India’s Brain Balance: The Joy of Giving and the Gratitude of Receiving

“Too many people, too many rickshaws, too many children,” says Gireesh, our taxi driver in New Delhi. “When they say ‘I help you,” that means ‘I trick you!,” he warns us.

With 1.2 billion people (roughly 17 percent of the human population), India is the 10th largest economy in the world, but it contains the largest concentration of people living below the World Bank’s international poverty line of just $1.25 per day. While 61 individuals control 10 percent of the national wealth in the country, there are more poor people living in eight Indian states that in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, according to research by Oxford University. Yet the Forbes list of billionaires included 55 Indians in 2013.

The land of spirituality is submerged in an utterly materialistic culture. And the gap between the rich and the poor is painfully present, causing great social tension. “[In the past] India, although materialistically poor and politically left-leaning, was spiritually prosperous,” says Indian therapist Swati Desai, Ph.D., in The Huffington Post. “How things have changed since then! India is now materialistically prospering and spiritually confused,” she continues. The country’s ancient spirituality, known for its messages on how to transcend the hazards of ordinary life, is not playing a significant role.

The general picture is looking good, with India ranking on top of the U.N. and World Bank lists related to economic growth and democratic values. That is certainly something to be proud of. But everybody wants a situation where a majority of the population is healthy and happy, not only a few. Some of the very wealthy people in India might not be so peacefully enjoying their status while seeing millions of their own kin suffer. “In our country, it’s hard to be completely cut off or to pretend not to know about the social issues,” says Rati Forbes, one of India’s few emerging philanthropists and the head of the corporate social-responsibility activity of her husband’s firm Forbes Marshall.

In fact, our brains seem to be hard-wired to give to charity and benefit society as a whole, as shown by research studies conducted by Dr. William T. Harbaugh and by Dr. Jordan Grafman’s functional MRI experiments. The fMRI showed pleasurable activation in the midbrain during giving — the same region that controls cravings for food and sex, and the same region that became active when the subjects added money to their personal-reward accounts. The experiments made clear that people give not only because they think it’s a good thing to do but also because giving makes them feel good in addition to the particular benefit they’re imparting on the recipient or the approval by others.

But equality cannot only depend on the charity of the rich. Aside from moral considerations of the rich giving to the poor, is the natural human longing for balance and harmony — which involves an effort by both the healthy and the less healthy, the rich and the poor — reaching that point where the joy of giving meets the gratitude of receiving.

While giving is a joyful thing, it appears that being grateful ignites action. A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health in 2009 examined blood flow in various brain regions while subjects expressed feelings of gratitude. It revealed that feelings of gratitude directly activated brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which not only makes us feel good but is also an important igniter of action. Increases in dopamine make you more likely to do the thing you just did, because the brain likes it! So, once we start being grateful for some things, our brains start looking for more things to be grateful for.

Similarly, the rich — who are more likely to give — probably feel good when they share, and the poor — who are more likely to be on the receiving end — may be inclined to take more action to create value and improve their lives when they receive. Thus, theoretically, the two groups should come increasingly closer to each other.

What, then, can be done to unleash the brain’s natural potential for diminishing the gap between the rich and the poor in a country such as India, where it is so prevalent?

Members of the International Brain Education Association (IBREA) spent three days with a group of teachers and principals in a brain-education workshop held in Hyderabad, as well as a week visiting schools and holding meetings with government officials in Andrah Pradesh and New Delhi, assessing brain education’s possible contribution to the country’s needs.

When we asked about the most important issues they face, they emphasized that “Language is the main problem.” With over 1,500 tongues spoken across the country’s 28 states, students don’t understand teachers, and teachers don’t understand students. The lessons do not go through, and students lose their motivation. But what may appear to be a technical communication issue could have profound roots that are related to India’s inequality.

The more we practice communication and empathy, the more we change our energy system in the body. And when the energy system of the body changes, so does our ability to see clearly. The state of one’s energy is profoundly influenced by the quality and quantity of information in the brain. “That is why brain education, a training method that focuses on the brain, and yoga, a method that concentrates on the energy system of the body, have a symbiotic relationship,” says brain-education founder Ilchi Lee.

“It seems like yoga” claimed some of the attendees as we started our brain-education sessions the first day, “but different,” they observed at the end of the day. Most yoga comes from India, so that was a natural thing to hear from them, considering the use of some yoga techniques in brain education. The term “yoga,” योग in Sanskrit, means “union with the divine” and refers to the physical, mental, and spiritual practices with a view to attain a state of peacefulness.

Scientific studies increasingly show the benefits of yoga and meditation on physical and mental health. By now, that’s undeniable. Even in Western cultures, the practice has become commonplace, with yoga and meditation studios filling the streets in all of the major Western cities. But the question is what to do with that peaceful feeling. If we seek sustainability, quieting our thoughts and emotions can be a means to an end rather than an end in itself. When our mind is still and undisturbed by stimulation, we can feel our true nature. But beyond that experience and temporary feeling is the understanding that this is because we are all connected. And the natural choice that follows is to take action contributing to everyone’s happiness.

In India, we saw greed from private companies, the government, and hungry children in the street. Is it the need to survive in a rapidly growing economy? Or is it that these institutions have lost touch with their connectedness? Communication, empathy, and compassion seem to be the keys to start dissolving the social gap in India or, in other words, finding the balance between the material and the spiritual. In yoga terms, the heart chakra — symbolizing communication — is located in the middle of the chakra system, with three chakras below (related to the material) and three on top (related to the spiritual). Many ancient cultures regard it as energy itself, connecting the body with the mind.

After our experience with a group of Indian principals and teachers, IBREA plans to bring the opportunity to enhance communication to Indian educators and students through brain education, increasing future generations’ awareness of the reality that surrounds them and igniting action toward a more balanced society.

Mohandas K. Gandhi, the father of the nation, held long fasts for self-purification and social protest. That was his way of connecting with his body and seeing clearly. It was his action for an independent India at a time of foreign domination. Now it is time to take collective action for social balance. It will take long for the country with “too many people, too many rickshaws, too many children” to reach harmony. But when it does, with 17 percent of the whole world’s population and energy, India will have the power to create tremendous change globally.

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