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Love is All You Need

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Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

In his 2012 book “The Social Conquest of the Earth“, renowned biologist E.O. Wilson compared various eusocial species in an effort to tease out the differences and similarities between human societies and those of ants, termites, and other creatures that have employed sacrifice by the individual for the good of the whole in their evolutionary success.

Humans have both innate and behavioral tendencies toward altruism.

Among these eusocial species, Wilson notes, instinct and genetics are responsible for the behaviors of sacrifice, but among humans, influenced by another level of consciousness, what is seen as altruistic action is also produced at least in part by rational thought. He posits that humans have both innate and behavioral tendencies toward altruism.

Wilson goes on to say that due to our tribal development and its resulting deep-seated mistrust of “other”, humans are also influenced by selfishness and that whether one’s tribe or one’s individual self meets a threat, a human will act selfishly to overcome such a threat because those selfish acts have resulted in species success.

Eusocial insects will go on sacrificing as individuals to benefit the whole population. Humans, for better or worse, weigh the pros and cons of sacrifice and make choices.

Wilson also discusses the anti-social behaviors of humans and relates them to our nearest relative, the chimpanzee, in whom violence against and even killing of other chimpanzees is normal and has been linked to territorial dominance and evolutionary success based on that dominance.

He ends up proposing that humans are somewhat torn between these two evolutionary tracks of behavior and that the divide between sacrifice and selfishness has driven modern homo sapiens too often toward protection of oneself or one’s insular “tribe”, leaving behind the sense of sacrifice for the good of the whole.

It is not hard to connect the dots from Wilson’s ideas to the extreme divisions seen around the US and in many other parts of today’s world. The book ends with some surprisingly hopeful thoughts on how humans do have the capacity to cultivate their eusocial side through the gifts of our culture not shared by ants, such as our capacities for love, creativity, logic, and, he hopes, the overriding ability to understand that acting for the benefit of others ultimately benefits oneself in the big picture. He warns that should we turn away from our innate altruism, we might lose our place in the web of life on planet Earth.

Loving Kindness Meditation

Over the past few decades, numerous scientific studies have been proving the health benefits of an ancient form of meditation known as “metta” or loving kindness (LKM). In this meditation, one sends and receives love to oneself, to one’s loved ones, to all of creation, and, most importantly, even to one’s enemies or adversaries.

Studies of practitioners of metta have recently been brought together to show many specific health benefits.

Metta sends and receives love to oneself, to one’s loved ones, to all of creation, and even to one’s enemies or adversaries.
  1. Decreased stress levels. Even after a ten-minute practice of metta, a relaxation response was noted in study participants. Increased vagal tone, or Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia, which occurs when the heart rate rises on inhale and slows on exhale indicates the activation of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.
  2. Slowing the aging process. Previous studies had already shown that behaviors focused on the well-being of others, such as care-giving or volunteering, led to improvements in overall health and longevity. A new study of metta practitioners showed longer “relative telomere length” (RTL). Telomeres are protein structures on the ends of each chromosome and greater length correlates to longevity. Shorter telomeres break down more quickly, leading to increased rate of aging.
  3. More gray matter in the brain. The study showed that long-time metta practitioners had increased gray matter compared to novices or non-practitioners, specifically in areas of the brain associated with empathy and emotional comprehension.
  4. Increased sense of wellness. Practitioners of metta were shown to have increased feelings of positivity, sense of purpose, and personal resourcefulness, leading to a decrease in depressive symptoms that often lead to health issues.
  5. Reduction of persistent pain. A study of chronic low-back patients showed that metta decreased pain levels as well as the psychological distress and anger that result from chronic pain.
  6. Decreased effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Study participants had lessened PTSD symptoms as well as decreased incidence of depression due to metta’s effects of increased self-compassion.
  7. Reduced incidence of migraines. When sufferers of migraines were exposed to metta practice, they reported a 33% decrease in pain and a 43% decrease in emotional tension, based on just one 20-minute session for novice meditators.

A pilot study has shown a correlation between metta and decreased symptoms of schizophrenia-spectrum disorders and will lead to more in-depth research.

Numerous other studies point to increased empathy, enhanced social connection, and even decreased bias. As brain science develops and our understanding of what happens where, as well as the brain’s ability to change itself in response to how we use it as reported here previously, it is expected that even more benefits of this ancient practice will become supported by modern science.

With all of these benefits coming from simple altruistic thought extended even toward those we may perceive as threats, it may be possible to overcome our divisions. Both those that Wilson identifies in his study of the differences of eusocial development, as well as those that plague our current political scene and see that we truly are, on every level, all in this together.

Simple metta meditation:

May I be well, may I be free from suffering, may I be happy.

May all sentient beings be well, may all sentient beings be free from suffering, may all sentient beings be happy.

May the candidate I did not vote for be well, may the candidate I did not vote for be free from suffering, may the candidate I did not vote for be happy.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.