How Meditation Builds Empathy:
Strengthen relationships with your eyes closed
I live in the surf town of Encinitas, California.
When the waves are big, the surfers’ boards can be snapped into pieces by the pounding surf.
On the outside the boards look different. But, broken open, they all have a foam core.
Regardless of their surface design, on the inside the boards are the same. Just like people.
Deep within we share common needs, emotions, and human concerns.
In the day-to-day challenges of life, it’s easy to forget this and see only our surface differences.
But, when you’re interested in resolving conflicts, deepening love, and creating a better world together — it’s important to go beyond the surface and connect to what’s deeper.
Connecting with others’ below-the-surface humanity requires empathy.
What is empathy? Empathy is your ability to feel and understand another’s inner experience at a deep, fundamental level. And to do this, you have to be connected to the deeper parts of yourself.
It’s your deeper-than-surface being that is able to connect with others’ deeper-than-surface being.
Fortunately, evolution has wired your nervous system to do this through an empathy-enabling neural structure called the insula.
Here’s how it works:
- When you feel basic emotions, your insula lights up.
- When you see others in emotional states, your insula lights up.
- In short, whether the emotional state is “inside” or “outside” you, the insula lights up.
The insula performs this amazing function: it replicates the inner states of others — by generating bodily sensations within you, allowing you to “resonate” with other’s inner experience.
The more accurately you’re in touch with your own bodily sensations, the more you’re able to attune to and understand the inner experience of others.
By strengthening the insula — empathy gets easier and also more precise. A well-developed insula enables you to tune in and respond skillfully to others’ inner needs.
When others get swept away in reactivity, instead of drowning with them in the emotional surf and taking their emotions personally, we literally feel the textures of their inner states and the dynamics of their inner struggles.
It takes a strong insula to do this.
So, how do you strengthen your insula?
It’s surprisingly simple: by attending to your inner bodily sensations and feeling the temperature and texture of the breath, you build your “insula-ability.”
Who would have thought that simply by regularly attending to your breath and bodily sensations, you could become better at understanding others? But it’s true. The same neurological hardware is employed for both tasks.
The most efficient way to do this is through the practice of meditation.
Research shows that meditation dramatically — and positively — thickens the insula. Meditation literally builds your empathy hardware.
This means that you can get better at empathy — reading and understanding others — with your eyes closed.
Just by sitting still and mindfully breathing for just a few minutes each day, you can improve your ability to resolve conflicts, transform differences, and connect with others.
So, the next time you’re in a difficult conversation and the emotional surf surges — you won’t have to break any boards. You’ll empathically hang ten, dude!