Expand Your Circle of Compassion
Bring to mind one person that you came across during your day. You may know this person by name or you may have only seen this person in passing. Remember that just as you have wishes and desires for your life, so too does this person. Write down the person's name or description and write the following phrases:
" May you be happy"
" May you be healthy"
"May you be free from danger"
"May you live with ease"
Take a few minutes to close or soften your eyes and continue to wish these intentions for this person. Feel free to customize the wishes with words that feel natural to you.
I was at the store the other day and a man in line behind me had some dog toys and treats. I asked him about it and he said that he had just gotten a puppy and that he was excited to spoil her. I wrote in my journal.
"The man with the new puppy. May you be happy. May you enjoy companionship. May you be healthy. May you live with ease." I closed my eyes and imagined him smiling and playing with his puppy as I wished these intentions.
The Psychology to Why it Works
One theory suggests that our ancestors, who lived in tribes often competed against other small tribes for resources. There were groups that were better at collaboration and cooperation and these tribes passed not only their culture of "us" and teamwork but they also passed their genes through generations.
On the other side, there were also tribes that operated from the premise of fear and distrust of opposing tribes, or those who were "different." These tribes that tended towards violence and fighting also passed their ways and genes to their children. While both types of living have their advantages, we are no longer living in a time where resources are scare and it can be argued that the "othering" approach is not only unnecessary, but actually harmful. Now we are looking at each other and our differences of race, culture, ideology and any other markers of someone who is "different."
There are implicit biases to those who we do not know or those unfamiliar to us. Years of prejudice and lack of knowing others outside of our racial or cultural group cause even a thoughtful, compassionate person's brain to have an unconscious activation in the amygdala when viewing a photo of a person outside of their racial group. The amygdala is an area of the brain that signals of a threat or potential danger.
Sometimes we can even view people as objects and we hardly even acknowledge their existence. Think of how many people you've looked over and didn't even extend thoughts of humanity towards. I'm guilty of doing this as well. Driving through my neighborhood, my mind is on my important tasks or concerns and I hardly even notice the people out walking. Or I can think of the countless homeless people that I walked by on the streets of San Francisco.
Desirable interactions cause dopamine and oxytocin to be released in your brain. These neurochemicals are part of a reward system that makes you want to repeat the experience. Social connection is what has allowed our species to survive and flourish. The challenge now is to extend our social circles to those who are "different" from us. When our circle or compassion expands we may be able to increase our tolerance, empathy and care for not only those who we feel familiar to but also those who are outside of our tribes.
For more reading on this topic check out these pages:
Why Our Brains See the World as "Us v. Them."
How Neurophilosophy Explains Our Divided Polictics
The Rewarding Nature of Social Interactions
This is Your Brain on Social