The theme over recent weeks has been “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”. Last week I reflected on how the Buddha placed compassion and non-violence at the heart of his teaching. The Loving Kindness practice was taught in response to some monks who were having difficulties with some tree spirits in the forrest grove where they had set up their residence. In the time of the Buddha people still believed that all of nature was inhabited by spirits and divinities so it was not unusual for the Buddhist scriptures to describe meetings between the Buddha or his monks and various nature spirits who lived in the tress or streams of the wilderness where the monks made their home. In an age when we like to show how much the Buddha’s teaching matches modern scientific findings there is little reference to this! And for many of us it may mean very little. But the story illustrates an important principle so is worth listing to even if considered a fable or symbolic.
The significance of the Buddha teaching his disciples to extend love to the tree spirits rather than feel resentment or anger illustrates the Buddha’s teaching which I reflects on in last week’s email: “hatred does not cease through hatred but by love”. He did not teach the monks to destroy or annihilate the tree spirits, but to radiate love to them, the very beings that were trying to frighten and disturb the monks in their meditation. This attitude is very contrary to many of our human instincts, which on seeing another as an enemy or obstruction leads to a wish to escape from them or anhiliate them.
And now we come back to the 21st Century and neuroscience! I was watching the excellent BBC documentary about the brain recently and in episode 7 it covered the very troubling and difficult issue of why we hate, and how genocide or inter-group violence can happen. What happens to a group of people that causes them to stop seeing another group as humans and instead be able to unleash untold misery and harm on their fellow human beings? What might we learn about our own individual tendency towards hatred and how to own it but not act on it by looking at what happens on a massive social scale when humans fall out of relationship?
The programme followed a number of experiments that were using brain imaging to observe what happens in the brain in different situations.
The Pain Matrix
In the first experiment they looked at what happens when we feel excluded from a group. The experiment was conducted online by having three people play a game. Two of the participants were secretly part of the experiment so only the third person was actually being observed. At first the game of online ‘frisbee’ included all of the participants, but after a while the two who were part of the experiment threw it only to themselves and excluded the third. As this happened the brain scan of this third person started to show the activation of the pain centre located at the front of the brain. This is something normally associated with physical pain, but they found that the brain also experiences this exactly the same if it is a mental event arising form the feeling of being excluded.
From this they deduced that if the experience of being excluded is felt as pain, then as human beings it is natural that we will look for a way of feeling included – by looking for a group of like minded people by whom we are accepted. This is great for our own sense of self-worth, but what happens when our group then defines itself by making another group ‘other’: less worthy, impure, unholy, or to to be despised?
The Loss of Empathy
The next experiment looked at exactly this. What would happen when people identifying with a specific group saw a syringe needle enter various hands? Each hand was labled with a group identity:
People who identified with one of these groups then watched as the needle entered the hand of each person. The usual empathy response was that the brain would recognise that another was experiencing pain and there would be activity in this area of the brain, shown here by the sudden peak of activity:
This is what happened when there were no labels. But as soon as the hands were labeled something significant happened. On viewing the needle go into the hand of someone who was in their ‘out group’ participants showed no activation in the empathy centre of the brain. The blue line shows the lack of activation compared to the green line which shows their response to the in-group.
Their brain was literally no longer registering the other person as another fellow human being who was suffering and for whom they might feel empathy. Instead they were a blank, something rather than someone. Even the atheists identified more with fellow atheists and less with the other humans! So it is not just an issue of religion, but of identifying with a group and then not empathising with those belonging to other groups or groups who hold opinions contrary to your own.
The findings of this experiment were confirmed when a group of people were shown random images of people, including one of a homeless person. When people they looked at images of various people a certain area of the brain lit up connected with recognising fellow human beings:
But on looking a the homeless person there was a marked reduction in this activation in many of the participants:
The top right hand image shows the lack of activation in the brain when looking at the homeless person compared to viewing other images of people. This showed that for these participants on the experiment they had learnt not to see homeless people as other humans: they no longer recognised them as a person, but could walk past them as a thing.
“Love thine Enemy”
Having looked at these experiments the programme went on to surmise that it is this process that is at work when two groups oppose each other in war or conflict. Having established your ‘in-group’ in order to feel safe and not feel excluded, this group may often be defined by an ‘out-group’ – those who hold opposite views and opinions, who worship different Gods, or worship the same God but with different rituals and dogma. If there is then conflict between these two groups the brain is capable of literally switching off from recognising the members of the ‘out-group’ as other humans, and instead see them as objects. And it is from this that the atrocities we see throughout history and right up to this present day can take place. When we no longer see another as a fellow human being, or feel their pain, then we are capable of doing anything to them.
This is where we return to the Four Divine Abiding meditations and the Loving Kindness practice. The Buddha did not demonise the tree spirits, he did not say to hate them as they were obstructing the monks in their meditation and were ‘enemies’. Instead he taught the monks to be patient, forbearing and loving towards them. It is the same message that Christ shared, although historically this part of his teaching has tended to be conveniently forgotten by many throughout history!
“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” Mathew 5:44
“If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.” Luke 6:29
What these teachers are telling us is that hatred does not cease through further expressions of hatred. Hatred ceases through love, and love enable us to see the ‘other’ as a fellow human being. The third stage of the loving kindness practice gives us the opportunity to locate the people who are our ‘out-group’. For us this might not be due to racial or religious distinctions, but by their position in society or in relation to how we see ourselves and our values and how we then despise those who hold different values or beliefs.
Learning to make the wish that others may be happy (the Loving Kindness Practice) have empathy for all who suffer (the Compassion practice) and rejoice in the good fortune of others (Sympathetic Joy practice) counteracts any tendency to feel contempt for some or lack of compassion for others. The Equanimity practice, the fourth of the Divine abiding meditations, encourages us to see that we all inherit the consequences of our own actions, so it is only for us to focus on our actions and wish others well, not to judge or condemn others. These four divine abiding meditations encourage us to explore seeing all those whom we know as simply human beings wanting to be happy and well, who fear pain and sorrow – just as we do.
Learning to own my own hatred rather than project it out onto another
When I first learnt the Loving Kindness practice I had to learn to love my step-father. I saw him as bigoted and intolerant in his racism and homophobia. I hated him for his intolerance. Until finally I realised that I was simply hating that which I was feeling myself! I was intolerant of his intolerance and used this to justify feelings of hatred towards him, even hoping he would die. On seeing this the work became more internal. I couldn’t change him, but I could change how I was reacting and relating to him. As a result of this process I felt much happier. He also changed and softened in his outlook as we were not in conflict but in dialogue.
If you have someone or some group you know are your ‘out-group’ I invite you to explore holding them in the third stage of the Loving Kindess practice. Learn to recognise them as a fellow human being, with their own hopes and fears, their desire to be happy just as you wish to be happy and their sorrow at loss and pain just as you feel sorrow of these things. In this way we can create an opening for peace in our heart. And that is the only part of the world for which we have any direct responsibility. But as we plant the seed of peace in our heart it may grow and bloom and the scent reach others, influencing their thoughts and actions – and in tis way we may indeed create a kinder world. In the end it may be that you find that, as Jung says, those who annoy you shows you what we need to see in yourself.
To down load a guided version of the Loving Kindness practice click here