Meditation practice can help us build resilience in the face of other people’s pain

New Bedford native and Yale University professor Dr. Laurie Santos returned to the region virtually last week, speaking via Zoom about “Well-being in the time of COVID.” The creator of Yale’s most popular course ever fielded questions from participants, relayed via New Bedford Wellness Dr. Mike Rocha in a 90-minute presentation.


It was a fascinating, practical talk with many useful suggestions for how we support ourselves during stressful times. Personally, I’d like to express my gratitude to everyone who helped make the event happen, especially Dr. Rocha, who has been on a mission to bring mindfulness and well-being to the region for some time.


There were so many worthwhile questions and responses offered that I encourage everyone to watch the video in its entirety. It is absolutely worth your time.


There were two recommendations in particular that Dr. Santos made that I think can help all of us as we struggle with the realities of life in 2020. Both work to help us identify and defuse the mind chatter that can be a constant hyper-critical take on our lives, emotions, thoughts and actions.


One is a specific kind of meditation known as loving-kindness meditation that helps us cultivate compassion with some surprising results. The other, a practice known by the acronym RAIN, I’ll tackle in a future post.


The loving-kindness meditation is a technique that can be done in 3-5 minutes a day where the meditator focuses love and compassion on individuals, moving from those most easy to feel love for — often a child or pet — to progressively more complicated or harder people and relationships, including those you don’t know well, to yourself, and eventually to those who you may feel some animosity towards.


With each individual you repeat specific phrases wishing them happiness and other positive states.


As you do it regularly, you not only strengthen the feelings of compassion you have for others, but you also build more positive feelings for yourself, your self-compassion, an important component to being resilient and happier.


As Dr. Santos acknowledges, any technique called loving-kindness can sound a little cheesy. But she said, the data suggests it is not.


“This is a practice that, in fact, has been around for thousands of years,” she said. “It’s part of old spiritual traditions like Buddhist traditions. But it’s one that researchers in the modern day, even neuroscientists, have really embraced because the research suggests that it actually has some important empirical affects.”


The technique is especially helpful for those in healthcare, she said.


“Research suggests,” she said, “that exercising your compassion in this way is kind of like doing bicep curls for the emotion you need to feel resilient when you’re faced by other people’s pain a lot.”


Another benefit of the meditation style is that people who follow it are quicker to reach out and help others. According to research cited in the book Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, those who practice loving-kindness meditation were found to be almost twice as likely to help somebody else versus those who had not.


Or, as Dr. Santos said in last week’s presentation, “The act of turning on compassion can actually make you want and have the energy to go forward and help others.”


Dr. Santos offers a longer description of the process in the video from last week. She also suggests downloading a Loving-Kindness meditation from the app Insight Timer.


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