For 15 years the Dalai Lama—whose title means Ocean of Wisdom—has worked with neuroscientists in the West, encouraging them to study the effects of meditative disciplines on the brain. When I heard him speak last fall in Washington, D.C., I was intrigued when someone asked him—in the context of the Iraq war, the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Pakistan—how he deals with “compassion fatigue”? He is, after all, the incarnation of the Compassionate Buddha.
“Neurologically,” he replied, “we now understand that empathy is a spontaneous response in the immediate moment. When we see someone else’s suffering, for an instant we perceive—our brain reacts—as if what the other is experiencing we are experiencing too.”
“Empathy is really what we are describing when we talk about ‘compassion fatigue,’” he continued. “It is the simple compassion a person experiences when they want to see another person free from suffering.” Empathy is the autonomic human response to the pain of another—and yes, it can be physically exhausting when we experience too much stimuli without the spiritual wisdom to understand our experience.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading researcher in preventive and behavioral medicine at the University of Massachusetts, says that “empathy fatigue” is scientifically measurable. There is a “relaxation curve” in our neurological empathetic response. “After about three weeks [of responding to the pain of another],” said Kabat-Zinn, “a person’s brain goes ‘back to normal.’” The feelings of empathy begin to fade and the brain no longer responds to that particular stimulus. “This is a natural response in a culture that is strongly ego-identified,” Kabat-Zinn continued. “With our sense of individuality, we can not take in the pain of the world.” How interesting if the inverse also proves to be true—the more oriented one is to a communal identity, the more empathetic and compassionate one becomes, physically.
When we experience empathy in relation to those that we know or love or who are similar to us, it is primarily an extension of loving our selves—not the more complex response of compassion. Real compassion is when we have a spontaneous neurological response to those who are unrelated to us or whom we have been culturally shaped to distance ourselves from. In other words: our enemies. “A more telling experiment,” said the Dalai Lama, “would be to examine such feelings toward these less-related people to see if activation arises in the same areas of the brain.”
According to both Buddhist and Christian traditions, a person’s ability to move from simple empathy to complex compassion is developed through intentional prayer disciplines, accumulated wisdom, and social practices. The analysis of modern science now confirms that a person’s developed quality of compassion can have measured physical effects. “Virtuous qualities,” said Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at Harvard, “are skills of the mind which can be developed through certain practices because of the plasticity of the brain.” Prayer can literally change our brain.
While scientists are coming into agreement with religion that prayer can affect the person who prays, spiritual leaders are pushing science to take it to the next level: examining the effects of prayer beyond the one who prays. “When an individual generates great levels of compassion within herself,” said the Dalai Lama, “then we say that the Buddha is awakened within and this produces compassionate changes beyond the individual self.”
One Christian manifestation of the ability to produce compassionate change beyond oneself is “distance healing.” Recent scientific studies of intercessory prayer, mental healing, non-contact therapeutic touch, and spiritual healing show statistically positive outcomes. Larry Dossey’s books Prayer is Good Medicine and Healing Beyond the Body provide an excellent overview of how Western science is trying to catch up with our spiritual traditions and practices.
Bringing scientific inquiry to bear on spiritual practices can give us—the practitioners—new ways of understanding what we do and how we do it. As Christians, we have received a prayer tradition. It’s important that we continually exercise our prayer muscles, that we pursue a variety of ways of opening ourselves to God, and that our churches be prayer laboratories for social-spiritual experiments. For example, how can liturgy physically enhance the compassion centers of our brain? How does developing a state of energy-balance in our frontal cortex allow us to minister more effectively in situations of conflict? Perhaps the next level of scientific study will be on the power of prayer to effect non-personal change—prayer as a tool for social transformation.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.