Healing us vs them

After all the continuing hate and vitriol over the elections in the US and the UK, is there a way to bring both sides together?

We can take inspiration from the work of Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at University of California at Berkeley, who has made it his life work to counter the prevailing view that human beings are hardwired to be selfish largely because of one simple truism: we’re healthier and happier in every way when we’re not motivated by self interest.

In his book Born to be Good, Keltner quotes Confucius about the cultivation of jen, a Chinese concept which means that he who wishes to establish his own ‘character’ does so by bringing “the good things of others to completion.’ Jen is essentially a rebound effect:  your global well-being, your essential nature, in fact, is defined by how much you do to help others to flourish.

To figure out how this works, Keltner asks us to consider the function of the vagus nerve, one of the longest of the body, which originates at the top of the spinal cord and works its way through the heart, the lungs, the muscles of the face, the liver and the digestive organs.  Kelter notes that it has three functions:  to connect with all the communication systems involved with caretaking; to slow down your heart rate, calming the effects of any fight-or-flight autonomic nervous system activity, the body’s response to stress of any sort; and to initiate the release of oxytocin, a neuropeptide that plays a role in love, trust, intimacy and devotion.

If oxytocin is the ‘love hormone,’ as it is generally referred to, the vagus nerve, maintains Keltner, is the love nerve, a hypothesis given weight by the work of Chris Oveis, one of Keltner’s UC Berkeley graduate students. Chris wanted to determine whether or not activation of the love nerve helps to nurture universal love in a person and a greater acceptance of differences between the self and the other, and to do so, he set up a unique type of research project involving a batch of his fellow university students.

During the study, Chris showed one group of student participants photos of malnourished children –the ultimate of the world’s victims.  As soon as the students saw the photos, their vagus nerves went into high gear.  The same effect was not produced in another set of students, who were shown photos designed to elicit be-true-to-your-school pride, such as images of landmarks on campus or U Cal sporting events.

But the most interesting effect occurred when the students were shown photos of twenty other groups of strangers who were markedly different from them: Democrats, Republicans, saints, convicted felons, terrorists, the homeless, even students from their strong competitor, Stanford University.

Those students love-bombed by their own vagus nerve reported feeling a far greater sense of similarity to all the disparate groups than those who’d been exposed to photos designed to elicit pride.

Activity of the vagus nerve helped to remove a boundary of separation, causing the students to focus more on similarities rather than differences, and those feelings of similarities increased, the more intensely their vagus nerves fired. Even students identifying themselves as Democrats suddenly recognized the similarities between themselves and Republicans.

A closer look at the results revealed something even more fascinating:  this group of students felt the greatest sense of common humanity to all those in need – the homeless, the ill, the elderly – whereas those whose sense of pride had been activated identified themselves far more with the strongest and most affluent groups, such as lawyers or other private university students.

Instead of identifying with the people most like us, when the vagus nerve is fired, we are prompted to feel closer to the other, particularly the people in need of our help – and more prone to reach out to them.

Research at Stanford University discovered similar effects in a group of volunteers being trained in a simple Buddhist loving-kindness meditation.

First they were told to imagine two loved ones standing on either side of them and sending their love, and then to re-direct these feelings of love and compassion toward the photograph of a stranger.

After that simple exercise, as a battery of tests revealed, the meditators experienced a greater willingness to connect with strangers, compared with group given a similar exercise but without the loving kindness meditation. Just a simple statement about expressing love for all living things activates the love nerve and prompts a person to put those statements into action in the world.

A compassionate Christmas meditation to open your heart to the other

Focus your attention to your heart, as though you are sending light to it. Observe the light spreading from your heart to the rest of your body. Send a loving thought to yourself, such as ‘May I be well and free from suffering.’

On the out breath, imagine a white light radiating outward from your heart. As you do, think: ‘I appreciate the kindnesses and love of all living creatures. May all others be well.’ As Buddhists recommend, first think of all those you love, then your good friends. Move on to acquaintances and finally to those people you actively dislike. For each stage, think: ‘May they be well and free from suffering.’

Concentrate on the kindness and compassion of all living things and their contribution to your well-being. Finally, send your message of compassion to all people and living things on earth.

May you be blessed with health, abundance, joy and a compassionate spirit this holiday season.

 

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