Enlightenment is possible only in that one way - from the inside.
- THE TWELFTH TAI SITU RINPOCHE, “A Commentary on the Aspiration Prayer of Mahamudra, the Definitive Meaning,” in Shenpen Osel 2, No. 1 (March 1998)
One of the great things about teaching around the world is the opportunity to pick up bits and pieces of different languages. There’s a particular American expression I like very much, which refers to a type of crime committed by people within a company: an “inside job.” The individuals involved in this sort of crime usually feel safe because they think they know about all the crime-prevention precautions put in place by whatever company they’re working for. But it often turns out that they don’t know everything, and their own actions give them away.
In a way, letting ourselves be controlled by our mental afflictions is an “inside job.” The pain we feel when we lose something we’re attached to, or when we confront something we’d rather avoid, is a direct result of not knowing everything we could or should know about our own mind. We’re caught by our own ignorance, and trying to free ourselves through some sort of external means - which are simply reflections of the dualistic ignorance that got us into trouble in the first place - only makes our prisons close around us more tightly and securely.
Everything I’ve learned about the biological processes of thought and perception indicates that the only way to break free from the prison of pain is by performing the same type of activity that imprisoned us in the first place. As long as we don’t recognize the peace that exists naturally within our own minds, we can never find lasting satisfaction in external objects or activities.
In other words, happiness and unhappiness are “inside jobs.”
TO SURVIVE OR TO THRIVE: THAT IS THE QUESTION
From virtue, all happy states arise.
- GAMPOPA, The Instructions of Gampopa, translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso
As a child, I was taught that there are two kinds of happiness: temporary and permanent. Temporary happiness is like aspirin for the mind, providing a few hours of relief from emotional pain, Permanent happiness comes from treating the underlying causes of suffering. The difference between temporary and permanent happiness is similar in many ways to the distinction, discussed in Part One, between emotional states and emotional traits. Genetically, it appears that human beings are programmed to seek temporary states of happiness rather than lasting traits. Eating, drinking, making love, and other activities release hormones that produce physical and psychological sensations of well-being. By releasing these hormones, survival-based activities play an important role in ensuring that we survive as individuals, and that the genes we carry are passed on to future generations.
As explained to me, however, the pleasure we feel in such activities is transitory by genetic design. If eating, drinking, making love, and so on were able to produce permanent sensations of happiness, we’d do these things once and then sit back and enjoy ourselves while others took over the tasks involved in perpetuating the species. In strictly biological terms, the drive to survive propels us more strongly toward unhappiness than toward happiness.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that a biological quirk in the structure of our brains enables us to override many of our genetic predispositions. Instead of compulsively repeating the same activities in order to re-experience temporary states of happiness, we can actually train ourselves to recognize, accept, and rest in a more lasting experience of peace and contentment. This “quirk” is actually the highly developed neocortex, the area of the brain that deals with reasoning, logic, and conceptualization.
There are, of course, disadvantages to having a big, complex neocortex. A lot of people can get so bogged down in weighing and reweighing the pros and cons of everything from ending a relationship to the right time to go to the grocery store that they never make any decisions at all. But the ability to choose among different options is an incredible advantage, one that far outweighs any disadvantages.
DIRECTING THE BRAIN
The firewood is not itself the fire.
- NAGARJUNA, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, translated by Ari Goldfield
It’s fairly common knowledge these days that the brain is divided into two halves, left and right. Each half is more or less a mirror image of the other, complete with its own amygdala, hippocampus, and a big frontal lobe that handles much of the rational processes of the neocortex. I’ve heard people talk casually about being “left-brained” or “right-brained,” referring to a popular idea that people in whom the left half of the brain is more active tend to be more analytical or intellectual, while people in whom the right half is more active tend to be more creative or artistic. I don’t know if that’s true or not. What I have learned, though, is that research over the past few years indicates that in human beings and other highly evolved species (like our friend the crazy monkey), the two frontal lobes play different roles in shaping and experiencing emotions.
During the 2001 Mind and Life Institute meeting in Dharamsala, Professor Richard Davidson presented the results of a study in which people tested at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, in Madison, Wisconsin, were shown pictures designed to evoke different kinds of emotions. These pictures ranged from images of a mother tenderly holding a baby to images of accident and burn victims. The subjects were tested several times over the course of two months, with a few weeks between each test. The results clearly showed an increase in activity in the subjects’ left prefrontal lobes when shown pictures normally associated with such positive emotions as joy, tenderness, and compassion, while activity in the right pre-frontal lobe increased when the subjects were shown images that provoked negative emotions like fear, anger, and disgust.
In other words, there is a strong indication that positive emotions such as happiness, compassion, curiosity, and joy are linked to activity in the left prefrontal lobe of the brain, while negative emotions like anger, fear, jealousy, and hatred are generated in the right prefrontal lobe. Identifying this connection represents a major step forward in understanding the biological foundations of happiness and unhappiness, and may in the long term provide a basis for developing a practical science of happiness. More immediately, it offers an important key to understanding the results of studies that Professor Davidson and Professor Antoine Lutz would later begin to conduct involving people who had undergone different levels of training in meditation and subjects who had no experience in meditation at all.
The first of these studies, described to me as a “pilot study” - that is to say, a sort of test project designed to assist scientists in developing clinical research projects that could be carried out with much more specific criteria and controls - was conducted in 2001. The subject of the pilot study was a monk who had trained for more than thirty years under some of the greatest masters of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s important to note that the results of this pilot study cannot be considered conclusive. First and foremost, of course, it takes some time to review the results of the study in order to sort out unforeseen technical issues. Second, reviewing the results of a pilot study helps scientists distinguish between information that may be relevant to the study and information that may not. Third, in the case of working with Tibetan monks, there are certain language difficulties that often hamper clear communication between the subjects and the researchers. Finally, as discussed near the end of Part Two, there is a natural, samaya-based reticence on the part of Tibetan practitioners to describe the exact nature of their experience to anyone but a qualified teacher.
The Madison pilot study was aimed at determining whether the techniques of mental discipline that the subject had learned over three decades of training could produce objectively measurable changes in the activity among various areas of his brain. For the purposes of the experiment, the monk was asked to engage in several different kinds of meditation practice. These included resting his mind on a particular object, generating compassion, and objectless shinay (which the monk involved in the pilot study described as “open-presence” meditation, a description of simply resting in the open presence of the mind without focusing on a particular object). He alternated between a neutral state for sixty seconds and a specific meditation practice for sixty seconds.
During the pilot study, the monk’s brain was monitored using an fMRI scanner followed by two rounds of EEGs - the first using 128 electrodes and the second a massive array of 256, far more than the usual number of sensors used in hospitals, which only measure electrical or brain-wave activity just below the scalp. The pictures I saw of the EEG experiments were actually very funny. It looked as though hundreds of snakes had been attached to the monk’s head! But the information gathered by all these snakes, when analyzed by the advanced computer programs developed for the Madison lab, provided a map of activity in regions very deep inside the monk’s brain.
Though it would take months for computers to sort through all the complicated data generated by the different brain scans, preliminary examinations of the pilot study indicated shifts between large sets of neuronal circuits in the monk’s brain that at least suggest a correspondence between the changes in his brain activity and the meditation techniques he was asked to practice. By contrast, similar scans performed on subjects who’d had no meditation training indicated a somewhat more limited ability to direct the activity of their brains voluntarily while performing a specific mental task.
When speaking about this experiment during a recent trip to England, I was told by several people that a test performed by scientists at University College London using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology had shown that London taxicab drivers - who must undergo a two-to four-year training, known as “the Knowledge,” through which they learn to navigate the complicated network of streets in that city - have shown a significant growth in the region of the brain, the area associated most typically with spatial memory. In very simple terms, this study begins to confirm that repeated experience can actually change the structure and function of the brain
The ability to recognize the feelings and sensations of others is a property specific to mammals, which are endowed with the limbic region of the brain. There’s no doubt that this capacity can sometimes seem more problematic than it’s worth. Wouldn’t it be nice to just respond to every situation in simple, black-and-white terms of kill or be killed, eat or be eaten? But what an incredible loss this simple approach to existence would be! The limbic region of our brains affords us the capacity to feel love, and the awareness of being loved. It allows us to experience friendship and to form the basic structures of society that provide us with a greater measure of safety and survival, which help ensure that our children and grandchildren will thrive and grow.
The limbic system provides us with the capacity to create and appreciate the subtle emotions evoked by art, poetry, and music. Certainly these capacities are complex and cumbersome; but ask yourself the next time you see an ant or a cockroach scuttling across the floor if you would rather live your life in terms of the simple dimensions of fear or flight, or with the more complex and subtle emotions of love, friendship, desire, and appreciation of beauty.
Two distinct but related functions of the limbic system are involved in the development of loving-kindness and compassion. The first is what neuroscientists have identified as “limbic resonance” - a kind of brain-to-brain capacity to recognize the emotional states of others through facial expression, pheromones, and body or muscular position. It’s amazing how quickly the limbic area of the brain can process these subtle signs so that we can not only recognize the emotional states of others, but also adjust our own physical responses accordingly. In most cases, if we haven’t trained ourselves to pay bare attention to the shifts and changes in observing our minds, the process of limbic resonance occurs unconsciously. This immediate adjustment is a miraculous demonstration of the brain’s agility.
The second function is referred to as limbic revision, which in simple terms means the capacity to change or revise the neuronal circuitry of the limbic region, either through direct experience with a person like a lama or a therapist, or through direct interaction with a set of instructions involved, say, with repairing a car or building a swing set. The basic principle behind limbic revision is that the neuronal circuitry in this region of the brain is sufficiently flexible to withstand change. To take a very simple example, suppose you were talking to a friend about someone toward whom you feel a romantic attraction, and as you were discussing this person, your friend said something like “Oh my God, no! That’s exactly the type of person you’ve fallen for before, and look at how much pain that last relationship caused you.” It may not be your friend’s words that cause you to reconsider going forward with the new relationship, but rather his or her tone of voice and facial expressions, which register on a level of awareness that may not necessarily be conscious.
It would seem that meditation - particularly on compassion - creates new neuronal pathways that increase communication between different areas of the brain, leading to what I’ve heard some scientists refer to as “whole brain functioning.”
From a Buddhist perspective, however, I can say that meditation on compassion fosters a broadening of insight into the nature of experience that stems from unchaining the habitual tendency of mind to distinguish between self and other, subject and object - a unification of the analytical and intuitive aspects of consciousness that is both extremely pleasurable and tremendously liberating.
Through training in loving-kindness and compassion toward others, it’s possible to integrate the processes of the limbic region with a more conscious awareness. One of the discoveries made during the early studies of brain scans conducted by Professors Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson (in which I participated) was that meditation on non-referential compassion - a meditation practice based on the union of emptiness and compassion - produced a profound increase in what are often referred to as gamma waves, fluctuations in the electrical activity of the brain measured by EEG scans, that reflect an integration of information among a wide variety of brain regions. A gamma wave is a very high frequency brain wave, often associated with attention, perception, consciousness, and the kind of neuronal synchrony discussed in Part One. Many neuroscientists understand gamma waves as representing activity that occurs when various neurons communicate in a spontaneously synchronous manner across large areas of the brain.
Preliminary research indicates that long-term meditation practitioners spontaneously exhibit high levels of gamma wave activity, suggesting that the brain achieves a more stable and integrated state during meditation. Because neuroscience and the technology available for study are still relatively new, however, we can’t definitively say that meditation practice increases communication across wider areas of the brain. Nevertheless, the study of London cabdrivers mentioned earlier seems to suggest that repeated experience does change the structure of the brain - which implies that focusing on the transparency of thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences may very well transform related areas of the brain.
THE FRUIT OF COMPASSION
Even small merit done brings great happiness.
- The Collection of Meaningful Expressions, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
As mentioned before, calm-abiding meditation is like charging your mental and emotional batteries. Compassion is the mental and emotional “technology” that uses the recharged batteries in a proper way. What I mean here by a “proper way” is that there’s always the possibility that you might misuse the abilities you’ve developed through shinay meditation just to enhance your own mental and emotional stability to gain power over, or even harm, others. After you’ve gained some experience, though, compassion and shinay meditation are normally practiced together. When you join compassion meditation with shinay practice, you benefit not only yourself but others as well. Real progress on the path includes an awareness of benefiting yourself and others simultaneously.
Compassion is reciprocal. As you develop your own mental and emotional stability and extend that stability through a compassionate understanding of others and dealing with them in a kind, empathetic way, your own intentions or aspirations will be fulfilled more quickly and easily. Why? Because if you treat others compassionately - with the understanding that they have the same desire for happiness and the same desire to avoid unhappiness that you do - then the people around you feel a sense of attraction, a sense of wanting to help you as much as you help them. They listen more closely to you, and develop a sense of trust and respect. People who might once have been adversaries begin to treat you with more respect and consideration, facilitating your own progress in completing difficult tasks. Conflicts resolve themselves more easily, and you’ll find yourself advancing more quickly in your career, beginning new relationships without the usual heartaches, and even starting a family or improving your existing family relationships more easily - all because you’ve charged your batteries through shinay meditation and extended that charge through developing a kinder, more understanding, and more empathetic relationship with others. In a sense, compassion practice demonstrates the truth of interdependence in action. The more openhearted you become toward others, the more openhearted they become toward you.
When compassion begins to awaken in your own heart, you’re able to be more honest with yourself. If you make a mistake, you can acknowledge it and take steps to correct it. At the same time, you’re less likely to look for flaws in other people. If people do something offensive, if they start screaming at you or treating you badly, you’ll notice (probably with some surprise) that you don’t react in the same way you once might have.
A woman I met a couple of years ago while I was teaching in Europe approached me to describe a problem she was having with her neighbor. Their cottages were quite close together, separated only by their own very narrow gardens. It seemed the neighbor was always trying to annoy her in small ways, by tossing things in her yard, damaging her plants, and so on. When she asked him why he was doing these things, he replied, “I love annoying people.”
Of course, as these petty attacks continued, the woman became very angry and found herself unable to resist retaliating in the same petty ways. Gradually the “garden wars” grew fiercer, and the animosity between the two neighbors increased.
Clearly frustrated, the woman asked me what she should do to solve the problem so that she could go about her life peacefully. I advised her to meditate on compassion for her neighbor.
“I tried that already,” she replied. “It didn’t work.”
After talking with her a bit about how she had practiced, I explained that meditating on compassion involves more than trying to invoke a sense of warmth or kindness for someone we find irritating or frustrating. It actually requires a bit of analytical investigation into the other person’s motivations, as well as an attempt to develop some sense of understanding of the other person’s feelings - an understanding that, just like ourselves, everyone shares the same basic desire to be happy and to avoid unhappiness.
When I returned to Europe the following year, she approached me again, this time smiling very happily. She told me that everything had changed. When I asked her what had happened, she explained, “I practiced the way we talked a year ago, thinking about what my neighbor felt and what his motivation might be - how he just wanted to be happy and avoid unhappiness just as I did. And after a while I suddenly realized I wasn’t afraid of him anymore. I realized that nothing he did could hurt me. Of course he kept on trying, but nothing he did really bothered me anymore. It was as if, by meditating on compassion for him, I developed confidence in myself. I didn’t have to retaliate or get angry, because whatever he was doing seemed pretty harmless and small.
“After a while,” she continued, “he started to become embarrassed. Once he realized that nothing he did was going to get me to respond, not only did he stop trying to annoy me, he actually became quite shy every time he saw me - and eventually he went from being very shy to very polite. One day he came to me and apologized for doing all those annoying things. In a way, I think, it seemed that by meditating on compassion for him, as I became confident in myself, he gradually developed confidence in himself as well. He didn’t have to do anything to prove how powerful or damaging he could be.”
Most of us don’t live in isolation. We live in an interdependent world. If you want to improve the condition of your own life, then you need to depend on others to help you along the way. Without this kind of interdependent relationship you would not have food, a roof over your head, or a job to go to - you wouldn’t even be able to buy coffee from Starbucks! So, if you deal with others in a compassionate, empathetic way, you can only improve the conditions of your own life.
When you look at your relationship to the world and your own life in this way, you see that loving-kindness and compassion are very, very powerful.
The other great benefit of developing compassion is that through understanding the needs, fears, and desires of others, you develop a deeper capacity to understand your own self - what you hope for, what you hope to avoid, and the truth about your own nature. And this, in turn, serves to dissolve whatever sense of loneliness or low self-esteem you may be feeling. As you begin to recognize that everyone craves happiness and is terrified of unhappiness, you start to realize that you’re not alone in your fears, needs, or desires. And in realizing this, you lose your fear of others - everyone is a potential friend, a potential brother or sister - because you share the same fears, the same longings, and the same goals. And with this understanding, it becomes so much easier to really communicate with others on a heart-to-heart level.
One of the best examples of this kind of openhearted communication was related to me by a Tibetan friend who is a taxi driver in New York City. One day he made a wrong turn - crossing the wrong way down a one-way street in the middle of a rush of traffic. A police officer stopped him and gave him a ticket and a summons to appear in court.
When he appeared in court, one of the people in line in front of him was very angry, shouting at the judge, the officer who’d issued his ticket, and the lawyers around him. His outrageous behavior didn’t gain him much sympathy from the court; he lost his case and ended up having to pay a large fine.
When my friend’s turn came to appear before the judge, he relaxed and smiled and said a kind good morning to the police officer who had issued the ticket, politely asking how he was doing that day. At first the officer was a little taken aback. But then he replied, “Hi. I’m fine. How are you?” My friend greeted the judge in the same polite manner. As the court proceedings began, the judge asked my friend, “So why did you make that wrong turn?” My friend explained - again, very politely - that the traffic was so bad that day, he didn’t have any other choice. The judge turned to the police officer and asked him if the account was true, and the officer admitted that the traffic had been very bad that day, and that the mistake my friend had committed was understandable under the circumstances. So the judge dismissed the charge and let my friend go. Afterward, in the lobby, the officer came up to my friend and said, “You did very well.”
For my friend - and for me as well - that court experience served as a nice example of the benefits of practicing simple kindness and compassion, of treating people as you yourself would want to be treated, and not as adversaries. No matter what your position in life - whether you’re a taxi driver, a powerful politician, or a high-level corporate executive - your chances of happiness are greatly increased by treating whomever you’re dealing with as a friend, someone who has the same hopes and fears as you. The effect of this approach is exponential. If you can only affect the attitude or outlook of one person, that one person will be able to transmit the effects of that change to another. If you can shift the attitude of three people, and each of those people can shift the attitude of three more people, you’ve changed the lives of twelve people. And the chain reaction just grows and grows.