Friday, July 02, 2010

Practicing compassion

Is altruistic compassion something that can - indeed must - be learned - and mastered - through regular, disciplined practice? Thus, is it analogous to the discipline required to become a world class musician, athlete, chess player or scientist?

As regular dormgrandpop readers know, I listen regularly to podcasts of the US National Public Radio program, Speaking of Faith. To be fully absorbed, many of them merit several listenings.

One of my favorites is host Krista Tippett’s interview with Buddhist monk and spiritual teacher Matthieu Ricard. Ricard grew up in a prominent and intellectually brilliant family, the son of French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel and artist Yahne Le Toumlin. He earned a Ph.D. in cell genetics at the Pasteur Institute studying under a Nobel Laureate. But during his studies his imagination was captured by images of Buddhist spritual teachers in a documentary, The Impressionable Faces of Buddhist Silence, a friend was editing. Later, he reflected:

I had the impression of seeing living beings who were the very image of what they taught. They had such a striking and remarkable feeling about them. I couldn’t quite hit on the explicit reasons why, but what struck me most was that they matched the ideal of sainthood, the perfect being, the sage — a kind of person hardly to be found nowadays in the West. It was the image I had of St. Francis of Assisi, or the great wise men of ancient times, but which for me had become figures of the distant past. You can’t go meet Socrates, listen to Plato debating, or sit at St. Francis’ feet. Yet suddenly, here were beings who seemed to be living examples of wisdom. I said to myself, ‘If it’s possible to reach perfection as a human being, that must be it.’

The images contrasted with how he experienced some of the world renowned intellectuals who gathered for conversation at his family home. While they were brilliant, he observed, they did not necessarily seem to be very happy, contented or compassionate. Their teachings and their beings often were at odds with one another. This contrast lead to successive visits to Nepal, and, eventually, the decision to forgo his promising scientific career and pursue a life of Buddhist spiritual practice.

This brief biographical introduction provides context for just one of Ricard’s observations, suggested by the title of this posting. Its source is experimental results from research on the relationship between neuropsychology and Buddhist psychology. The research has been motivated by discussions between leading western psychologists and Buddhist spiritual teachers at the periodic “Mind and Life” conferences held under the Dalai Llama’s auspices.

Not long ago, neuropsychologists believed that there were few changes in the brain structure after adolescence. But recent work in a subfield known as neuroplasticity has refuted this belief. New electronic brain scanning techniques have made this work possible. For a longer period, scientists have been able to associate different parts of the brain’s physiology with different psychic and psychomotor functions. The more recent findings demonstrate that disciplined practice changes the brain’s neurophysiological structure. For example London taxi drivers, who must memorize names and locations of 20,000 streets have brains in which areas dealing with spatial relations are more fully developed. Violin virtuosos have more fully developed brain areas that link sounds, symbols and finger dexterity - and so forth.

These findings have lead neuropsychologists to perform studies on Buddhist monks who, like violinists, chess players and London Taxi drivers, have devoted thousands of hours to their craft, meditative practice, with major priority given to cultivating altruistic compassion. Ricard, who has logged more than 60,000 hours of meditative practice, participated in these studies. He was uniquely qualified to participate as scientist, Buddhist psychologist and subject. The results were similar to those from studies of other master practitioners. The neurophysiology of experienced spiritual practitioners showed greatly enhanced development of brain areas having to do with altruistic compassion and happiness. Indeed based on Ricard’s brain scans, while meditating, one neuropsychologist friend dubbed him “the happiest man in the world.” Not surprisingly, Ricard immediately distanced himself from this ‘honor,’ describing it as a misleading oversimplification that would detract from an important area of scientific research.

But he points to one finding of the research that does offer important practical lessons. He asks, if we believe that compassion is an important value, why do we believe that it can be cultivated in a few minutes each week, or month. Why would it not require - and deserve - disciplined endeavor similar to the practice of violinists, chess masters and London Taxi drivers?

There is a sad corollary Ricard does not mention, but that must certainly be true as well. If we regularly cultivate - and practice - anger, hatred, envy and resentment, that, too, will alter our brain’s neurophysiology, in addition to impacting the other human beings whose misfortune it is to cross our path.

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