© Cathy Rowan - 2013 

C21st century healing: compassion and neuro-know how

Advances made over the last 10 – 15 years from many individual, and often disparate, fields have come together in some revolutionary discoveries in understanding what it is that creates healing and wellbeing. What is now emerging are new therapies, new disciplines and a very different way of viewing healing – in the past the focus has been on solving the problem of ill-health, now there is a new perspective and it is of looking at the human condition from the opposite angle. What is it that creates health? and the answers are being found by a coming together of two most unlikely bed-fellows – neuroscience and the compassionate mindfulness practices of the Buddhist monks. Their alliance is now leading the way in implementing their discoveries which are and will change not only our healthcare but also could significantly affect how we run our businesses and teach our children in our schools.

The c21st century neuroscience explosion

The 1990s were dubbed the “Decade of the Brain” and during this time new ways of imaging the brain became available including a development of the MRI scan – the new Functional MRI scan (known fMRI) enabled neuroscientists, for the first time, to not only take a “still-photo shot” of the brain but also to create the equivalent of a video of the brain in action. This has opened up a new field of information and understanding of how not only how our brains work at any given time but also how they change in response to a person’s life experiences. This was revolutionary as prior to this discovery there was not the realisation that we literally change our brains by how we live our lives and how we focus our attention. This phenomenon of change is called neuroplasticity

“What fires together wires together”

In 1949, Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist, wrote what has become known as Hebb’s axiom: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Each experience we encounter, whether a feeling, a thought, a sensation—and especially those that we are not aware of—is embedded in thousands of neurons (nerve pathways both in our brains and also in our bodies) that form a network (“net”) within our brain/body/mind system. Repeated experiences become increasingly embedded in this net (and therefore in our brain/body/mind systems), making it easier for the neurons to fire (respond to the experience), and more difficult to unwire or rewire them to respond differently. This is a good thing when learning the name of a new acquaintance—the net helps us to remember; but not so good when being yelled at repeatedly as a child—the net also remembers this, and has a difficult time knowing how to respond later in life when someone raises their voice with us. So all our experiences are getting wired into our very being each day as we live our lives. Our past is literally wired into our bodies and brains.

Neuroscience and the Dalai Lama

A leading American Neuroscientist, Richard Davidson from Wisconsin University has done some ground-breaking research in using fMRI scans to study what happens in our brains when we experience different emotions, in particular what happens in our brains when we are kind and compassionate to ourselves and others. To do this his research has involved looking at the fMRI scans of Buddhist Monks and discovered that the scan results of monks were very different to that of Joe Boggs down the road. What he found was that those areas of the brain that enable us to be calm and caring were far more developed than those of the man in the street. Out of this discovery he went and undertook a research project in which he asked for volunteers to come and take part in a trial looking at wellbeing practices. All the participants chose to come and were arbitrarily divided into two groups – one half doing an online 30 minute compassionate mindfulness practice daily for two weeks, the second group also doing an online 30 minute practice for a fortnight but they did a CBT exercise (CBT stands for cognitive behavioural therapy and is a well-established therapy for people suffering from anxiety or depression). Before the trial all participants were given an fMRI scan and also did a questionnaire designed to look at their levels of compassion both towards others as well as themselves. At the end of the 2 weeks they all returned and had a second scan and redid the questionnaires. What was found was that there was an identifiable increase in the areas of the brain that are associated with compassion, on the fMRI scans, for the group who had done the compassionate mindfulness practice. There was no change in the CBT group. There was also a shift on the questionnaire responses. This was in just two weeks of 30 minutes a day. Following this study many others have followed and it’s been found that Mindfulness has a positive impact on a range of issues from chronic pain to immune disorders to mental health problems. There are new studies coming out all the time and results show that even doing just 5 minutes of mindfulness a day everyday can actually be more beneficial than doing 35 minutes once per week. As Michael Chaskalson puts it: “… we now know that such training [Mindfulness] literally re-sculpts your brain.” To return to Donald Hebb, in essence, by using Mindfulness practices we renew our minds as we are creating new healthy nets that fire together so they can wire together.

Feeling “felt” – Daniel Siegel

Alongside the neuroscience research another trend has been emerging – the bringing together of various disciplines all interested in the mind and what makes for wellbeing. At the forefront of this work is Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry in California. When he started out training as a doctor he was horrified at the cold way patients were often told news of life-threatening diagnoses and there was no awareness of how it might feel to be on the receiving end of such information.   Another recent discovery by the neuroscientists has been the identification of a particular type of brain cell called a mirror neurone. This discovery has given the scientists proof of something that most of us already know - that we feel different with different people. Our mirror neurones “tell” us how another person “feels”. This recognition has led Daniel Siegel to create with colleagues from other allied disciplines including anthropology and psychology a new field of science which is named IPNB or Interpersonal Neurobiology. Put simply it is the study of how we affect each other and from this new ways of helping people cultivate wellbeing are emerging. These are all grounded in facilitating all parts of our brain/body/mind system to work together in harmony. The core of Daniel Siegel’s work is that it is crucial for our wellbeing as human beings to feel “felt” by another person, for the other person to recognise how we might feel in a given situation and to respond in a way that is non-judgemental and compassionate.  He coined the term “Mindsight” to describe the ability of our human capacity to perceive the mind – from this he then went on to explore  how we can support ourselves internally merely by a subtle change of phrasing. For example experiment with saying "I am sad" and then try "I feel sad" – notice the difference.

The “felt-sense” – Eugene Gendlin

Similar as the two statements above may seem, they are profoundly different. “I am sad” is a kind of limited self-definition. “I feel sad” suggests the ability to recognize and acknowledge a feeling, without being consumed by it. This difference and connecting with the whole experience of ourselves was recognised back in the 1960s by Eugene Gendlin. He is an American philosopher and psychotherapist who developed ways of thinking about and working with living process, and the bodily felt sense. Out of his work the inner practice of Focusing came into being and it is here that his work and that of Siegel’s meet. The focusing skills that are part of mindsight make it possible to see what is inside, to accept it, and in the accepting to let it go, and finally, to transform it. This is precisely what occurs during Focusing.

The importance of Compassion and Safeness in healing and wellbeing

Integral to both Mindfulness and Focusing is compassion and non-judgemental acceptance. Without them both inner experience practices can quickly become just another way to give one’s self a hard time. Compassion is, for many of us, a skill that we need to learn as it is not something that is just innately within us, rather it is part of our past experience. So if our past life was dominated by negative experiences we will have had relatively little experience of feeling those essential “non-identical” twins of feeling safe and being received compassionately. These are, however, resources we can acquire. This is also an area in which companioned Focusing, can really make a difference because this is the essence of what the companion provides to the Focuser. As we have experiences with companioned Focusing in which we feel safe and feel “felt” we are creating new neural pathways and nets – and so we can build these new resources and ultimately teach our brains to respond rather than react to life and its challenges.

No-one is ever too old to change

Learning to listen to ourselves and our feelings and experiences is a skill any of us can learn at any age, it is never too late to start. Small but regular daily practices which help develop our compassion and sense of safeness mean that we can create for ourselves our own inner sense of calmness and wellbeing. Further it means that we now have a way develop internal support to meet the challenges of life, breath by breath, moment by moment, so we are not so easily overwhelmed and, if we are, we have, within ourselves, the means to recover our equanimity. And so we can learn how to strengthen, within ourselves, those parts of us that are kind, calm, compassionate and life-enjoying. In so doing we can better “hold” and be with those aspects of our lives that are difficult. Thus we change our neural pathways, we strengthen the areas of the brain that are to do with empathy and compassion and loosen the hold on our brains of those parts that are stuck in stress-mode. In so doing we are actually changing the physical structure of our brains. This is what is at the core of the Breathe and Be approach so you can learn to fully....

“...live life one breath at a time.”



learn to calm and soothe...living life one breath at a time

breathe and be - learning to live one breath at a time...

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C21st century healing

“We take of the future best by taking care of the present moment.” John Kabat-Zinn Professor of Medicine Emeritus
C21st century healing C21st century healing