Exercising Compassion

by DavalosMcCormack on August 12, 2008

Every time I go to the gym I’m amazed at the sheer variety of different exercises you can do to work out each part of your body. It seems that for each muscle there are a dozen different ways of working it to make it stronger.

That’s good, because variety can help you avoid becoming bored with your workout routine. It’s also useful because if you keep doing the same thing over and over again the benefits are not as great as if you keep trying new things.

That raised a question in my mind. If you can make your physical body better, more efficient and stronger by doing a variety of exercises, can you train and strengthen other things, like memory?

There are lots of studies that show you can give the brain a workout and train it to improve memory, and reduce your risk of dementia. But I was more interested in finding out about emotions, in particular can you learn to control your emotions better or increase your capacity for compassion, forgiveness, or for over-all happiness?

Recently, I saw a news story about a guy who weighed 600 pounds and lost 400 pounds over a 2 1/2 year period with the help of a friend. They asked him, what made him decide to lose the weight, he said, that he was so unhappy he thought, “If I can be this unhappy, why can’t I learn to be this much happier?

Clearly losing the weight made him happier, but an even more intriguing question is in the course of becoming happier did he lose the weight? In effect, which came first, the chicken or the egg?

We may not have an answer to that question just yet but a recent study, in the Public Library of Science One, did help answer another question about our emotions, namely ‘can we train ourselves to be more compassionate? Happily the answer is yes!
This study was done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The researchers used MRI (brain imaging) which showed that loving-kindness and compassion can be learned in the same way as playing a musical instrument or being good at sports. All it takes is practice. Practice, Practice, Practice!

They studied a group of Tibetan monks who cultivated compassion meditations, and some lay people who had only recently learned to meditate. The newbies were asked to think good thoughts about relatives and friends and then (now this is just a thumbnail explanation) they were asked to generate good feelings toward all beings. Guess what? Scans of their brains revealed that the circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who were practicing this form of compassionate meditation. Even among the newbies! And the more they practiced good feelings towards everyone, the better they got at it and the more positive feelings of compassion they experienced!

What’s fascinating about this is it shows that our brains, our empathy with others, are not stuck at set points, that they can be exercised and changed. Like our muscles they can be flexed and exercised and strengthened. The end result can be something truly wonderful, a greater sense of happiness and compassion. And you don’t even need to go to the gym to get it!

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