The brains of human beings seem built to process stories better than other forms of input ... - Thomas B Newman, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics
If you want others to be happy, practise compassion. If you want to be happy, practise compassion. Dalai Lama
We had the tenth session of this "Life skills" course last night. There had been a three week gap since the ninth meeting, and there will now be a five week gap until the eleventh, and a further eleven weeks until the final, twelfth meeting. We began with a combined Autogenics plus Goodwill practice - downloadable recordings of these Goodwill meditations are findable further down the the "Compassion & criticism" page of this website. Participants had their usual handout of a dozen slide miniatures covering the material we were to explore. See slides 1-6, Powerpoint or slides 1-6, PDF and slides 7-12, Powerpoint or slides 7-12, PDF.
We began with a guided relaxation/meditation practice - on this occasion involving the full Autogenic Training sequence followed by the full Goodwill Practice. We then went round checking how course participants had been doing with these exercises over the previous three weeks. One of the interesting themes that emerged was how important (or not) it is to experience emotional/physical feelings when working with the Goodwill practice. In some ways this discussion seems to parallel a similar set of questions that can emerge when people are first learning Autogenics or other forms of relaxation/meditation.
My clinical experience is that people who "feel nothing/no change at all" when they practise relaxation, are probably unlikely to persist with or benefit from the practice. The "Relaxation response" diagram, that I show people on the first evening of the course, highlights the quite profound physical changes that occur when someone quietens and relaxes deeply. If someone "feels nothing" when they try to relax, then they may be relaxing but not noticing the internal changes that are occurring. It seems more likely though that they are currently simply not relaxing very well. A metaphor I sometimes use to describe working with this initial difficulty is of driving a wedge into a log of wood. I say that they are first likely to begin noticing some physical/psychological feelings of relaxation under very easy conditions - for example, on a day that is going well, in a peaceful, safe situation, when their mind isn't too distracted - then when they try a relaxation exercise they may get some initial experiences of a pleasant comfortable state. The aim is to gradually "drive the wedge in deeper", so that they slowly learn to elicit these (and deeper) relaxation feelings under progressively more difficult conditions e.g. when they are feeling stressed, when the outer environment is more noisy, when they are moving around, and so on. I often draw a parallel with learning any other skill - for example, learning to drive, or type, or swim, or even learning to walk. The "What progress can you expect?" handout makes these points in more detail.
My sense is that this parallels changes that can occur with Goodwill, Loving-Kindness, and Compassion meditation practices (these three terms are pretty much synonymous). So several course participants this evening commented on not feeling any physical changes or emotions when working with the Goodwill practice. I am however pushing for the practice to involve emotion and not just a set of thoughts. Emotions are very physical things. They changes the landscape of the body - heart, lungs, blood distribution, muscles, viscera - via both chemical messages in the blood stream and electrochemical messages in nerve pathways. Emotions also change the way the brain acts - how it pays attention, processes information, and readies the individual for specific kinds of action. See the two "What do emotions do?" slides for more on this. See too the recent Journal of Neuroscience paper "Opposing influences of affective state valence on visual cortical encoding" showing how different emotional states literally change what we see, and there's Hutcherson et al's research paper "Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness" showing that " ... even just a few minutes of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward novel individuals ... " Imagining and feeling into experiences of goodwill/loving-kindness/compassion does produce very real changes in the body and mind. See the two "Moods affect us quickly & powerfully" diagrams.
It's a fascinating area. One helpful lens through which to view this Goodwill work is the literature on adult attachment and caregiving. Mikulincer & Shaver have written a chapter on "Adult attachment and caregiving: individual differences in providing a safe haven and secure base to others" in the currently "in press" book by Brown et al "Self-Interest and Beyond: Toward a New Understanding of Human Caregiving". They write "The second of these behavioral systems (after the attachment/careseeking system), caregiving, was hypothesized by Bowlby to be the motivational heart of a parent's (or other adult's) response to a child's distress or need for support or assistance. In our opinion, this system is also the core of all empathic, compassionate reactions to another person's needs. It presumably evolved originally because it increased "inclusive fitness" by enhancing the survival of multiple others with whom a person shared genes, but it is a capacity that can be extended by social learning". I wrote last month about how our behaviours and warmth can become a self-fulfilling prophecy - see, for example, Srivastava & colleagues' "Optimism in close relationships: How seeing things in a positive light makes them so", Assad et al's "Optimism: an enduring resource for romantic relationships", Klapwijk & Van Lange's "Promoting cooperation and trust in "noisy" situations: The power of generosity", Stinson et al's "Deconstructing the "reign of error": interpersonal warmth explains the self-fulfilling prophecy of anticipated acceptance" and the whole thrust of Crocker's fine work at her "Self and social motivation lab". Goodwill practice is relevant to all of this. We need to maintain authenticity. This isn't about becoming "sugary". But as Paul McCartney put it - with what John Lennon apparently said were the best lyrics Paul had every written - "In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make".
I'll post again tomorrow about the second part of this tenth "Life skills" session.