I spent this weekend at a two day meditation event with one of my dearest friends, and together we soaked in the amazing wisdom of Syliva Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg, who came together to teach as a duo on this snowy, rainy weekend in Washington DC.
My favorite nuggets:
Sylvia Boorstein’s teaching, “May I meet this moment fully, May I not complicate it, May I meet it as a friend.”
Sharon Salzberg’s teaching: “The most important moment of meditation is the moment you sit down to do it.”
And Syliva Boorstein’s teaching about how to handle being in busy, harried family life and not lose one’s hard won peace in the midst of it: “Try not to fall into other people’s states of mind.” I find this really wise as I raise teenagers…
My deepest gratitude to these two wise teachers.
I am particularly grateful that at the end, I received the joyful gift of a warm hug from Sylvia Boorstein, who was so kind to say such lovely things about The Last Best Cure when it came out last spring. As I told my friend Elizabeth, who is one of those wonderful kinds of friends who always keeps me honest with myself, as I grow older, I hope to become more like Sylvia Boorstein — she pretty much glows with metta. And to please remind me, when I am overreactive and small of mind, by saying, “Remember, you want to glow like Syliva Boorstein.”
Sometimes, just to meet someone whom you admire so much, whose teachings you follow, and to see how their presence changes those around them — because their compassion and loving kindness comes from such a deep wellspring the whole room can sip from it — well, that is a teaching in and of itself. Thank you Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg (whose fabulous new book is just out, Real Happiness at Work).
I’m just about to announce my next book project — which I’ve signed for with Atria/Simon & Schuster. I’m going to be looking for interviewees for this one! So, stay tuned…I’ll be reaching out to you, my amazing, faithful readers.
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Yesterday I was struggling to manage a few swirling mind states — you know, those fears, resentments and regrets that well up, or at least they do for me. I just could not find any inner compassion for my own life mistakes. My suffering was mind-wrought, and doing me no good, but even knowing all that I could not manage my thoughts.
Then I remembered a type of meditation that has helped me get unstuck in the past. It is taught by many but my favorite version is by John Makransky. It’s called “Identifying Benefactors and Receiving Love.”
So I got it out again, that tape, as a rescue remedy (you can listen to his free 13 minute audio version at this link).
It’s pretty healing stuff. Here’s how a “receiving benefactors” meditation works, in case you feel inclined to give it a try.
Makransky asks us to first think of people in our lives whom we might think of as benefactors, those who have wished for our “deep well-being and happiness.” Often, these are, he says, the people we most liked to be around at earlier points in our lives. A dear aunt or grandparent, a friend of our parents, a teacher or professor or coach, someone whom it feels good to remember because we knew in our hearts that they wanted the absolute best for us. We felt safe by their side.
Thinking of my Own Benefactors
I think of my Dad, of course I think of him. I think of how one day, when I was 11, a year or so before he died, we were sailing. As I took the tiller on that blue-green Chesapeake day, my Dad turned to my mother and asked — despite my buck teeth, my horn-rimmed tortoise shell glasses, my frizzy blond hair that inspired my brothers to call me “lampshade head” — “Isn’t she just so beautiful?” As if he saw something incandescent beneath my profound gawkiness.
Someone who believes we are beautiful, even when we are gawky and awkward, and who knows we need to hear it precisely because we are gawky and awkward, that is a benefactor.
I think, too, of my father’s mother, whom we called GranMary. GranMary always called me “my darling girl,” no matter how old I was. The last time I saw her shortly before her death, she patted my hand between her palms, and, caught in a moment of dementia, asked, “You are going to Jay’s play tonight, aren’t you?” She was talking about my father, who had been dead for 30 years. She was reliving one of those buoyant, excited moments of mothering: the opening night of the school play her son had written and directed — albeit half a century after the fact. “Jay and I have been rehearsing his lines all afternoon!” she said with pride, leaning toward me, our knees touching between the sofa where she sat and the ottoman on which I perched. “He has his lines down,” she said proudly, patting my knee.
I recall how she turned and glanced around the room, as if expecting her son to come through the front door of her assisted living apartment. How she somehow seemed to know who I was and yet not understand that I was also her dead son’s now grown daughter.
“My darling girl. You are coming to Jay’s play? Oh, you must!”
I wanted to go to my Dad’s play, yes. See him as a 17-year-old, directing, acting, taking his curtain call via some kind of magical time reversal. Or see him on any single day of his life – still alive. But there is no such magical clock. I think of how much my father’s mother loved him, how it broke her heart to lose her son without warning. “The worst thing,” she once told me, in her earlier, lucid years, “is to lose your child while you still live. It’s an unnatural pain.” How she loved us all. How she would tell us at the end of every family party or dinner or day, just that: “I love you all.”
I think, too, of the aunt who comforted me through the years after my father’s death. My Aunt Nan wasn’t related to me, she was my parents’ best friend and our neighbor. When he died, the summer I was twelve, I began spending Saturday mornings at her house, making pancakes, and school day afternoons climbing the pine trees in the field in front of her driveway. We’d run around in her yellow Volkswagen Beetle; the same one in which she’d driven me to kindergarten seven years earlier — she’d also been my kindergarten teacher.
She’d leave surprises for me in the mailbox, knowing I picked up the mail when I got off the bus. One day there was a small toy Leprechaun sitting in the mailbox, his pliable legs and arms crossed, as if he’d been waiting patiently for me.
Years later, when I moved to New York, Aunt Nan tirelessly helped me to find my first walk up apartment. She’d moved to Connecticut, and on weekends I’d recover on her couch in the country in front of her fireplace. We often had a cup of tea together as she listened, patiently, dearly, to my stories of work and love in the city. One day I gave her a porcelain tea cup.
When she died a year ago, her daughter said she had wanted me to have that tea cup back, and gave it to me.
I keep it on my desk beside me and I always think of her when I see it, every single day.
I think of my mother’s mother Gammer; how she was there to hold me with open arms the day my mother broke the news to my brothers and me that my dad had died. I think of the New Year’s Eves I would spend with Gammer well into my twenties if I didn’t have a boyfriend. Each time I ditched or got ditched by a guy, she would send me another small tiny ceramic frog with a hopelessly beautiful cliché note that simply read,
“Dearest Donna, I guess you will have to kiss a few …” After a while frogs began to appear with no note at all whenever a relationship bit the dust. Her collection still makes me smile.
I think of them all, my father, my two grandmothers and my aunt.
“Bring them to mind,” Makransky says. “Imagine their smiling faces before you. Envision your benefactors sending you the wish of love, the wish for you to have deepest well being, happiness and joy.”
It is enough to make my breath slow, my throat catch.
I try not to think of whether I deserve their love, or whether those I’ve loved and lost would in fact be proud of me, when I haven’t done half of what I thought I’d do in my life, have been cranky too often and selfish and have my share of regrets and resentments that are, well, the reason why I am doing this meditation.
They were all so resilient, so upbeat despite the sorrows life threw their way. I am not as resilient, I fear, as the ones who came before me.
The Benefactor Meditation
“Allow the soft healing energy of their love into every cell of your body and every corner of your mind.” Makransky’s voice continues. “Bathe in this. Heal in this. Rest in this.”
He suggests we bring one benefactor more to mind than the others, and let that connection “energize the magnitude of the radiance we feel ourselves receive.”
I imagine, of course, my Dad. He is standing before me. I try to brush aside the worry of whether he would be proud of me or not so proud.
“Join your benefactors in their wish for you while receiving the radiance of their love, repeating the wish for yourself in your mind,” says Makransky. May this one have deepest well-being, happiness and joy.
I can’t help but think of the scene where Harry Potter gazes into the mirror of Erised — the name backward for desire — which shows the deepest wishes of one’s heart. How he saw his dead parents waving to him, their heads nodding.
“This one,” I hear my father say. “May this one have deepest well-being, happiness and joy.”
My eyes prick with tears.
I hear Makransky’s voice: “Rest in this love until you feel complete, whole.”
Sometimes, I have found I can’t recall the exact contour of my father’s face; the crevices, the smile lines, the five o-clock stubble. But in this moment I see my father with utter clarity. He is smiling at me, as if to say, Remember what I taught you as we sailed together, as we took in the whole wide sky and bay. Remember that this world is a magical place. Remember to be amazed.
I imagine the love of my dad and the beautiful women whom I have been so blessed to be loved by, how they loved me. How I want to carry that love forward, pay it forward, in the way I am in the world.
As I open my eyes, I feel washed of something. Of all the swirling fear and regret that consumed me just fifteen minutes earlier. I feel a compassion for myself. For all beings.
And I am okay with what is. I trust in my capacity to be here, with what has been, what has not been, and what is.
Try the Benefactor Meditation for Yourself — It’s Worth it
Who are your benefactors? Can you imagine them standing beside you, sending you so much love and well-wishes? How does that feel? Give it a try.
It has been a busy month. My son graduated from high school, my daughter graduated from middle school, I turned in my story for MORE Magazine on women, chronic illness and friendship (I’ll keep you posted on when it will appear — a mega thank you to all of you who participated!), joined in several wonderful The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Club groups with wonderful readers, and took my son with me on a work trip overseas that combined some work meetings and interviews with pleasure.
Right before we left, I was cleaning my office in anticipation of starting my next book project (more on that soon), and came across a magazine story I’d written 18 years earlier, chronicling the months after my son was born, when he was suddenly hospitalized at a few weeks of age for a major surgery to correct a life-threatening condition. The story brought back many memories of the stress and terror (if you’ve ever had an acutely ill child, you know what I mean) of those days, and I wept as I read it.
I wept shockingly, in a way I do not think I wept during those long days and nights, 18 years ago. As if, for the first time, I could feel my fear, because it was finally safe to experience it, enveloped as it is now by my gratitude, 18 years later, that my son is here, so unequivocally full of life.
Rereading the words I’d written, reliving those emotions made me realize two essential things. (You can read a copy of Fortune’s Child below; I apologize if it’s hard to read — it’s a scan of the original — click on each page and then click again to enlarge.)
First, it goes without saying how lucky we are that this baby who almost got away is here with us now, that he survived. And second, as I recalled the fear that reverberated through every fiber and cell of my being during that long year, I wept for something else.
I wept for the very young mother I was then. I found myself wishing that my older, kinder, wiser “now” self might beam back in time and sit beside that young woman, comfort her, hold her as her infant son was whisked out of her arms and away to intensive care.
This took place, I should point out, for those of you who have read my writings in The Last Best Cure about ACE scores, in the same hospital in which my own father had died when I was a child. It felt like an old record replaying, as I watched helplessly as this person I loved, too, also struggled for his life.
I wanted to go back and squeeze my young self’s hand and help her to forgive herself (I felt so certain it was my fault that my son was so sick). And to forgive the whole spinning world, which seemed cruel, unnatural, allowing a child to know so much pain. I wanted to give her a gift and say, Hey, in 18 years, you and this lovely young man will walk the streets of Paris, and you will be able to breathe in deeply, and he will be able to too, and your cells will resonate with that lightness of being that rides in with joy.
Oh my legs hurt, and I sometimes tripped on those Parisian cobblestones, and I often couldn’t keep up with my long-legged boy, given my GBS history, as we went from the Musee D’Orsay to the Tuileries to La Fete de la Musique. But he put his arm around me, slowed down, found a cafe where I might rest, and later, on we went.
The combination of finding this article, and taking this trip made me realize that although in the past 18 years there has been a whole heck of a lot of the Pain Channel, much time in the hospital, a lot of doctors (many brilliant, as in the attached article), and times when life seemed unbearably bleak, the truth is we just don’t know, can’t know, what gifts might lie ahead. We have to hold onto that — that we just don’t know what good might yet come — in our darkest suffering. Suffering is often replaced by wonder, the Life Channel flickers back on. We are not static, time is not static, pain is not static, even when it feels that way. Currents of joy come again — and it is so important to learn how to really be in that current, when it flows our way.
My son’s being here is a miracle. My healing (although not “cured”) from twice being paralyzed and so much else often feels like a miracle. My father’s early death was a tragedy, but my surviving and healing from that, too, is something close to a miracle. I could not have guessed that these things would come to be.
We just don’t know what joy is ahead of the suffering. We don’t know. But we know that everything changes. And that includes the Pain Channel transforming to the Life Channel.
Below is the rest of that article, Fortune’s Child, written and published in 1995.
Today I came across a “Thought Challenge” from meditation teacher and writer Jack Kornfield, whose work I so admire. Kornfield talks about separating ourselves from our tightly gripped sense of our “self,” and seeing what happens.
Selflessness, Kornfield teaches, is not about seeing “how selfless I am.” It’s about stepping away from identifying everything as “me” or “mine.” Selflessness, he writes, “does not reject our experience in any way. We don’t get rid of anything. The experiences are the same…. All that’s changed is that we have stopped identifying with them….When identification with the small sense of self drops away, what remains is the spacious heart that is connected with all things. The Wise Heart.”
I am always in search of my Wiser Heart. So I was drawn to Kornfield’s suggestion to try this practice — to notice what happens when we stop identifying so tightly with our sense of self and me-ness. Here is his challenge: “Try today to study the sense of self. At regular intervals, pause to check in and notice how strong the sense of self is. At what times of day, in what roles or situations is it strongest? How does your body feel then? How do others respond to this? What might happen in the same situation without a strong identification with the self?”
So I did try it. I wanted to challenge myself to note in what situations (and, for me, with which people) my sense of self looms strongest. And the exercise proved so profound I felt I had to write about it here, and share what I found.
Trying this exercise helped me to have a difficult conversation with a person I often find to be trying in my life — and to handle that interaction with a wisdom and grace I had been unable to find within … until I tried Kornfield’s exercise.
The person with whom I was interacting has a good heart but also has what I like to call “Oppositional Conversational Disorder.” Have you ever met anyone like that? I’ve found that whatever I say, this person disagrees immediately, often before my whole sentence is out of my mouth. Call it conversing in a Culture of No. For instance, I say, “I was thinking…” and this person says, “Oh no, that’s not how it works…” And if I say, “That made me sad…” this person says, “Oh no, you shouldn’t feel sad.” This person is wedded to “no” and “it isn’t” and “don’t” and “but” and “shouldn’t” and argues so reflexively it’s a habit of mind that has permeated their very nature. But this person is also a good person, a really really good person, just not an easy person to have a meaningful conversation with, because “Oh no” or “Don’t” proceeds every sentence they say.
So I tried it. I tried letting go of my sense of me, my point of view, my being right, my… me-ness. As this person’s Oppositional Conversational Disorder reared its head and they said “Oh no it’s not because of…” I took note of how my jaw tightened. They said, “You didn’t” and my upper palette locked down on my tongue. I heard, “You shouldn’t” and a band tightened around my chest. “Don’t do it that way…” The muscles in my thigh tightened. I took a mindful breath. Look how tightly clenched my chest feels, my legs, my throat.
I replayed Kornfield’s question in my mind. “What might happen in the same situation without a strong identification with the self?”
I reminded my “self” that I am not my thoughts. Indeed, new research tells us that our feelings shift every 90 seconds.
I asked myself, Why am I identifying so closely with my sense of self, with having myself be heard and be right — when I don’t even really know what “self” is? When I know my thoughts shift every 90 seconds?
If I am not my thoughts, if I am not my ever-changing feelings, including this feeling of irritation and frustration and anger that now threatens to overwhelm me, what is my “self?” And why is my “self” reacting so strongly to what another person is saying that seems to be in judgement of “me” if that self is not real?
Gosh, I hope that makes sense.
By interjecting the question, I could step back.
This was such a freeing experience. I began to breathe. My jaw relaxed. The bands around my chest fell off. It felt so freeing. When I stepped back from that strong sense of self that I had been nursing as I heard “don’t” and “shouldn’t” I felt something else. A bubbling up of awareness. I am not my reactivity. My “self” is something much larger, much wiser. For a moment I had to hold back my sense of inner glee, and keep from laughing out loud – not at my conversational partner, who was still talking, but with the freedom I felt within.
I highly recommend trying this. In the midst of your next difficult interaction, especially if it is with someone with Oppositional Conversational Disorder, let go of your tightly held sense of “self” in your conversation. See what happens.
Here’s what happened to me. The person I was talking to stopped. They breathed. My oppositional conversational partner just looked at me after ten more minutes of conversation or so and said, “Oh, okay.” Two words they had never said to me before.
To let that strong ID with self go during that difficult interaction changed its outcome.
What is the direct relationship between letting our mind drift — ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, focusing on distressing thoughts, what’s going wrong, what isn’t fair, or what we’re afraid will happen next — and our cellular and physical well-being?
Although we can’t peer inside our cells in real time and see how mindful calm versus a racing mind have radically different health impacts, a new study published in the journal Health Psychology, sheds new light on the question. Researchers at U.C. Davis Center for the Study of Mind & Brain have conducted the first study which shows the direct relationship between using our mental resources to manage ruminating thoughts and stay with our immediate experience — and lowering our levels of the inflammatory stress hormone cortisol.
High levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland, are, as we know, associated with physical or emotional stress. Prolonged release of the hormone contributes to wide-ranging, adverse effects — and are linked to every physical and mental disease imaginable.
Sometimes it helps me to remember what “stress” really is. Stress is really a euphemism for our thoughts. Our racing, self-flagellating, ruminating, resentful, could-have, should-have, wish-I-had, wish-I-hadn’t thoughts that catch us in their trance. Or what I call, in The Last Best Cure, the “Pain Channel.”
All too often we can’t get out of the Pain Channel’s trance. We can’t turn the Pain Channel off. We keep tuning into what it has to say, and as we do, those thoughts help promote the production of stress hormones and cytokines that are, in turn, linked to higher rates of depression, heart disease, autoimmune disease, you name it.
Other research tells us that in the lab, the negative cellular impact of stress hormones look a lot like the negative impacts of the toxic chemicals I wrote about in The Autoimmune Epidemic.
So, here is my reminder equation.
Stressed State of Mind = Pain Channel.
Pain Channel = damaging stress chemicals circulating in our body.
Damaging Stress Chemicals = what scientists call the “Negative Floating Brain.”
“Negative Floating Brain” = greater likelihood of emotional and physical health challenges.
Greater Health Challenges = more likelihood of being in a Stressed State.
This is not to say that our state of mind creates disease. That’s far too simplistic.There is so much at play — genetics, diet, environmental toxins.
But stress chemicals certainly add to our “barrel” of factors that work against physical and emotional healing. And even if moving away from the “Pain Channel” and the Negative Floating Brain doesn’t necessarily mean we overcome whatever physical challenge we face — turning down the “Pain Channel” volume can’t help but make us feel better, whatever chronic condition we’re up against. (For more on how I see that, see my OpEd for PBS’s online magazine, Next Avenue, called, “I’m Not Cured but I am Healed.”) (I really think the title should be, more accurately, “I’m not Cured, but I am Healing.”)
The practices that help us walk away from the Pain Channel and the Negative Floating Brain really do make a difference, and they are worth our time and our commitment.
For me, as a science writer, reminding myself of the science every day helps me remake the commitment to meditate, focus on mindful breathing, loving kindness, down dogging, laughter, nature walking…all of it. The science is my guide.
Post-doctoral researcher Tonya Jacobs PhD says that in the above study, researchers taught study participants attentional skills such as mindful breathing, observing mental events, and practicing cultivating benevolent mental states, including loving kindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity.
Individuals whose mindfulness scores increased showed a decrease in inflammatory disease-promoting levels of cortisol.
“The more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol,” Jacobs says. She adds that training the mind to focus on immediate experience may reduce the propensity to ruminate about the past or worry about the future, the thought processes that have been linked to cortisol release.
We are all walking around listening to the Pain Channel way too much of the time. And we know that the negative floating brain damages our immune system and our cellular health.
The question is, what are we going to do about it?
In hopes that they might prove helpful, here are two upcoming offerings.
The first is being offered by the phenomenal health advocate Elisa Rodriguez, who is launching one of the first The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Clubs to discuss and encourage us all on the journey … I’ll be joining in for a one hour discussion. I’ll also be sending signed bookplates to participants. To learn more, see Elisa’s video here. I’ve spoken with her several times now, and wow, she is just amazing. The beauty of The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Club is that you can join from wherever you are, and Elisa has found a way to make it easy and accessible to all.
The second is an upcoming retreat by my own beloved teacher, Trish Magyari, whose work I feature in The Last Best Cure. Magyari will be teaching a one day “Befriending Yourself” Mindfulness Retreat” on Saturday June 15 at Baltimore Yoga Village in Mount Washington (Baltimore, Maryland) from 1-5pm. Trish is a life-changing teacher. If you can take this opportunity to work with her, do.
I hope to hear from you about your own efforts to stay on the path. What is working for you today?
I’ve received a number of so sweet requests to come talk to book clubs who are reading The Last Best Cure, or join in small group chats, and answer questions about both the book and my journey.
I treasure meeting my readers — there is nothing, really, that I love more about what I do than that moment of connection when I meet readers face to face. You all humble me, in the way you meet your own challenges with such grace and dignity and humility and determination.
Yes, women with chronic conditions may be fatigued, but I find my readers to be an extraordinary force of nature.
Like many of you who have chronic conditions, lots of travel can be hard on my system. That, coupled with my keen desire to be fully present on the homefront with my teenagers as much as possible (my oldest leaves for college in the fall!) means I can’t plane hop as much as I’d like to to meet the wonderful groups of amazing women who are gathering to talk about The Last Best Cure from Albany to Chicago to Vancouver. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be there.
So, here’s my offer. If you are planning to read The Last Best Cure for your book club, and gather a group of say 10 women or more who are reading the book, I’ll “drop in” by Skype or speaker phone or whatever works best for you — and we can have that “small group chat.” I’d love to.
And since it’s nice to have signed books, I’ll send signed The Last Best Cure “Book Club Bookplates” to book clubs (like all bookplates, they adhere to the page) so you’ll have author signed copies.
Let me know what you think of my virtual book club tour idea! Any ideas to improve upon this concept? I’d love to hear. If you reach out to me and let me know you’d like to schedule a date, we can follow up by email.
The way we manage our emotional responses to the stresses we meet in day-to-day life — to what is happening right now, right here, in our life — predicts whether we’ll suffer from depression and anxiety ten years from now, says a new study in today’s Psychological Science.
Researchers examined the relationship between how we handle daily stress and our mental well-being ten years later. They found that our longterm emotional health has less to do with what happens to us than with how we react to what happens to us.
The better we are at managing our emotional responses and thoughts today — to whatever problem we’re facing at work or at home or with our kids — the better mental health we’ll enjoy ten years from today. The better brain we’ll own.
When we respond with a lot of negativity and reactivity to our day-to-day stressors we’re more likely to be clinically depressed ten years later and experience feelings of “worthlessness, hopelessness, nervousness and anxiety.” We take those negative emotions with us, wherever we go.
These findings, based on a study of 711 men and women between 25 and 74, show that mental health outcomes aren’t only affected by major life events — they are also affected by the “chronic nature of our negative emotions in response to daily stressors.”
We know there are so many ways to manage our thoughts and get off the distress highway — and stay on the path. Mindfulness, lovingkindness meditation, noting our moment to moment habits of mind, breath work, yoga, seeking out acupuncture.
In The Last Best Cure I spent an entire year learning from the best experts on the planet how to redirect my thoughts, calm my mind and quiet my stress response. And every day I continue to learn. Reading studies like these helps me to re-commit to these practices everyday.
Because that’s what it takes. It’s not instant. It takes work. Discipline. But it’s also fun. It’s a relief to step away from our daily wear-and-tear stress-reactions and ruminations. A half-hour spent mindfully breathing or in walking meditation or yoga sure beats a half hour spent ruminating and rehashing the should haves and what ifs that are worrying me today, and it will pay off long into my future.
Don’t we owe ourselves that small but priceless investment in who we are, and in who we hope to become?
Several studies over the past few years have found that kids as young as 18 months old possess deep feelings of compassion.
One study found that when toddlers show kindness to others, it’s motivated by innate feelings of compassion — not just a desire to please the adults in their lives. In the study, when toddlers saw someone in need of help their pupil sizes increased — a sign of empathic concern. After toddlers did something nice for that person, their pupils got smaller. Researchers say this means their kindness came from deep, genuine concern. In fact, toddlers showed greater signs of happiness when they gave away a special treat, than they did when they received one.
Performing truly altruistic acts—acts that involve some measure of personal sacrifice—made the kids happier than helping others at no cost to themselves.
This is the first study to show that altruism is intrinsic to who we are, and is rewarding even to very young kids, and that it makes them happier to give than to receive.
When a behavior is intrinsically rewarding like this, especially at the earliest stages of life, it suggests to scientists that it has deep evolutionary roots.
Other studies on compassion and kindness show that kids prefer other kids who are kind and, contrary to popular belief, being kind can even help kids boost their “popularity standing.”
Researchers asked 400 students between the ages of 9 and 11 to perform three acts of kindness — or choose other easier tasks — over four weeks. Afterwards the kids who showed kindness saw a much greater spike in their popularity, gaining twice as many friends as their counterparts. And they also had more positive feelings about themselves.
Kids said they did simple things like gave their mom a hug when she seemed stressed (always a welcome gesture at my house!), or shared their lunch with someone at school.
But clearly, as we grow up and come of age, and especially when life gets more stressful, or life is hard, our innate sense of compassion goes underground. We compete at work. Drivers gesture angrily on the freeway, and turning on the news shows us that too many politicians and sports heroes choose to treat themselves well rather than others kindly, and that too many young people die in personal or gang violence, or spree shootings. It can seem there is too little kindness to spare.
We face so much stress in our own day-to-day lives and see such callousness around us that we can become a little numb.
And yet, even so, that innate compassion that we had at 2 or 9 or 11 is there, ready to bubble up, if we just call it up.
And even those who’ve faced the hardest of lives can call it up. Researchers introduced a type of brain-changing practice known as compassion meditation — sending kind wishes to themselves, those they love and those they find problematic in their lives — to teenagers living in a foster care group in Florida. These were kids who faced a lot of day-to-day stress and adversity. Their lives were tougher than most of us can imagine.
The foster teens underwent an eight-week loving kindness meditation class, keeping journals on how much they practiced. Researchers measured their stress responses both before and after. They also asked the teens to wear an electronically activated recorder that picks up the ambient sounds in a person’s environment – including disagreements, harsh words, altercations.
And here’s what happened: the more troubled teens practiced loving kindness meditation on their own – about four or five times a week – the more compassionate they became in their day-to-day interactions and the less altercations ensued. Not surprisingly, teens’ stress hormone levels and inflammatory markers also went down, which we know is critical to improving physical health. Troubled foster teens, living calmer, healthier lives, simply by letting their innate compassion emerge from within for a few minutes a day.
Similar work is going on in high security prisons where, after meditation classes using both compassion and breath as a focus, violence has gone down by twenty percent or more.
Things haven’t changed that much from when we were 2 and 9. We feel better about ourselves when we extend kindness. Others feel better about being with us. We feel less stressed. Life is sweeter all around, for our brains, bodies and cells.
I’ve found that it’s a decisive act to be compassionate — we have to choose compassion in our rush, rush lives. But learning to choose it — along with practicing the other techniques I test drove in my one year experiment to find The Last Best Cure — is a life-changing gift not only to others, but to ourselves.
Two new studies tell us an interesting story about stress, the gut and the brain.
We have a LOT of organisms in the gut. Cell for cell, we’re largely made up of bacteria. In fact, single-celled organisms, mostly bacteria, outnumber our own cells 10 to 1. Most of these live in our gut.
Any alteration of the composition of good versus bad microorganisms in the gut —collectively known as our “microbiome”—impacts the state of our brain, making us more prone to anxiety, depression and low mood. And that lowered mood makes us more prone to feeling stressed out and reactive… which in turn further changes the composition of microorganisms in the gut…
See the cycle?
The first study appears in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Researchers report that when we are under stress, the bacterial communities in our intestine become less diverse, allowing greater numbers of harmful bacteria to take over and party hearty.
(We’ve pretty much known this for a while, after all, disorders of the gut such as irritable bowel and inflammatory bowel diseases are known to worsen during times of stress. But now we have the science to back up that clinical observation.)
And that leads to the second study I wanted to talk about. It turns out that when bad bacteria are partying in our gut, it not only lowers our overall immunity, it lowers our overall mood. A sophisticated neural network transmits messages from those trillions of bacteria to our brain, exerting a powerful influence on our state of mind.
That’s why scientists have begun to refer to our gut as “the second brain.”
The idea that bacteria teeming in the gut can affect the mind “has just catapulted onto the scene,” say study authors. Our gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of our body’s supply of serotonin, which significantly influences our mood. In just the last few years evidence has piled up that the gut microbiome heavily influences our neural development, brain chemistry, emotional behavior, pain perception, learning, memory, and how our stress system is prepared to respond to life’s ups and downs.
The more bad bacteria in our gut, the more anxious and moody and stressed out we feel.
The more stressed out we feel the more we tip the microbial balance in the gut allowing more bad bacteria to thrive.
Gastroenterologist Emeran Mayer, MD, director of the Center for Neurobiology of Stress at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that given the gut’s multifaceted ability to communicate with the brain “it’s almost unthinkable that the gut is not playing a critical role in mind states.”
THE LAST BEST CURE is a toolbox to intervene in that stress feedback cycle and help rescue both the brain in our gut and the brain in our head.
“Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: Implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation” by Michael T. Bailey, Scot E. Dowd, Jeffrey D. Galley, Amy R. Hufnagle, Rebecca G. Allen and Mark Lytee; and the brief commentary on it is “The gut microbiota: A new player in the innate immune stress response?” by Monika Fleshner. The article appears in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Volume 25, Number 3 (March 2011), published by Elsevier.