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The Neuroscience of Compassion

By Surjot Kaur

While the global 3HO community is sharing this beautiful Compassionate Heart meditation experience, it is a blessing to continually, collectively reflect on the Fourth Sutra “Understand through compassion, or you will misunderstand the times.” What does this sutra look like viewed from the illuminating perspective of neuroscience?

First, compassion involves the concern we feel, the attention we give, and how we relate to another person’s suffering. What part of the brain is involved?

The Right Supramarginal Gyrus

The right supramarginal gyrus is the region of the brain that is linked to our feelings of empathy and compassion. It is located in the front brain, a portion of the parietal lobe, in charge of integrating sensory information from various modalities, but especially our sense of touch. Such a beautifully designed organism is the human brain! Our sense of compassion is wired very close to our sense of touch. This is in harmony with what Yogi Bhajan said: “It is the touch of the hand, a spoken word or the contact of the eyes which open the heart of the man…” Human touch and compassion go hand in hand! Oh, I love a perfect pun!

Besides practicing the Compassionate Heart Global Sadhana, what else can we do to fortify compassion at a neurological level? What would it mean to become the commanders of our own right supramarginal gyrus?

The right supramarginal gyrus is the area of the brain that helps us distinguish our emotional state from that of other people. When it is functioning properly we understand the difference between our own emotional state and that of others. When it is not functioning properly we tend to project our own emotional state into a situation with little regard for anyone else’s emotional state in the same situation.

As yogis, we can approach compassion through consciousness and physiology. We can ask ourselves, what can I do to consciously activate compassion? What is the physiological component of compassion? How can my chakras and ten bodies work together to make compassion an automatic response, i.e. the nervous system’s go-to response, to my environments? How can I make compassion my habit?

Strengthening the Compassion Muscle

Yogis love to discipline themselves through breath control. In many exercises, we hold the breath in to activate the sympathetic nervous system or hold the breath out to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. So, let’s consider: what parts of the brain can we work with and strengthen to become more compassionate? What exercises work to strengthen the compassion muscles?

Brain experts agree that what helps us understand suffering is to experience suffering. When we deliberately put ourselves into uncomfortable situations, say in the form of a challenging physical workout, we are more likely to feel empathy and compassion for someone who is experiencing struggle. Well, the teachings of Kundalini Yoga and Meditation certainly offer us plenty of opportunities to suffer and struggle. So, keep this in mind: that one more minute of Stretch Pose, or those 107 more Frogs before you’re done, are actually serving as another way to program your brain to be more compassionate. Wahe Guru!

Science has also discovered that a circumstance that compromises our ability to feel compassion is when we need to make a quick decision. While making quick decisions, the right supramarginal gyrus is less active, and we tend to slip into egocentric perception.

So, as yogis, we can try this kind of exercise:

Become more aware of what your whole being is experiencing during a moment when you are making a quick decision. In that moment, see if you can consciously call your right supramarginal gyrus into action.

How? Just as in stressful moments, we bring consciousness to our breath; now, say you are making a quick decision; while doing so, be determined to command the brain. Consciously remind yourself to feel empathy. Command your face to smile. Give someone, or yourself, a pat on the back and an encouraging word. Make your quick decision while you also send out loving kindness to the Universe.

Or, better yet, dedicate your quick decision to someone you love. In this way you will be actively triggering the mechanisms in the brain to release the hormone oxytocin and help you feel more love and compassion.

So what else can we do to maintain a healthy right supramarginal gyrus?

When you were young, were you ever encouraged to “Put yourself in other people’s shoes?” Did you feel that this is often easier said than done? And now you are a yogi, and you work to be present and aware in your own body. So, putting ourselves in another person’s shoes may be a lovely abstract ideal, it has no practical technique. So, to inspire compassion, we need practical words and techniques to work with in reality.

Use Committed Language

We can work on speaking and thinking in Committed Language. In the book, The Mind, Yogi Bhajan challenges students to speak with Committed Language and stop using the phrase, “I don’t know.” Yogiji says that the phrase “I don’t know” is a careless cop-out.

Similarly, when we encounter someone else’s suffering, try to avoid saying, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Because this seems something like a similar cop-out, like “I don’t know.” Instead, even if it may be true that we cannot imagine what someone else is going through, a more Committed Language response, that thoroughly displays compassion would be, “I see you are suffering. What can I do to help relieve your suffering?”

It is not easy to relieve another person’s suffering. Sometimes it seems downright impossible. We have limited prana. That said, it seems more practical and possible to acknowledge, and to want to relieve, someone else’s suffering. Rather than considering the abstract idea of walking in someone else’s shoes, we can actively cultivate our own brain and heart so that we may be in command of these organs to respond to any situation with compassion.

Dedicate Your Practice

What does this look like? We can consciously dedicate this practice of the Compassionate Heart meditation to understanding our own suffering. Dedicate this practice to relieving the suffering of yourself, your family, and friends. Dedicate this practice to relieving the suffering of people you may feel tension and animosity towards. Dedicate this practice to relieving the suffering of total strangers all over the world. This act of dedicating your practice to the benefit of all beings strengthens your right supramarginal gyrus. It makes you a compassionate responder.

And being a compassionate responder is key to understanding our times. These days we see violence, catastrophe, hunger, and disease. How can we relieve this suffering? We can continue to be aware of the entire emotional geography of a situation and give little or no energy to egocentric, emotional reactions. Consciously directing your attention and energy to compassion will lead to being natural and graceful in your capacity as a compassionate responder in your community.

The Aquarian Perspective

People say that human communities are only as healthy as their conceptions of human nature. During the Piscean Age, the accepted perspective on human nature was that humans are naturally greedy, competitive, and selfish; and it was thought that these traits promoted the evolution and survival of the species. But as Aquarian yogis, our community sits and meditates together. This is our gesture of understanding that every human being is capable of radiating a compassionate human heart.

We work together to cultivate compassion and consciousness, making everyone happier, healthier, and more whole. So whatever views philosophers and teachers of the past may have held regarding human nature, those views are in the past. Compassion is timely and urgent! Compassion is always in fashion. Compassion is NOW!

Beloved Yogi, you can command the brain to switch into compassion mode, and you can continue to serve and uplift those who need it most. You may not be recognized, and your efforts may never be noticed by anyone but you and God, but that won’t matter so much to you, sweet yogi. Because what matters most to the neutral yogi is not so much others’ opinions of her, but what matters more to the yogi is that she knows she is in total command of her own right supramarginal gyrus, a beautiful region of her brain that is so evolved and so strong and so nourished that it radiates the electromagnetic forces of Divine Love and Light unto Infinity.

Surjot Kaur teaches Kundalini Yoga in San Diego. She is a mother, wife, and writer. She also teaches English as a Second Language. Her yoga lifestyle supports her in creating a loving home while she still has enough energy to participate, with enthusiasm, in community activities and volunteer work. You can read more of her writing about yoga and meditation on her website: surjotkaur.com