‘Compassion and love are not mere luxuries. As the source both of inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.’ – His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama
The word is Love, not ‘in love’ which is a kind of temporary insanity, but a healthy all embracing love. A wise love that knows all humans as little expressions of life, little creatures rushing around hoping to run into a little kindness, appreciation and ideally adoration! All of this so that we avoid feeling separate, alone or excluded. Feeling any of these feelings is one of our most profound fears.
Love resides as a warm expanding gracious feeling within us. It is a good idea to feed and nourish these wholesome feelings, not just for the sake of experiencing good feelings but also for the sake of our physical health!
Recently Barbara Frederickson published a book with radical new research.**
She says: ‘Just as your body was designed to extract oxygen from the Earth’s atmosphere, and nutrients from the foods you ingest, your body was designed to love. Love — like taking a deep breath, or eating an orange when you’re depleted and thirsty — not only feels great but is also life-giving, an indispensable source of energy, sustenance, and health.’
Hang in there for the research as it is fascinating! I promise!
Love, and its absence, fundamentally alters the bio-chemicals in which the body is steeped. One of the love neurotransmitters Oxytocin, surges during love making, birth, breast feeding and the ‘in love’ stage. It also modulates the activity of the amygdala (Amygdala, two almond shaped ‘bits’ of the limbic system involved in the emotions of fear, anxiety and aggression (sympathetic state or fight or flight)).
Research shows that being kind raises the naturally occurring dopamine and oxytocin levels which:
- Curb stress induced increases in heart rate and blood pressure
- Reduce feelings of depression
- Increase pain threshold
Working with oxytocin the Vagus nerve soothes the racing heart by orchestrating the parasympathetic (rest and digest system).
The vagal tone is the degree of activity occurring within the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in changes to the heart rate and other key functions. When the vagal tone increases or decreases, there are changes to the heart rate. Until recently, it was thought, that the ability or strength of the vagus nerve was set, a bit like our height.
However, recent research by Dr Frederickson, showed that when people practiced Loving Kindness Meditation for just one hour a week the vagal tone increased after a couple of months.
Higher vagal tone means:
- More flexibility – physically, mentally and socially.
- Physical regulation of bodily processes such as glucose levels and inflammation are more efficient.
- Improved ability to regulate attention and emotions – even behavior and navigation of interpersonal connection.
Those with higher vagal tone experience more love in their daily lives, more moments of positivity resonance. And who wouldn’t want more of that??
Imagine that you spend just one hour a week with loving feelings and thoughts and it increases your mental, emotional and physical flexibility as well as improves your emotional regulations and your attention and focus. On top of all that it results in you experiencing even more love and positive moments – that is good return on your investment! I wonder what would happen if we do 2 hours a week?
Another recent study found the vagus nerve to be a possible treatment for chronic depression in people that didn’t respond to any other treatments.
Loving-kindness is a meditation practice, which develops the quality of ‘loving-acceptance’. The practice begins with cultivating loving-kindness towards ourselves, then our loved ones, friends, strangers, enemies, and finally towards all humans on earth. Loving Kindness meditation is part of any good mindfulness program.
“Hatred cannot coexist with loving-kindness, and dissipates if supplanted with thoughts based on loving-kindness.” – Dhammapada
Experience and give love and you will get it back tenfold.
** Barbara Fredrickson is professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. Her latest book is Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (2013).