Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Prayer: It Does a Body Good: Prayer Can Literally Change Our Brain

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Prayer: It Does a Body Good: Prayer Can Literally Change Our Brain

Article excerpt

For 15 years the Dalai Lama--whose title means Ocean of Wisdom--has worked with neuroscientists in the West, encouraging them to study the effects of meditative disciplines on the brain. When I heard him speak last fall in Washington, D.C., I was intrigued when someone asked him--in the context of the Iraq war, the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Pakistan--how he deals with "compassion fatigue"? He is, after all, the incarnation of the Compassionate Buddha.

"Neurologically," he replied, "we now understand that empathy is a spontaneous response in the immediate moment. When we see someone else's suffering, for an instant we perceive--our brain reacts--as if what the other is experiencing we are experiencing too."

"Empathy is really what we are describing when we talk about 'compassion fatigue," he continued. "It is the simple compassion a person experiences when they want to see another person free from suffering." Empathy is the autonomic human response to the pain of another--and yes, it can be physically exhausting when we experience too much stimuli without the spiritual wisdom to understand our experience.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading researcher in preventive and behavioral medicine at the University of Massachusetts, says that "empathy fatigue" is scientifically measurable. There is a "relaxation curve" in our neurological empathetic response. "After about three weeks [of responding to the pain of another]," said Kabat-Zinn, "a person's brain goes 'back to normal." The feelings of empathy begin to fade and the brain no longer responds to that particular stimulus. "This is a natural response in a culture that is strongly ego-identified," Kabat-Zinn continued. "With our sense of individuality, we can not take in the pain of the world." How interesting if the inverse also proves to be true--the more oriented one is to a communal identity, the more empathetic and compassionate one becomes, physically.

When we experience empathy in relation to those that we know or love or who are similar to us, it is primarily an extension of loving our selves--not the more complex response of compassion. Real compassion is when we have a spontaneous neurological response to those who are unrelated to us or whom we have been culturally shaped to distance ourselves from. In other words: our enemies. "A more telling experiment," said the Dalai Lama, "would be to examine such feelings toward these less-related people to see if activation arises in the same areas of the brain. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.