Compassion and meditation – towards contemplative sciences

Breaking news: ‘We have confirmed at least 69 dead in a massacre on Utoya island near Oslo…’

May all beings be safe, happy, healthy, live joyously…..

May all living beings be safe, happy, healthy, live joyously….

– Instructions for Loving-kindness meditation

 ‘What’s the final diagnosis, doctor?’

‘Mr. and Mrs. Redford, it might not be easy for you but there’s no doubt anymore, your daughter suffers from the rare Edwards syndrome. Pathological changes are so advanced that even if she survives birth then her life… ‘

May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I be safe and protected.

May I be free of mental suffering or distress.

May I be happy.

– Instructions for Loving-kindness meditation

Every day, every hour and every minute people face difficult moments and are confronted with harsh reality. How can one learn, accept and live in accordance with these centuries-old messages in everyday life? How can one reconcile it with the chaos of modern age?

It goes without saying, that the urge to lessen human suffering has been with us for a very long time. From the very early days of our civilization, people eagerly followed paths fixed by religions, philosophies and spiritual movements in the hope of diminishing existential pain. In the current age of rapid progress, it is no surprise that more and more people, turn to science in their search. Wise thinkers of today have noted however, that in our pursuit for answers it is way too easy to favour rationality and intellect, leaving out heart and feelings… But what if told you they march hand in hand…?

Contemplative science

Many of us noticed recent meditation hype, but only few stumbled upon the term ‘contemplative science’ which is a unique collaboration between scientist, sages, teachers and health care practitioners. This approach tackles thousand-year old contemplation (self-reflection) techniques with modern methods of neuroscience, thereby trying to shed new light on them. Being in its infancy, it struggles with many methodological difficulties such as subjectivity, adequate experimental settings and last but not least the very definition of meditation itself.

Stemming mainly (but not only) from Asian traditions, meditation is said to be a set of techniques rather than one single practice, cultivated to achieve enlightenment. Currently there are some well-established interventions in psychotherapy and medical environment based on Buddhist context, with the mindfulness-based techniques family being a prominent example.

Buddhist monks are well known for cultivation of compassion and their deep contemplative practices. Source: Matthieu Ricard website

Scientist crave for clear definitions and categories, so currently great efforts are being made to provide such for meditation techniques. Roughly speaking, there are four major groups: 1) Focused Attention, 2) Mantra recitation, 3) Open monitoring, and 4) Loving-kindness or compassion meditation. All four are characterized by both unique and common patterns of brain neuronal networks activity. We should keep in mind however, that this classification is far from being set in stone.

In what follows I will focus only on loving-kindness and compassion meditations. Before demystifying the techniques themselves we need to understand basic scientific viewpoint on very human phenomena called compassion and empathy. Let’s just ask a simple question now – what are they? 

Compassion and Empathy

Empathy is one of the very basic human  features… Women’s March in NYC. Retrived from Wikicommons  (CC BY 2.0)

These abstract concepts are not new, quite to the contrary – they form pillars of Buddhist philosophy. It is striking that they have been set apart in science only recently, and that even now, their definition still gives neuroscientists and psychologists a headache. Empathy is thought to be an affective response that arises from the observation and understanding of another’s emotional state and is similar to what the other person is feeling. Whereas compassion is defined as the deep wish that another being is free from suffering, coupled with the motivation to alleviate such. As impossible as it may sound, researchers in the field agree that they can be ‘trained’ or more properly, cultivated, leading to meaningful behavioral and biological changes. In this context credit goes to…

Loving-kindness and compassion meditations

Being closely related, both techniques come from ancient Buddhist tradition and comprise two out of four Buddhist qualities known as immeasurables. The word ‘immeasurable’ here reflects the fact that according to this philosophy, human beings have limitless scope for developing them. The four qualities are loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), appreciative joy (mudita), equanimity (upekkha).

Imagination of compassion-based meditation – sometimes you send it (cultivate it), sometimes you receive it…  Flickr  (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Both are mutually connected and teaching one without the other makes no sense. Additionally, both forms rely on entering a contemplative state and the conscious generation of positive emotions towards oneself, humanity and all beings in the world. Moreover, loving-kindness meditation develops unconditional kindness to all people while compassion meditation cultivates deep sympathy for those who suffer with honest wish to ease their misfortune. Repeating phrases (beginning of the post), using mental visualizations or teacher’s suggestions are commonly used ‘facilitators’. Now it is time to explore how does the brain and ‘the body respond to such a treatment.

Neurobiology behind the curtain

First, let’s take a closer look at brain areas, of which many have been associated with empathy. Two of them, hidden deep inside the brain’s hemispheres are the insular and cingulate cortices. In one of the many important studies on Tibetan Buddhist monks, researchers compared activation in those brain areas during contemplative states between novices and experts (monks). All were presented with 3 types of auditory stimuli: positive (laughter of a baby), negative (woman in distress) and neutral (background noise in the restaurant) while performing meditation in the fMRI scanner. Significantly higher activity in the insula was observed when hearing negative sounds in advanced meditators compared to novices. Moreover, the degree of activation was correlated with the subjective ‘immersion’ in meditative state.

Another important voice comes from Leipzig where thanks to the research group led by Tanja Singer, we know that there are important differences between the empathy and compassion. Generating compassion consciously modulates empathic response, diminishing negative and promoting positive affect. In neuroscientific jargon empathy activates neural networks associated with negative affect while compassion activates those involved with positive. In other words, it facilitates coping with stressful stimuli and prevents from ‘overreacting’ to the very emotional or difficult situations. Therefore, many practitioners and scientists perceive this type of meditation to be well-positioned ‘mental practice’ allowing for better emotional control, strengthened resilience and serving as a solid base for methods for better coping with stress.

Mind over molecules

Along with the nervous system, the immune and endocrine systems are the main ‘information carriers’ in our bodies. LK and CM are associated with lowering stress levels, so unsurprisingly we see differences at the molecular level. High levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6, proinflammatory cytokine) predict chronical stress-related diseases such as the diabetes and vascular diseases. Indeed, comapssion meditation training has been shown to decrease IL-6 in the blood after exposure to psychosocial stress.

Another interesting study examined levels of nitrogen oxide (NO) bioavailability, by measuring nitrate and nitrite levels  in novice and experienced meditators. One of NO’s roles is to regulate physiological response to stress by locally changing blood flow. The researchers detected considerable differences in nitrate level between participants, with higher levels in the group with some experience in meditation and lower in those without. Although results are not entirely consistent, they indicate that long-term practice has significant impact on NO metabolism, which in turn, is directly involved with the stress response.

Intriguing findings related to meditation techniques are those related to telomerase  activity. Telomeres are the DNA sequences on the end of chromosomes which serve as markers of ‘cellular ageing’. To put it briefly, the shortening of telomeres is one of the mechanisms behind ageing, so the longer the telomeres, the younger a person is. One study that explicitly dealt with loving-kindness detected correlation between their length and practice, although only in female participants. So that’s great news for women, but it is too early to suggest that only half the population can live longer thanks to regular meditation. However, it does seem that engagement in meditation on regular basis has a significant impact on our ageing process but to what extent it combines with other factors, especially with gender – is far from being clear.

Chromosome with pink-labelled telomeres – with every cell division pink caps shrink. Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Step by step…

We have barely scratched the surface of this emerging field which continues to grow year by year. There are still very important limitations and issues, waiting for bright minds to solve them but the future looks promising. One day, longitudinal studies will certainly revolutionize our perspective on meditation and consciousness. But until then, we ought to explore the intricacies of the mind with scientific scrutiny and monkish patience, otherwise we can quickly fall prey to the meditation hype… and if that happens maybe reflecting upon this old Buddhist joke will help us:

“Master, master, how long do I need to enlightenment?”

“Well, maybe 20 years.”

“And if I try really hard?

“Then 40”

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