Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (from Random House in October ...Read More
As you probably know, compassion and lovingkindness are central elements of Buddhism.
They arise naturally in response to one of those three fundamental characteristics of existence: interdependence/not-self/emptiness. They are also a beautiful path of spiritual practice. And they just feel good: “Through compassion one is free from lethargy and depression.” (Acariya Dhammapala)
Interestingly, a scientifically based tradition as hard-headed as Western psychology is also beginning to find that working with compassion and related heartfelt feelings has both mental and physical benefits.
For example, the Institute of HeartMath (in Boulder Creek, California) has researched connections between the heart and emotional well-being.
Even a regular heartbeat – e.g., 60 times a minute – still has a little variability in the interval between each beat. A large and smoothly changing variation in those intervals changes your brain waves, activates the para-sympathetic nervous system, lowers blood pressure, supports the immune system, and has other health benefits.
It also helps you feel more peaceful and happy and caring.
So let’s try a simple technique that can bring your heart beat into a healthier rhythm.
It has three parts:
Breathe in such a way that the length of your inhalation and exhalation are the same (perhaps counting in your mind to make the breaths even).
Imagine that the breath is coming into and out of the area of your heart.
As you breathe evenly through your heart, call to mind a pleasant, heartfelt emotion such as gratitude, kindness, contentment, or love — perhaps by thinking about a happy time, being with your children, gratitude for the good things in your life, a close friend, etc. You can also imagine that feeling moving through your heart as part of the breath.
Why don’t you try this for a few minutes, right now?
Just three to five cycles of this sort of breathing can have a noticeable effect. Also try five to ten minutes straight sometime, and see how that feels.
Of course, there are other ways to cultivate compassion, such as through metta – or compassion and lovingkindness – meditation that many people here are familiar with. In fact, metta practice could also help release oxytocin, a hormone that is involved in warm feelings of safety and contentment – and is released in women when they are nursing, to give you a sense of its qualities.