Compassionate Brain – Resonant Brain

Compassionate Brain – Resonant Brain

My friend and colleague Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, has been conducting a 7-week series of webcast interviews on The Compassionate Brain for Sounds True. (See Resources below.) The most recent interview with Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion (see September 2012 e-newsletter, Self Compassion More Powerful than Self-Esteem) was an inspiring example of two minds and hearts in resonance – a deeply shared understanding that can swiftly move a dialogue beyond exploring what we already know to co-creating new perspectives and new insights in the very moment of the conversation.

Resonance – a visceral, intuitive recognition of shared energy, a shared “vibe,” will certainly come into play as people soon gather with friends and family for a time of thanks-giving, or share with others the mishaps of travelling on the busiest travel days of the year.

Learning how to engage our brains with other resonant brains can deepen our experiences of gratitude, compassion, joy, even the sharing of sorrows and worries when that’s needed. May the reflections and resources of this e-newsletter (or new ease-letter, as I slipped the tongue recently) be helpful to you and yours.

REFLECTIONS on the Compassionate Brain – the Resonant Brain

We can think of resonance as a kind of emotional contagion, for good or ill. When we walk into a warm gathering of the friends/family we feel safe with and loved by, our whole being relaxes and our hearts begin to sing. When we’re swept up in a tense, angry mob, we can find ourselves yelling “Kill ‘em! Kill ‘em!” in a way our right minds would never let us actually do. We can be hit suddenly with waves of anxiety or deep grief we weren’t feeling 30 seconds before when we come close into the energy field of someone else deeply overcome by those powerful feelings.

Dan Siegel, author of Mindsight and a participant in the Compassionate Brain series, suggests, “Notice what happens when you’re at a party with friends. If you approach a group that is laughing, you’ll probably find yourself smiling or chuckling even before you’ve heard the joke. Or perhaps you’ve gone to dinner with people who’ve suffered a recent loss. Without their saying anything, you may begin to sense a feeling of heaviness in your chest, a welling up in your throat, tears in your eyes. The scientists call this emotional contagion. The internal states of others – from joy and play to sadness and fear – directly affect our own state of mind.”

Resonance is the emotional energy or “vibe” human beings use to communicate with one another at a completely unconscious, reflexive level. Neurobiologically, it’s the mechanism that allows a school of fish or a flock of birds to swerve around together, communicating invisibly, instantaneously.

In human beings, the neurobiological bases of resonance may include the electromagnetic field of the heart, hundreds if not thousands of times stronger than the electromagnetic field of the brain; that is what is suggested by the Institute of HeartMath Research in Santa Cruz, CA www.heartmath.org.; that we can pick up the vibe of another human being, or even other creatures, through our physical as well as our psychological heart.

It may include the vagus nerve, one of the longest nerves in the body that from the brain stem regulates heart rate, breath rate and gut reactions, but also connects those autonomic functions to our conscious higher brain in a complex system of social engagement and regulation. We regulate our nervous system based on the resonance of safety or threat from others, as Steve Porges suggests in The Polyvagal Theory: The Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Regulation.

Resonance may stem from mirror neurons that fire in our brain in milliseconds when we perceive the intentions and emotional experiences of another, as neurologist Marco Iacoboni suggests in Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect With Others.

Or even the energetic field that reaches beyond the individual body-brain to oneness with everything in existence, as quantum physicists and cell biologists suggest in The Living Matrix.

I lean toward the notion that resonance is also created, in part, by the integration of two different modes of processing information in the brain, one that focuses on “self” and one that focuses more diffusely on panoramic oneness, as suggested by the research of Norman Farb. (Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural nodes of self-reference.)

Dan Siegel, author of The Mindful Brain, once said at a conference focused on resilience and well-being, “Why are we all here at this conference today when we could be home learning everything we want to learn from a book? Because our brains learn better in the resonance, in the dialogue, with each other.”

What I’m suggesting in this newsletter is important about resonance is that when we choose to “hang out” with folks who already embody the qualities we would like to have more of in our own lives – joy, kindness, compassion, gratitude – our body-brains resonate with that energy or quality in them; our nervous system literally reverberates with that energy, like musical tuning forks coming into harmony. We strengthen that quality within ourselves, consciously and unconsciously. (See the October 2009 e-newsletter, Resonance, Separation and Oneness for exercises in how to deal with resonance when it’s problematic or toxic.)

It’s the integrity of our own commitment to Healing and Awakening into Aliveness and Wholeness that guides our choices of whom to choose to hang out with – as Rick is choosing in the Compassionate Brain series. The quotes, stories, and exercises below are meant to continue your exploration and cultivation of healthy resonance during the coming holidays, so that hanging out with friends and family can become truly wholesome holy-days of deepening gratitude and joy.


A “moment of meeting” is a moment when two people traverse a feeling-landscape together as it unfolds in real time. They achieve a “felt sense” of each other; they share a sufficiently similar mental landscape so that a recognition of specific fittedness is achieved – they each know what the other is experiencing.

The authentic, mutual responses of this shared feeling voyage create a shared private world that re-organizes the relationship and [initiates] an irreversible shift into a new state. The two people sense an opening up. There is a newly expanded intersubjective field that allows for different possibilities of ways-of-being-with-one-another.

These shared feeling voyages are so simple and natural, yet very hard to explain or even talk about (outside of poetry). Moments of meeting are one of life’s most startling yet normal events, capable of altering our world step by step or in one leap. People are changed, and they are linked differently for having changed one another.
– Daniel Stern, The Present Moment

* * * * *

Relationships are woven into the fabric of our interior world. We come to know our own minds through our interactions with others. At best, our resonance circuits enable us to feel the internal world within others, while they in turn weave us into their inner world and carry us with them even when we are not together.… As we welcome the neural reality of our interconnected lives, we can gain new clarity about who we are, what shapes us, and how we in turn can shape our lives.
– Daniel J. Siegel, Mindsight


Part of learning to deepen our capacities of resonance is to recognize moments of resonance when they happen.

An unforgettable moment of resonance occurred for me when my friend Gay walked through my house into the garden for tea just as I was on the phone with my brother Barry, at the emergency room with his wife, who was experiencing sudden and excruciating pain. As Gay heard the words “hospital” and “surgery,” without saying a word she came and stood by my side as I was coaching my brother down from his panic, talking with the nurses to get the details my brother wasn’t quite comprehending. Gay’s resonant and compassionate presence helped me stay calm so I could help my brother stay calm. (The surgery removed tissue blocking a mammary duct; my sister-in-law was just fine a few short days later.) Her resonance deepened my own capacities to stay grounded and then help ground my brother.

There’s resonance across species, too. One morning I bent over to pick my shoes up off the floor and suddenly tweaked the muscles of my lower back. Temporarily, I couldn’t walk. I managed to lay on my back on the bed and pull up my knees to stretch out the muscles. Without me saying anything at all, my cat Karuna came in from outdoors, into the bedroom, up on the bed, and nestled purring on my chest. Even though her name Karuna means compassion in the Pali language spoken by the Buddha, I was amazed at her responding to my “vibe” so quickly.

EXERCISES to Practice Resonance

When we want to use our brain’s innate capacities for resonance to cultivate more of a particular quality, like gratitude, or compassion, or generosity, or resilience, it helps to practice recounting moments of those experiences with others. I’ve suggested many ways to do that in previous postings; three are included below. The first exercise comes from Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents:

1. Create a Family Feelings List

a. Write “Family Feelings List” at the top of a large piece of paper.

b. Brainstorm feelings and emotions that you, your spouse, and your kids have felt. The idea is to generate a list of lots of feelings, not to edit or decide what is or isn’t an emotion. Vague descriptions such as “left out” are fine.

c. Post the list in a place where anyone can add to it anytime, and revisit it regularly.

d. Start talking about the emotions on the family Feelings List. At dinner or during a family meeting, take turns telling one another about a time when you each had a particular feeling on the list. Before you begin, make sure that everyone understands that no one is allowed to criticize, judge, or lecture about what is shared. Everyone simply resonates with the feelings being shared.

e. Let kids put checkmarks by the emotions on the list when they feel them, assigning each family member a different color. This will help kids realize that other family members sometimes feel the same way they do, dissipating the sense of isolation that sometimes accompanies negative emotions.

f. Decide on a feeling for everyone to watch for the following day. Next time, have everyone share their observations of that emotion. How did you notice it in your body feel? Notice how it feels to share your experiences with others.

Exercise 2: Resonating with Kindness

a. Begin by recalling a moment of kindness you have received from another, today already, or earlier in the week, or earlier this year, even back in the third grade. A moment when someone picked up the glasses case you just dropped, or let you cut in front of them at the deli when you were worried about an expiring parking meter, something that registered in your consciousness as support from the universe, something that gave just a little lift or a little steadiness in that moment.

b. Notice what happens in your body-mind as you recall this moment of kindness, as you let the positive feeling of it register in your heart center, a sensation of warmth, reassurance, ease.

c. Find at least one other person who is willing to spend five minutes with you, sharing memories of kindnesses received from others. Notice the impact of the “emotional contagion,” the resonance, of sharing and savoring these positive memories of kindness. Take a moment or two to amplify the feelings, letting them soak in as a resource to draw on again and again. Take a moment to reflect with your partner what it was like to do this exercise together, how the connection between the two of you helped install the resource of connections with others.

d. Recall this particular moment of kindness, and the sharing of it with your partner at least once a day for a week and notice the impact on your sense of self and your belonging in the world. Intentionally cultivate memories of kindness as an ongoing resource for recovering resilience.

Exercise 3. Deep Listening

When we shift our attention toward listening, our whole world changes. Learning to listen is equal to learning to love.
– Ruth Cox

Deep listening can lead to the compassionate receptivity that is needed in moments of great loss, in realizations of disturbing truths we don’t want to hear, in times of disorienting change and transition. Compassionate listening requires us to set aside everything that is not simply presence and openness. We listen to the whole being of another with our whole being. We attend to the whole being of our own self.

a. This exercise is done with a partner. Decide who will be speaker first and who will be the listener.

b. The listener asks the speaker a question (samples below); the speaker answers as honestly and thoughtfully as she can. The listener listens silently, though attentively and appreciatively. The listener then simply says “I appreciate you letting me know that” and asks the same question again. The speaker answers the question again from a different angle or from a deeper level of understanding and inner truth. The listener listens as before, and when the speaker is finished, again says. “I appreciate you letting me know that,” and again repeats the question. If the speaker doesn’t respond right away, the listener simply maintains a receptive silence during the speaker’s reflection and self-inquiry. This questioning-listening can continue for as long as the speaker is still discovering new understandings or feelings in response to the question.

c. Here are some sample questions. Choose only one and keep repeating it:

What brings you joy in your life?
What has brought you sorrow?
What worries you now?
When have you found courage in dark times?
What are you grateful for?
What are you proud of?

d. When the speaker is done (and thanks the listener for listening), the two of you switch roles. When you both have experienced both listening and being listened to, you can de-brief, sharing what you noticed about your experience in each role and what resonance you may have discovered.

Exercise 4: Resonating with a Gratitude Buddy or a Joy Buddy

1. Ask a friend to be your gratitude buddy or your joy buddy for the next three months.

2. Arrange a regular process for checking in. Once a week for coffee, or once a month for a walk in nature, or every evening by e-mail. Experiment and discover what works best for both of you over time.

3. When you check in, focus on things you have to be grateful for during the day or the past week, or remember moments of joy. Share your experiences with your friend. Recall how you felt in the moment of the event; notice how you feel now as you recall and share it. Listen to or read your buddy’s check-in; notice how you feel learning of his or her experiences. It’s most helpful when this hanging out and sharing stays open and receptive; this is not a time for advice giving or problem solving.

4. Notice how you feel at the end of the check-in. Take in the good of the experience as a resource of resilience.

A practice of regularly sharing experiences of gratitude or joy with a friend helps deepen the resonance of your friendship and creates a resource of connection and support that is one of the 5 C’s of coping. The practice helps your both develop a more optimistic approach to problems and challenges in life and strengthens your inner resources to cope well with the vicissitudes of daily living.


The Compassionate Brain series sponsored this fall by Sounds True (You can still register; the live series is free and you can listen again to any interview any time you wish.)

Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, interviews 7 revered researchers and practitioners from psychology, spiritual traditions, and neuroscience: Richard Davidson, Daniel Siegel, Tara Brach, Dacher Keltner, Kelly McGonigal, Kristin Neff and Jean Houston.

For those of you in the Bay Area who wish to develop resonance by hanging out with other resonant brains:


I will be teaching a workshop on Positive Emotions Build Resilience at Esalen, January 18-20, 2012. Beautiful setting in Big Sur, CA, yummy food, relaxing massages and wonderfully resonant fellow seekers.

Spirit Rock Meditation Center

I will be teaching Self-Compassion and Mindfulness for the Wednesday morning meditation class at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA December 19, 2012. Heartful practices to balance mindful awareness with compassionate acceptance.

Mindfulness and Compassion in Psychotherapy

Rob Fisher, MFT, is offering a Mindfulness and Compassion in Psychotherapy Certificate Program for clinicians at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA in 2013. (I will be presenting in November 2013 on the neuroscience of mindfulness and compassion.) For more info on the program and the December 14, 2012 open house.

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