Talk given at Unitarian Universalist Gathering Great Barrington MA
By Rich Hayes 2/10/2013

"The unselfish effort to bring cheer to others will be the beginning of a happier life for ourselves. Believe, when you are most unhappy, that there is something for you to do in the world. So long as you can sweeten another's pain, life is not in vain."
-- Helen Keller

GRACE NOTE: Your work is to discover your world  and then with all your heart give yourself to it.   -The Buddha

Have you ever been in a situation where you see someone yawn and find yourself doing the same?
Or found yourself laughing over something and others around you pick up on it and start to laugh too?

Both yawning and laughter are contagious.

So is fear and anger...

When we’re around someone who is full of joy or is optimistic, we feel better. We may even find ourselves starting to share in those feelings.

You could say that they’ve infected us.

The same is true when we’re with someone who’s full of doom and gloom.

It seems we humans are wired this way-it’s part of our design. We have what are called “mirroring neurons”.

If we see somebody smack their thumb with a hammer, we can feel what that’s like for them. In that persons brain an area has registered this pain, and for we who are watching, thanks to these neurons, the same area in our brain registers the pain just as if we had hit our own thumb.

We see someone expressing love and comforting another person, and our circuits light up just as well. The same beneficial physiological responses that are occurring in the 2 people who we see being this way also begin to occur in us.

Think about that for a moment! Makes you want to be a bit more selective about the things you look at doesn’t it?

If I smile at you, you will feel like smiling back, and chances are you will.
If I scowl and look angry, then what happens? Or if I look frightened or anxious? Any of these will illicit a response in you, and the area of your brain that’s connected to these will respond and mirror what I’m doing.

That’s why fear can be so powerful...why mobs can spin out of control as if infected a virus-because they are!

But just as the negatives are contagious, so are the positives.

Let me tell you about Sid. I met Sid when he was in his 90’s and living in a nursing home. He was blind and confined to a wheelchair due to a stroke.

Everybody at this place seemed to love Sid. Staff (who are normally in a hurry-overworked/underpaid) “slowed” down when they came into contact with him. He was always grateful and kind and you simply felt good being with him.

In the time I visited Sid I learned that he’d been a professional musician but had to retire early due to arthritis. He then discovered art and became a painter in his mid 60’s. By 70 his work was in numerous galleries, then macular degeneration and no more art. Then his beloved wife died. Eventually stroke and here he was in a nursing home.
Yet he never seemed bitter or resentful or angry. I asked him about this.

He said that earlier in his life he realized there were a lot of things he had no control over: what people did, or said; lots of things that happened in the world-or at times, the things that happened in his life.

But what he did have control over was how he could act or react. He said he realized he could choose to be miserable or content. And miserable didn’t seem to make things better so he chose the other. He then told me that he’ was very grateful for his life
–“after all you had to have something in the 1
st place in order to loose it and I have had so much…”

Sid was contagious.

Same with someone like the Dalai Lama: He emits compassion and forgiveness-major attributes of love, and when we witness this, we FEEL it.
That’s what was going on with Sid and the staff at the nursing home!

I’m sure that’s why Jesus touched so many people. It was the love and kindness, great compassion and non-judgment that attracted people to him. It wasn’t just what he said, i
t was what he was-his
way of being - that brought the people: Same with the Buddha.

We all know people who have “brought us down” by their way of being. Most times these people don’t see that they too have a choice.
And they are contagious.

Now I’m not saying to avoid them. But you do need to remind yourself that they can be contagious, and if you don’t want what they have you must be aware of this fact.

But lets remember that they too have mirroring neurons: your mood and way of being can infect them.

Sometimes the beginning of great changes start with the smallest things. By staying kind and positive, not feeding into anger or negativity, you may help that person. And one thing you can be certain of: you’ll help yourself. And that allows you to pass it on to others you come in to contact with.

There are times we will become angry-times we should become angry. But we must not get stuck in the anger.
For our own sake we must commit to letting go.

Because if it is justice and love and kindness and compassion and peace we are championing, we must embody them first before we can expect to see them in the world around us. It is exactly as Gandhi has said:
“ Be the change you wish to see in the world”.

You have this ability within you. And realizing this can change everything!

Remember: change happens when we change.

So what would you like to spread? What would you like others to catch from you?

Be deliberate-set your intention as to the qualities you wish to cultivate, and bring them forward in your daily life and in all your encounters.

At first it may be a struggle and seem unnatural. But with practice and time amazing things will happen:

The kinder you act, the kinder you will become
The more generous you try to be, the more giving you will become The more you say thank you, the more you will have to be grateful for.

And these qualities, these ways of being, will go out from you - because others are watching-and their neurons are too!