KINDNESS, FEAR AND MEDITATION
James N Kraut, Psy.D.
Fear and kindness push each other out of the picture. Looking at the world today, yourself included, you are continually accosted by countless signs of extreme global turbulence. You are told numerous times, day after day, by the news media, who are in business to hook your emotions into the ongoing story, how things are falling apart. As you watch our planet undergoing profound change, confronting unimaginable challenges on the horizon, your most reasonable response is fear.
We are often not directly aware of the fear. We can experience it as anxiety, impatience or restlessness. It can manifest as a lack of focus or drive us to abusing drugs, alcohol and other addictions, or compel us to find other ways of not being in the present moment. Sometimes the fear comes with an anxious, panicky awareness of what the future seems to hold. Other times, it comes with the frustration of rigid denial of that future and the belief that nationalistic and xenophobic responses will prevent things from getting worse. So, we have the climate change debate, for example. But regardless of your point of view, there is much fear in the air. And whereas the culprit varies with political stripe, a dark cause is always there in the perception of the problem. Fear seldom comes without blame.
The more afraid we are, the weaker our sophisticated, more evolved brain becomes and the more the primitive, reptilian “fight, flight or freeze” brain takes over. As a result, the higher the intensity of our perception of crisis, the more difficult it becomes for us to think discerningly and compassionately about others whose opinions differ from ours.
To see how this works, consider the growth of political divisiveness, as evidenced by our attitudes toward presidents, over the last 40 years. In the 1980s, people either liked Reagan or they didn’t. No one killed anyone over his politics. That dynamic we saw in the 80s has long been a part of American life. The left and the right have always disagreed but ultimately respected each other and worked together. With George H.W. Bush, attitudes stayed as they were with Reagan. But beginning with Bill Clinton, for a number of reasons, the anger fueling the attitude the opposing political sides felt toward each other began to intensify. It was worse with George W. Bush, even more toxic under Obama and now with Trump, it is the worst it has ever been. I’m not concerned here with the politics per se, so much as the way each side perceives and acts toward the other. We are now seeing murder and domestic terrorism coming out of this divide. The fear has become a cancer. It has pushed kindness from the room.
What can we do? The question needs to be answered on two levels. With respect to political position, we all need to act as our hearts prompt us. But how do we get the fear beast out and make room for kindness? How can we build positive relationships with those whose views differ from our own?
Operating under the assumption that turbulence leads to fear, which results in increased hostility and decreased tolerance, we need to change the way our brains work. The amygdala, which mediates the fight/flight/freeze reaction, needs to be dialed down and the higher levels of cognitive functioning, particularly the prefrontal cortex (PFC), need to be given a more powerful role in how we think and live, in how we form our attitudes and how we treat each other.
According to research, particularly studies summarized by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson in their 2017 book, the eye-opening Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, the longer one devotes time to a regular meditation practice, the more that positive transition happens. Amygdala functioning is decreased and PFC input increases. The result is that the trait changes brought on by meditation practice enable us to become capable of being more present, listening more attentively and becoming more mindful of others’ right to our patience, civility and respect. Beyond that, however, it is critical that we as a species become more aware of how destructive our being ruled by fear is becoming, and how precious kindness is being forced out. The result is a world increasingly populated by people whose hatred and negative projections motivate them to dehumanize, disrespect, even murder other human beings.
Hopefully this has shed some light on the anxiety behind your own observations. And hopefully it will give you a sense of there being some concrete things we can do to cool things down and move from fear and hatred to compassion and kindness.