserable ‘I’ you are referring to?,” she said, “Here, here,” pointing to her chest. “And what is its shape? A triangle? a square? a circle?” she was asked. “A circle,” she said. She was told to meditate on the circle in her chest without letting it move one centimeter to the left or right. She closed her eyes and focused on it. After a few moments, she whispered, “It has disappeared!” The three of us laughed. Her brain activity had changed, and, hence, her outlook and relationship with the world would too.
As teachers, both of us are also students. As novelist J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize laureate, writes, “Teaching others teaches us humility, and teaches us who we are in the world.” Effective teaching requires compassion and humility. The irony should not escape us that the one who teaches often learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn often learn much less.
Buddhist teachers remind us that each of us is a student and everyone else in the world is our teacher, and that those who cause us the most difficulty can be our best teachers, toward whom we would be wise to feel gratitude. We must learn to appreciate the opportunity they provide, and we must develop compassion toward them. Our compassion must contain the ability to listen with an open mind. Compassion opens our minds and hearts to the possibility that others have real reasons for believing the things they do. (They don’t always — but our starting point should be to believe that they do.)
The combined elixir of humility, compassion, and gratitude activates brain regions and neurochemical systems that help us thrive, enabling us to live both better and longer lives. Compassion can be strengthened through reasoning and familiarization, and through meditating on these qualities. Whether people agree with us and are friendly, or disagree with us and are disruptive, ultimately, they are human beings, just like us: They wish for happiness and don’t want suffering. Furthermore, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is equal to our own. When we recognize that all beings are equal in both their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it, we will naturally feel empathy and closeness toward them.
Neuroscience recently uncovered at least two distinct brain networks that underlie compassion. One is the previously mentioned network that connects portions of the prefrontal cortex with the posterior parietal cortex and helps us to infer the beliefs, perspectives, and feelings of others. The second takes place when we shift our attention away from ourselves and toward others, experiencing an emotional response to their suffering. This causes a connection of the insula with the cingulate cortex, regions that are associated with maintaining and shifting of attention.
This is of particular interest today, as our human population ages. For the first time, there are more people in the world over 65 than under 5, and these older adults have a life expectancy well into their 80s and beyond. Research shows that aging brings neurophysiological changes that shift our attention to increase our feelings of compassion and gratitude. This is called the “positivity bias” or “grandparent syndrome.” Older adults tend to be more open, and although they experience some inevitable slowing down, they are better at certain kinds of problem-solving, especially those involving interpersonal conflicts and those requiring compassion and empathy. For younger people, compassion can be strengthened through reasoning and logic, and through meditating on these qualities.
There is much to be grateful for, even in these tumultuous times. Perhaps especially in these times. And the easiest way to ease suffering is to use our reason and logic to realize none of us is ever truly alone in this world; there are more than 7.5 billion other human beings just like us, experiencing the same suffering and — hopefully — the same compassion and gratitude toward us that we can cultivate toward them.
The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the spiritual leader of Tibet and a Nobel laureate for peace. His latest book is “The Seeds of Compassion.” Dr. Daniel J. Levitin is a professor and neuroscientist at the Minerva Schools at KGI in San Francisco. His latest book is “Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives.”