Change the Brain for Good: Empathy and Compassion

This entry on empathy and compassion is the third in a five-part series. The series describes what we know about the impact of contemplative practice on the human brain and the relevance of these findings to doing meaningful work in groups. The first entry introduces this series and describes the impact of meditation on whether we can respond effectively to disturbing events instead of reacting to them. The second entry investigates resilience.

One of the most popular and memorable songs of the ‘60’s was “What the World Needs Now” by Hal David and Burt Bacharach. It was released during the Vietnam War years, when the country seemed to be splitting in two.

The lyrics were needed then and are more needed now:

“What the world needs now is love sweet love,
That’s the only thing that there’s just too little of,
What the world needs now is love sweet love,
Not just for some but for everyone.”

This is a tough political environment in which to make a case for empathy, compassion and love but I hope to do just that. These feelings are, I believe, the necessary ingredients for people to work together across divides to solve tough issues. Of which there are many. Including the way we interact with one another.

In his book Focus Daniel Goleman describes three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional and empathic. All three are needed for the challenging conversations we need to have at home, at work and in our communities.

Cognitive empathy enables us to understand what another person is saying, what they are thinking, and how they see a situation. When we paraphrase what others are saying, we let them know what we are hearing so they can correct us if we have misheard or they misspoke.

Empathic empathy allows us to feel what others are feeling and care about them. It creates a sense of connection and rapport between us. This develops in part through the mirror neurons that are part of the resonance circuitry in the brain. Cognitive empathy without some modicum of empathic empathy can feel cold or transactional. It might seem as if you understand my words but do not care about me or what I have said.

Empathic concern or compassion can be double-edged. On the one hand we experience the discomfort of feeling someone else’s pain. On the other it can motivate us to tend to the well-being of others, both those who are directly part of the interaction and to those who will be affected by our interaction, i.e., stakeholders.

Bringing all three types of empathy to difficult conversations, especially when people are polarized around different positions, is a challenge. However, we have at least one resource: meditation. We now know that we can strengthen the already existing neuronal networks for empathy and compassion.

Practicing mindfulness meditation and especially loving kindness meditation strengthens these networks. Prior to any meeting that I anticipate might be “tough,” I do a “Compassion Meditation.” I insert the name of the person(s) or group at the start of a series of phrases and say them to myself. Here are three of those phrases:
• “(Name) has a body and mind, emotions and thoughts, just like me.”
• “(Name) has hopes, fears, and a deep desire for happiness and fulfillment, just like me.”
• “(Name) wants to be healthy, loved, and included; to make a contribution; and to be heard and acknowledged, just like me.”

For the complete Compassion Meditation, see pages 158 to 160 in my book “Talk Matters!”

When we care about others and their well-being we are more inclined to listen to their point of view, why that is important to them and to search for solutions that work for everyone who is in the meeting and anyone who might be affected by the results of the meeting. In addition, when others extend emotional or empathic concern to us, we feel more connected and safe; and have better access to our entire brain, including the better angels in our mind.

Altered Traits, a recent book by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson summarizes and updates the research. It appears that meditation can transform four neural pathways: those related to (1) how we react to disturbing events; (2) empathy and compassion; (3) our ability to pay attention; and (4) our sense of self.

In the next blog, I explore the affect of meditating on your attention.

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