Monday, July 11, 2011

Can We Learn to Be More Compassionate?

I believe that a critical and fundamental assertion that is often overlooked is that we can train our mind. For a long time this contrasted somewhat with biological science which told us that our neurons were fixed after a certain age and that our brain did not really change much after that.  However, more current research has overturned the fixed brain theory and now the brain is described by neuroscientists as being plastic.  This means that the Buddhist point of view, among others,  has had a good sense of how the human mind works and what its potential is.  What we do, think and feel matter and can alter the wiring and structure of our brains.

The affirming message in all of this is that we can change, even later in life, and expand our potential.  Alternatively the uncomfortable fact that accompanies the first is that if we are not involved in our own development then we are leaving it to chance.  We must use it or lose it so to speak.  We have an unprecedented capacity for wisdom, compassion, insight, skill development and to be healthy emotionally and physically.  But it is our responsibility to make sure that we are on a path for the changes to be positive and productive.

There is a similar responsibility that comes with a growing understanding of how flexible our minds and brains are.  It took the pressure off when things were more fixed.  After all, after the age of 25 (or whatever it was) your brain was fixed.  You could only be expected to change so much after that; you were already programmed.  Therefore if you weren't a master concert level musician by your mid to late 20's you could just blame your parents that they didn't get you started young enough.  Brain science is very new and can't tell us everything about ourselves, but it is inspiring to dwell on the thought that we do have some freedom to chart our own destiny if we have determination and commitment to do so.

One of the meditations in Buddhism is to reflect upon your luck at being born into a situation that has certain freedoms and advantages.  You reflect upon these things to inspire yourself to work on positive changes and to take advantage of the opportunities you have.  It is helpful to imagine others' situations who have no freedom or opportunities for spiritual practice or self development.  I think of these new discoveries of neuroscience in that context.  We are very fortunate, in spite of the responsibility it puts on us, that at least to some extent where we go, our brain will adapt and follow.

Linked here is a article from Scientific American about the studies going on and if meditation can affect our ability and capacity for empathy...Please check it out.  Meditate on this: You can learn to be more compassionate

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