Becoming increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of other people’s moods and emotions is one of the occupational hazards of practicing meditation. Being able to (almost!) read minds is a power that can be easily channelled into making a positive impact in the world around you. For example, you can build on intuiting people’s needs by stepping in to offer them a hug, a pretzel, support for their decision, or their ladder, as needed—kindness is a movable feast. On the flipside, an increase in empathy can lead to feeling obtrusively impacted by any negative emotions on your radar. The calm mindset with which you start your day can feel impinged upon when you enter a cafe by the mounting anxieties you can feel flowing from the table on your left and the family argument brewing on your right.
Luckily, when meditation increases your perceptiveness, another faculty heightens in step with it ‒ your sense of compassion. Compassion acts here as an agent of transformation, taking your sensitivity to the vibes in your vicinity from a conceivable curse into a no-holds-barred blessing. It is important to understand how compassion benefits you, as well as others around you, in order to reap maximum rewards from cultivating it through your mediation practice.
Meditation and compassion: what’s the relationship?
On a biological level, the relationship between meditation and compassion relates to the changes which regular meditation practice makes to our neurological functioning. Meditation serves to disrupt habituated thought patterns, by modulating the mechanisms with which we process our emotions and generate ideas. As the nervous system acclimatizes to the calming effects of meditation, it relaxes and our capacity for compassion increases.
In Beeja meditation – a mantra-based practice derived from one of the oldest traditions in the world – a twice-daily, 20 minute session helps ring the changes on your frazzled psyche. Over time, meditating will free up your inner resources so that you can begin repairing fractured relationships and extending your increasing abundance of goodwill out into the wider world.
Soothe away stress and tap into tolerance
The hippocampus – which processes information and stores memories – is a part of the brain which particularly benefits from meditation over extended practice. The function of the hippocampus is significantly impaired by stress.
If you have high levels of stress and you encounter a minor annoyance—for example, a rushed passerby falls into you, knocking your untasted kelp and lucuma smoothie out of your hand—your hippocampus can go into overdrive. This will result in you imbuing your reaction to the mucilaginous deluge with feelings of frustration and anger that pertain to previous, unrelated experiences.
When you experience an annoyance and the hippocampus misfires, an unstoppable process is set in motion. The hapless smoothie spiller is irrationally demonised in your mind for their momentary lack of dexterity. Contextualised in a panoply of past, unrelated hurts, their trip triggers greater outrage than is warranted. Your irritation is, in fact, composed of a compendium of negative emotions that you’d collected over the years, rather than them being generated by the current situation. Associations aggregate, flooding in from your subconscious and affecting your behaviour, without the filtering or mediation that your critically thinking, detached mind could provide.
By reducing our stress levels in general, meditation regulates the function of the hippocampus, dramatically reducing instances in which it works against you in this way. Untrammelled by underlying stress, you’ll enjoy a widened sense of perspective. You will be able to approach a smoothie spillage appropriately, as the momentary inconvenience that it is, and—in the place where your annoyance would have been—will find space to feel empathy towards the fellow human in front of you.
Compassion also increases our propensity for connection. (With your feathers unruffled, you may even find that the two of you share a laugh as you joke about being thankful to be saved from such a sketchy flavour combo!)
Emotional alchemy: where compassion to others meets self-compassion
As anyone who meditates will tell you—having realised you were deeply curious from reading your expression correctly across a crowded train carriage—being acutely tuned into the emotions of other people in your surroundings can result in moments of discomfort. Get ready for your emotional antennae to pick up on energies in others that you’d instinctively prefer to gravitate away from, like resentfulness, fear or social nervousness.
Don’t run: this is a golden opportunity to practice an advanced form of emotional alchemy, made possible by your meditation practice. When you resist your initial urge to distance yourself from somebody else’s negative headspace, you give yourself the space and opportunity to make a conscious decision to extend goodwill towards them. You may decide to develop this into an interaction, but it can just be a switch which takes place in your mind.
Taking a softer stance that goes against your instincts may sound like the ultimate selfless configuration of the psyche. However, the positive impact of extending compassion to others reflects back into your own sense of wellbeing, like sunlight bouncing off newly clear lake water that was once ridden with algae. When you overcome your feelings of aversion and concentrate your energy on directing warmth in somebody’s direction, you will no longer be (so strongly) affected by repulsion and annoyance, compared to how you would feel if you had let these feelings take hold without intercepting them.
Give a little love and it all comes back to you: the butterfly effect
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion,” advises the Dalai Lama. This pronouncement from one of the world’s foremost spiritual leaders illustrates the fact that acting compassionately has both personal and interpersonal impacts. When we exercise compassion, we neutralise our own negative emotions. In this way, we not only save ourselves from heartache, but we also protect others from experiencing any less-than-friendly behaviour that our frazzled nerves might have generated.
Safeguarding the atmospheres in which we find ourselves creates a fertile environment where our propensity towards empathy, emotional reciprocity and interpersonal connection can grow. In these climatic conditions, good deeds can be sown, and new shoots of goodwill can start to flourish in the barren wasteland that develops between people when they forgot to relate to one another.
The greater the proliferation of joy within an environment, the more likely it is that someone in it will provide you with a supportive smile, or clemency and a tissue when you next send their beverage skywards. Practice mantra-based meditation, exercise compassion as a result, and you will find discover that this is one of the easiest and most dynamic ways to be the change you want to see in the world.
This post was written by Rosalind Stone from Beeja meditation, a London meditation centre which helps people pursue personal happiness and build wider compassion.