We tend to focus on what we can see and it sure appears as if we are separate from each other and our environment. Yet we are more than we seem. Many of us know this from direct experience. We have glimpsed another reality in which we are all interconnected through the one seamless whole that animates all life and cloaks us in abundance, beauty and divine love. This other reality feels more real to us. It also feels good, because it evokes in us love, compassion and awe, emotions that are directly linked to our wellbeing. Recent studies have shown that the greater our feeling of connectedness the less stressed we are (1). Positive emotions help us meet life’s challenges with grace and sustain meaningful relationships. They account for the increased health and vitality among elderly people who have pets or a circle of good friends, and are the reason that happily married couples live longer than singles. Yet because our interconnection defies our senses, and our logical mind only recognizes our separateness, positive emotional experiences are short lived for most of us in our day-to-day lives. They are transient and unpredictable, wiped out in an instant when an event passes by that is not to our liking.

Just as our sense of connection evokes positive emotions, our sense of separation brings negative ones that pull us even further away from oneness. They bump us out of present-moment awareness which is the only place that oneness can be found. The more separate we feel the more depressed, angry and stressed be become. Our isolation brings a sense of scarcity and we feel as if we are in competition for limited resources. We know that stress taxes the immune system and other natural defense systems in the body making us prone to cancer, heart attacks and other life threatening illness. In short if we live from separation we die sooner.

Yet unfortunately, as adults our natural tendency leans closer to viewing ourselves as separate which evokes negative emotional experiences, then to seeing our interconnection and the positive emotions that ensue. It seems to be part of the human condition that even when we know that we are spirit at our very core, we function in a constant state of forgetfulness thinking that our physical form is all there is. It is as if our short-term memory of our oneness can last only a few moments and we must reconnect with it on a daily, even moment to moment, basis. This is why we need a daily practice- to remember. In this remembering we can hold the vision of our oneness, even though unseen, in a balance with the visible world. It affords us the perspective of the modern mystic, of seeing the divine through our human form and seeing ourselves in the presence of god. It is only from this place that we can become awakened leaders who inspire others to make a difference. We change the world by changing ourselves for as we change we lead through our love, compassion for each other, and appreciation of life’s gifts. This is the only path of effective global transformation as it is the very catalyst that shifts us to a higher order of interconnection and oness awareness.

From a personal perspective it stands to reason that the more that we can stabilize the positive emotions that lead us, in baby steps to oneness, the healthier, happier and more compassionate we will be. We will grow spiritually and abundance will flow into our lives. We will also live longer and find true intimacy in our relationships. The world will become a better place because we are in it.

But how can we most effectively evoke and stabilize positive emotions? Is there something we can do beyond focusing on our breath in mediation or trying to think better feeling thoughts? Can we draw upon the wisdom of our body to bring positive emotions more to the forefront of our lives? The simple answer is yes, and furthermore as we practice we increase our interconnection which improves our health and happiness. We feel loved and cared for and much more. Such practices can change the very structure of the nervous system in ways that make it easier to maintain our sense of connection as we go about our day-to-day lives .

Scientists have been studying the biology of stress for years. We know that it triggers the fight or flight response which is regulated through the sympathetic pathway of the autonomic nervous system and mediated by the hormone adrenaline. It quickly ramps up processes that increase our energy level, such as heartbeat, respiration and blood flow, and it shuts down nonessential processes such as digestion. The amygdale which lies near the emotional limbic system in the brain triggers alertness, defensiveness and fear. While the stress response evolved very early, help us better fight an adversary or flee from a predator, its habitual negative emotions can keep it revved up for long periods of time causing the physiological burnout that compromises our health.

What many of us might not know is that our body also responds as we reach out to connect to others and to the natural world. In contrast to our response to stress, connection triggers the relaxation response and the positive emotions of love, security and compassion. Also under the control of the autonomic nervous system this reciprocal response is regulated through the alternate parasympathetic pathway. While stress increases the heart rate and slows down nonessential processes to prepare for fight for flight, this counterpart slows down the heart rate, slows down breathing and relaxes us by synchronizing the heart and the nervous and the endocrine systems. It is coordinated through the vegus nerve which resides in the chest and produces a feeling of warmth that spreads through out the heart area when it is activated. It also triggers the secretion of oxytocin, a hormone which elicits a sense of trust, love and compassion. Spiritual practices of connection also affect neurochemicals in the brain, including dopamine and GABA which bestow a sense of peace, happiness and security while reducing anxiety, depression and stress.

We can bring on the relaxation response by simply slowing our breathing. Nasal breathing is particularly effective as it increases the release of nitric oxide which improves the respiratory and circulatory systems. The response is strengthened even further if we consciously generate feelings of love and appreciation, and imagine breathing directly through the heart area triggering positive feelings of connection, security and well-being. The practice has the added benefit of over riding negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Through practice the response becomes stronger and more enduring. In time, simply visualizing our breathing through the heart during a challenging situation will shift us from stress to relaxation and from thoughts of separation and limitation to connection, love and compassion. Recent studies show that repetition changes synaptic activities and eventually alters cell structure.

These structural changes making it easier to remain positive in our day-to-day lives and can happen fairly quickly. A recent study showed both improved memory and changes in brain structure after mediating for 12 minutes a day in as little as eight weeks. Focused attention to practice builds new neuronal circuits that reinforce the response and permanently alter the brain in ways that control emotions and alter sensory perception. It calms our body and our mind by strengthening a newly evolved brain structure called the anterior cingulated which integrates different parts of the brain to allow self-consciousness to emerge, especially in the way we see ourselves in relation to the world. We strengthen our social awareness skills by integrating the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that steer us toward positive emotions and away from negative ones. This is the way in which spiritual practices heighten social awareness and compassion.

We can strengthen the response many fold by being in the presence of others who also express positive emotions and highly developed social awareness skills. With further practice we increase our capacity to model empathy and compassion in times of rapid change. We practice the compassionate communication, intuitively follow the golden rule and are stewards of the earth. We use an understanding of our own biology to speed up our spiritual growth, build community and inspire each other to transform the world, one mind at a time.

Author's Bio: 

A scientist by training and inclination Dr. Brenda Sanders is a former professor of Biological Sciences who taught cellul ar and molecular biology, and environmental physiology.

In 1997 she had an unexpected awakening into unity consciousness which instantly altered fundamental aspects of her personality. After more than a decade of integration and spiritual maturation, she has developed an approached to life that is informed by biology and the natural environment to bring continual connection and insight into our lives.