What are we missing?
Evolution has prepared us to live in completely different conditions. Different food, less food, different stress, different pace, different environment, different activity… one could say: other people. Thanks to medicine we live longer, but is it a healthy life? It hurts the food we eat, the air we breathe, the medicines we take and our lifestyle. A style that we can see so intensely changing even during our lives and completely different from 100 years ago. Are we ready for this and how do we find ourselves as a person in today’s world?
Today we have to process more and more information, more and more machines do the work for us, we sit behind a desk and have less and less time for reflection and rest. For several decades, research and social programs have been conducted to help us improve the quality of life, its length and our health. A lot of this is going on: the Mediterranean diet, the vegetarian diet, running, walking, drinking juices, organic food, avoiding dairy, coffee and other stimulants, more reading, solving crossword puzzles, then sudoku… In addition, all this with the constant emphasis that it is universal for everyone. But it is not. For some time the enemy was fat, then television, sugar and computer games. It’s allowed, it’s not allowed… a lot of it. Everybody knows better than us what’s good for us and what’s not. Something is missing in this research, something that is less tangible and more fleeting – our well-being and our relations with ourselves and with others. In “The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life’s Challenges” Paul Gilbert makes it clear that the ability to generate compassion and a sense of social belonging may have had a more significant impact on our survival and evolution than the fear of danger or the desire to meet one’s needs, such as food. The ability to support each other helped our species to survive, evolve and grow.
Why do we need good relationships?
In her lecture at TED2017 Susan Pinker presents a list of indicators that affect the length of our lives. Exercise, diet, clean air, nicotine, alcohol – all these are less important than our relationship. Relationships with loved ones are in second place and relations with people in general are in first place. Susan mentions at the lecture about the inhabitants of Sardinia, that there are a lot of people living there and about the tradition of maintaining close family and neighborly relations, that nobody is left there alone. However, we still associate Sardinia with a healthy Mediterranean diet and this could be more important than relationships and positive emotions. We will no longer have such associations in connection with the town of Roseto in the United States of Pennsylvania. In the 60’s, this place was taken up by interest because nobody was dying from heart disease, no heart attacks. They compared this town with others and searched for what makes it different from the rest of the people living in Pennsylvania and the whole United States. It was neither a diet nor a healthy lifestyle. Alcohol was drunk, cigars were smoked, sausages and fries were fried in lard, most of the men worked in the nearby quarries, where it was not difficult to have accidents and inhale gases full of dust. What made the town stand out were family relationships and active support for the local community. The residents respected each other and no one, regardless of status or income, was left alone. In 1992, research confirmed that with the globalization of Roseto has changed, relations have relaxed and now the Rosetians suffer from heart disease just like the rest of the Americans. It is the feeling of positive emotions associated with relationships (towards each other and others) that has a salutary effect on our heart, hormonal system and immune system. If we do something that improves our mood and our relationships with others, in a wise, non-compulsive way (even water damages too much), attentive and conscious, we certainly act to our advantage.
But to the point – why this meditation. After all, the Rosetians certainly did not meditate.
We don’t live in a community like the Sardinia and Roseto of the 1960s. This is the main change of the last 100 years – our family and social relations have weakened. Our relationship with ourselves has also weakened.
Mindfulness meditation - training observation and emotional intelligence
The practice of mindfulness helps us to change our habits. This is because mindfulness meditation is a training to observe and control your thoughts, judgments, emotions and feelings to a certain degree. In the practice of mindfulness, you can direct your attention to the senses (observation of breath, body signals, thanksgiving) and try to keep it in this observation. Each time we manage to realize that our thoughts are diverging somewhere, we calmly and softly return to our soft, broaden attention on the chosen object. It is this moment that is the greatest first success of this kind of meditation. In this way, we train the ability to perceive our own thoughts just when they appear. Another kind of mindfulness meditation is the observation of thoughts and emotions, but in a possibly distant way. Here, visualizations help to observe thoughts like “clouds gliding through the sky” or “leaves floating through a stream”. That’s what it’s all about, to realize that there’s a thought in our head, that there’s some kind of emotion and the ability to observe what’s happening to us. Are we sad or angry? If we’re angry with someone, or are we angry with ourselves? How does it affect our body, why did it squeeze my stomach so tightly, why do I want to reach for something sweet, alcohol, a cigarette…?
Instead of identifying ourselves with all our thoughts and judgments, we can become a conscious observer. Instead of giving in to our emotions, we can look at them and decide what to do with them. It’s nothing more than improving your emotional intelligence. Systematic practice of meditation is regular training of our brain in what we often do not do in a busy life. It develops in us the ability to observe ourselves and our environment giving us the opportunity to consciously respond. Such training gives us an opportunity to realize that we are operating in the “autopilot mode”. – reflexively, reactively, without reflection and without recording signals from our body and mind. Thanks to this, meditation also helps to repair the relationship. How much pain and suffering could we save ourselves if we were able to react to crossing our borders earlier, if we listened to our inner emotional response on an ongoing basis? How would our lives change if we could respond wisely and assertively and not exploding or at all? Our mind and body may be sending out a clearer or lesser signal, but if you stop for a moment and “listen” you will surely learn more. Our body tries to tell us all this much earlier, that a person is acting somehow strange to us, or even that a particular type of food is harmful to us. It is enough to be open to signals and listen to them. Only that in today’s world we have a lot of noise, information and tasks to do and even more things that help us drown out these signals. In this way we are more likely to react automatically and repeat the same patterns. The practice of meditation in the initial phase helps us to be aware that we are subject to some kind of pattern or automatic evaluation. Further practice leads to mastering this reaction and gives us the chance to respond consciously.
Meditation of kindness and compassion - generator of positive emotions
Meditations of positive emotions: kindness, compassion, gratitude and forgiveness are nothing but a counterweight to weakened family and social relationships. What we experience in such meditation has a salutary effect on our health. I realize that I am stripping this kind of meditation of its natural beauty, but I do it consciously. Rational and scientific arguments help convince those who need it most. Focusing on negative emotions (regret, anger, lack of kindness to yourself and others) literally eats up our immune system. Positive emotions and positive relationships have a salutary effect on our health, hormonal system and heart. More and more research indicates that oxytocin – a hormone that is very strongly linked to relationships – has a salutary effect on the heart. Very interesting is Kelly McGonigal’s lecture on the fact that stress has a negative effect on us provided we believe it does. Kelly speaks clearly: “If you change your mind’s response to stress, you change your body’s response.” The result of this more positive response to stress is the release of oxytocin, which protects our heart. Practicing compassionate meditation helps us train our ability to react more positively in various everyday situations. It allows us to feel kindness to ourselves when we make a mistake. It gives us space to feel compassion for our son/daughter when he or she gets a bad degree. It helps us to forgive ourselves and others for past mistakes. It brings us gratitude for what we have achieved and what we already have, instead of deepening the grief that we have less than a neighbor or co-worker. By freeing ourselves from at least a small part of these negative reactions of our mind, we give our body a small injection of health that it can remove, a sprouting state that is just beginning to develop.
It seems that despite all the changes in human life, the ability to generate compassion and a sense of social belonging still has a huge impact on our survival.
Meditation is not the only solution, but it is a good way to improve the quality of life
Improving emotional intelligence, improving relationships, positive emotions – all this can be achieved in different ways. Meditation is not the only one, the best or the universal. Our ability to reflect can be developed through reading a novel, the ability to perceive and react with ACT training, relationships through dance lessons. However, meditation is one of the most valued ways to live better, take care of your physical and mental health and your relationships with others. It is no coincidence that meditations are appreciated by people like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and many others, the more famous and the less famous. But the most important thing is that those who want to improve the quality of their lives and the lives of their loved ones look for a solution for themselves. Solutions that have been lost somewhere in the course of development and could be built anew to fit the 21st century.
Paul Gilbert, 2010, “Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life’s Challenges”, New Harbinger Publications
Susan Pinker, 2017, “The secret to living longer may be your social life”, TED2017
Kelly McGonigal, 2013, “How to make stress your friend”, TED2013
Rock Positano, 2011, “The Mystery of the Rosetan People”, Huffpost
Ashley M. Blouin, Itzhak Fried, 2013, “Human hypocretin and melanin-concentrating hormone levels are linked to emotion and social interaction”, Nature Communications
Kathleen M. Dillon, Brian Minchoff, Katherine H. Baker, 1986, “Positive Emotional States and Enhancement of the Immune System”, The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine
Reiss AB, Glass DS, 2019, “Oxytocin: Potential to mitigate cardiovascular risk”, Peptides
Ping Wang, Stephani C. Wang, 2019, “Therapeutic Potential of Oxytocin in Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease: Mechanisms and Signaling Pathways”, Frontiers in Neuroscience