Learning Compassion

Heart and Mind

I know I’m a nerd, but I can’t help but be fascinated by some of the brain science research being done today.  One studythat particularly intrigues me involved using a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to measure the brain’s activity of Tibetan monks who were meditating on compassion.  Now, meditating on compassion is something Tibetan monks do a lot of.  Thousands of hours are spent focusing their mind on compassion.  Also monitored were an equal number of people who were only taught the practice of compassion meditation two weeks before the tests were conducted.

Without boring you about the details (you can read about the study by clicking here), the scientists conducting the study essentially found that the human brain can be taught to be happy, compassionate, and kind.  Regions of the brain associated with emotion and compassion become more active during meditation and heighten our responses to those who are in need.

But more importantly, prolonged meditation eventually changes the brain… much the same way prolonged exercise regimes change the body.  This is good news because it indicates that bullies prone to aggression and anger can learn kindness.  People prone to depression can learn happiness.  People who have been selfish can  learn compassion.

Whereas the scientists were surely excited to have the empirical evidence they needed to be able to write papers and speak at conventions, I’m sure the Tibetan monks who were the subjects of the tests just smiled a good-natured and somewhat patronizing smile because these learned men and women weren’t telling them anything they didn’t already know.  Spending hours and hours and hours meditating on loving-kindness makes you more loving and more kind.  Duh! (Okay… Tibetan monks probably don’t say “duh”.)

Of course, these findings don’t just give Tibetan monks a bit of vindication in their practices… people of all faiths can smile and nod and say, “Yeah, we knew that.”

As a Christian, I am expected to pray.  As a Christian leader I am expected to pray a lot.  But as a minister, I am quick to tell people who use that cop-out phrase, “We just need to pray on it” that their prayer better not end with just a request being muttered from their mouths.  Prayer, true prayer, always leads to action.

Prayer is more than just rattling off  a laundry list of requests to God, we are expected to listen to what God has to say in return.  This means that even people who are uncomfortable with silence need to learn to sit in silence and let God speak to our hearts.  We need to be willing turn our minds to the things that reflect God.  Galatians 5:22-23 gives us a pretty nice, succinct list on those attributes: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If our minds were constantly tuned into these qualities as the minds of Tibetan monks are constantly tuned into compassion, imagine how our minds would be changed.  And changing the way our brain thinks and processes daily information is just the beginning.  Our actions would begin to fall in line with our new way of thinking.  Our lives would begin to reflect the things that we are spending our time meditating on.  We would become those fruits of the Spirit.

So… when I say “prayer works”, I’m not just spouting off another bumper-sticker cliché, but I’m saying I really and truly believe that prayer works.  If we make the time in our daily lives to really sit in the presence of God and were willing to meditate on God, we would begin to take on that image of God that we have all been created in.

Creative Commons License
Appalachian Preacher by Rev. Amanda Gayle Reed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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