The Healing Power of Compassion -- Vinita Agrawal

The Healing Power of Compassion -- Vinita Agrawal
Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi is the Co-Director Tibet Science Initiative and Co-Principal Investigator at Emory Scientists. He is also the Founder and the Director of  Drepung Loseling Monastery, Inc, in Atlanta, GA,U.S.A. He was in Delhi recently to give a talk on the Healing Power of Compassion. Vinita Agrawal met and spoke to him about the outcome of his scientific research on meditation, stress and compassion.

Scientific research is now focusing on the relationship between meditation and stress. What exactly is stress?

Stress is a basic defence mechanism for protection against dangers of living. It helps in the evolution of the human species as it produces energy to fight against threats. That is the useful part of stress (grins). Stress is not a bad thing by itself. But when stress becomes chronic it spells trouble for us.
 
In today’s world, dangers include a lot of imaginary enemies like co-workers and neighbours. These are the enemy ‘tigers’ of urban living. So the source of stress is psychological. But our body is conditioned to react in the same way whether the danger is physical or psychological. It releases a high level of the hormone Cortisol in a sympathetic nervous response as well as the IL6, a cell indicating high stress levels in the body. Constant stress has a negative impact on our body and mind and causes wear and tear of the very body it is supposed to protect.

A major clinical research project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health is studying the effects of compassion meditation on the experience of depression. Could you tell us how meditation helps to reduce stress levels?

Many diseases like Alzheimer, Dementia, Diabetes, Hypertension, Cancer, etc are a fall out of stress. On the mental side also, Depression is a wide spread phenomena caused by stress. In the US alone, an estimated 30,000 suicides occur every year due to depression.(NIMH – National Institute of Mental Health). Scientific research has proved that Meditation can bring down the levels of Cortisol and IL6 in the human body, thereby deflecting the ill-effects of stress. This was observed when a study was carried out on a group of college students at the Emory University’s Department of Religion. This was part of the Emory-Tibet Partnership, a multi-dimensional initiative founded in 1998.The students were segregated into two groups – one group was taught to meditate on compassion and the other group led their normal routine. The group which meditated on compassion showed a marked reduction in stress indicators when their blood samples were examined – over a period of six-weeks. Meditation is an important intervention to fight the stress of living in society. And compassion is the tool with which one can establish greater connectedness and inter-personal liking amongst members of our society. Inter-personal relations are a huge source of stress in today’s lives

So what is the basic impact that compassion has on our lives? Can compassion be cultivated like a habit by ordinary people?

Compassion is the basis of all positive emotions.  It is a basic human value, and it need not be practised in the context of any particular religion. Compassion is enormously helpful in establishing social connectivity between people. It helps us create healthy long-lasting bonds with fellow human beings. Our quality of life is based on how we behave and how we behave depends on our perspectives. Our perspectives in turn, depend on our attitudes. Our attitudes are moulded by how compassionate we are! In fact I would like to quote the Dalai Lama here when he says that “compassion and love are essential to the survival of our species. They are not mere luxuries.”

So how does one meditate on compassion?

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to meditate – one is the Analytical meditation, where one concentrates on breathing. The second form of meditation is called Stabilising meditation – where on concentrates on mindfulness and introspective vigilance. Compassion can be cultivated as a quality through the Stabilising meditation. During the process of awakening compassion within oneself, the individual is taught self compassion, impartiality, affection, love, sympathy. The person is basically made aware of dependent origination – that everything exists because other things exist and nothing has an absolute reality of its own. If one can realise the interdependent nature of reality, one will feel much friendlier towards everyone. This will lead us to a happier state of mind. So meditating on compassion basically helps us to tune in to the suffering of others.
 
Could you elaborate more on the scientific findings of the mind-healing experiments done at your university?
 
Contemplative researchers at Emory have done several studies examining the effects of Cognitively Based Compassion Training (CBCT) on a host of biological, psychological and behavioural outcomes which have yielded compelling results. If I were to summarize the findings, I would say that the research has shown a distinct drop in the stress levels of its subjects. Having said that, I must however, point out that meditating on compassion is not easy. There are several stages to it. One should not expect results overnight. Becoming truly compassionate may even take many years. The important thing is to practise it constantly, if one wants to reap its rewards!
 
Vinita Agrawal is an award winning poet, and author of three books of poetry. She writes on Spirituality and Culture.
 
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