Welcome to Joy Lab!: Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach
aimee: Welcome to Joy Lab. So I'm Aimee, here to introduce this next lesson of our podcourse, which is all about compassion and cultivating a good heart, as we like to say. What does that have to do with depression or anxiety? A lot, actually. So this is not some finger wagging dogma of what you should do, how you should live your life.
Henry is going to get into a part of mental health that's not talked about very often. We talk about it a lot here at Joy Lab, um, but it's not a common discussion point when we're thinking about mental health. We call it heartfulness as well around here. It's about growing a larger container.
It's profoundly powerful when stress hits. So that we can dilute some of that stress. So Henry will talk all about this. And like we've been doing in the last couple of lessons, in the next episode, following this one, there'll be a meditation for you so that you can take action, practicing, cultivating a good heart.
Enjoy this lesson.
Henry: In this section, I want to talk about what I refer to as cultivating a good heart. What do I mean by that? What is the heart? How does this play into what we're talking about, recovering from something like depression or anxiety? I want to try to understand that by telling you a story. So, picture this mountain lake.
Beautiful, crystal clear lake in the mountains surrounded by mountains and right in front of the lake with mountains in the background, there is a wise old sage just sitting there quietly meditating, or whatever sages do. And just waiting for people to come and ask questions because that's what people do. So into the scene comes a young seeker. Somebody who's looking for some answers to life, who is maybe a little bit confused , a little bit lost, but doesn't really know that.
This younger person has read a lot, has worked on a lot of ideas, and they're, they think that they're going to this age just to, to get more information, to learn more. And so the young person, comes and bows and, um, is invited to sit down. And then, the wise older person asks, what can I do for you?
And the young seeker says, " I am wanting to understand. suffering and how to help people get out of suffering. And so the sage says, well, tell me what you know about suffering. And then the young person who hasn't yet experienced a lot of suffering, uh, gives sort of an answer that it comes from a book.
It's sort of a textbook. It's a well thought out answer, but it doesn't really have much heart to it. So the older person, just to begin the teaching, takes out a pouch, and in this pouch there is a very bitter herb. In this day and age, everybody knows this herb. They know it's very bitter and you don't really want to eat it or not much of it.
And then the sage, without speaking, takes a cup, dips it in the lake, takes a spoon of this herb, pours it into the cup, stirs it up, hands it into the younger person, as if to drink it. And the younger person, knowing it's going to taste horrible. But wanting to be a good student, goes ahead and drinks it, and sure enough, it tastes so terrible that, you know, it's impossible to keep it in and just has to spit it out, get it out.
And then, without any further words, the sage takes another spoon, same spoon, same pouch, same amount of the bitter herb, but this time bends over and drops it into the lake. Stirs it up, and then asks the young person, indicates to go ahead and dip your cup in the lake and drink it. Well, without having to do that, the young seeker knows that it will be undetectable.
You won't be able to taste the bitterness because it's dissolved into such a big container. That's what we're trying to do here. We're looking at how do we make ourselves bigger than we are? How do we move from, from just managing our lives and our stresses and trying to be more resilient and trying to keep our resilient container full. To creating such a greater sense of spaciousness that we're able to carry whatever suffering, whatever bitterness we need to and not be taken under by it.
So, cultivating a good heart means we turn our attention to that part of ourselves that is capable of greater things, such as love, compassion, kindness, generosity, gratitude. It's the kind of neural pathways, getting back to that metaphor, that we want to create in our lives. Let me tell you then about a study that points out the absolute power of this.
This is a study that was done at the University of Wisconsin in Madison looking at Buddhist monks who had spent their entire lives practicing meditation, and particularly a kind of meditation known as a compassion meditation. And what they were doing, they brought them into the lab and they were measuring this part of their brain called the prefrontal cortex.
There are left and right cortices, and they have very different functions. In this case, the left prefrontal cortex right behind your forehead, on the left side, if that little center in the brain is activated, you feel open, you feel as if you're in a state of openness, maybe vulnerability, maybe generosity, but you're capable of warmth and connection and, and kind of getting out of yourself.
You're more approachable. When the right prefrontal cortex is more activated of the two, it's almost the opposite. You're feeling closed down, maybe self protective, not wanting to be vulnerable, not wanting to be open, and possibly a little bit more self focused, self absorbed, or even hostile toward others.
Now, the human brain evolved for a particular set of reasons. Didn't happen by chance. And in this case, I think, at least I imagine that both of these centers have a very important purpose. It's not that one is good and the other is bad. In fact, they're both really important and really necessary. But in our day and age, for so many people, there are all these inputs that are activating this part of the brain that shuts us down to others. That makes us more self focused and self absorbed in ways that don't feel good.
And when that is overly active, it goes beyond just protecting us. And it keeps us guarded and separate from others. At least that's how I think of it. And so these monks were experts at activating this center in the brain that you might even call the compassion center, the openness. And what they did then, the researchers gave them an assignment.
They, they put them in their lab, they hooked them up to this fancy gear that measures the activity in these parts of the brain. And then they showed them a picture. And the picture was of a young child who was born with some deformity. And so it was a suffering child. And they just gave them the instruction to do the best you can, to hold this child in a state of compassion. Feel compassion for this child.
And they measured and within just mere moments, they were able to activate this left prefrontal cortex. They were able to open up with a sense of compassion. Just by willing themselves to do so. Now, the researchers later took a group of regular people, much like us, who had not spent their lives doing this kind of meditation.
They gave them the same assignment, and they weren't able to change it. You know, try as they might, willing themselves to do it wasn't enough. Because they hadn't practiced that, they had not yet created the neural pathways for compassion. Now, most of us can feel compassion. It's not that we're unable to do that. But to be able to do it routinely, at will, in a moment like that, is a real skill.
The researchers then took the regular folks, unpracticed, and they taught them to do a compassion meditation, just for a very short time, just a couple weeks or a very few weeks. And then they had them come in the lab, and sure enough, just with a little instruction and a bit of practice, they weren't as good as the monks, of course, but they were able to do it.
Why is this important? Because, as you can imagine, being in that state of, openness, being freed up from the rumination about oneself, feels a whole lot better. It gives you some freedom. Some people with certain forms of depression, when they get into these loops of self-rumination and often it's self recrimination, and they get relief from it, it is such a huge relief.
And we're trying to do this by practicing doing this. By training ourselves to be able to do this.
So you can do the compassion meditation. And try it more than once. Try doing it every day for a couple of weeks or maybe two or three times a week for a few weeks and see if you don't start to notice that in fact you are starting to change in your ability to intentionally get out of your own thinking and self rumination and into a state of openness and compassion for others, and for yourself.
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