There is never a bad time to cultivate more compassion

This article is also available as a narrated presentation by clicking here.

Whenever this finds you (or you find it), I promise that it’s a particularly good time for this discussion. Whether you’re unbalanced from personal relationships, family, elections, pandemics, natural disasters, or unfairness, there is a way to get through it that is exceedingly simple. Aldous Huxley, an English philosopher and writer, said “It’s a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give people is be a little kinder to each other.” Kindness and compassion are integral parts of most spiritual traditions. We’re taught that they’re good at an early age. Why do we forget about them in our daily life? How can we remember their power and put them into practice?

As mindfulness activities have become more and more popular, the emphasis has remained heavily on greater calm and concentration. Coaches and businesses have hijacked mindfulness theory as a resource that offers excellent techniques to help athletes and employees produce more and quiet outside noise. Yet this use of mindfulness is incomplete. While compassion cultivation is part of many mindfulness programs, since the benefits are often less clear and less likely to lead to immediate outcomes, they are often ignored.

In my case, even after completing a 10 day silent meditation course that included lovingkindness (metta) meditation, the most popular and well-studied form of compassion cultivation, I didn’t include it in my daily practice. While I felt immediate gains in concentration and calm from mindfulness exercises, I didn’t feel like a more peaceful less judgmental person nor did I understand a way to get there. Fortunately, I’ve begun to realize the importance of cultivating compassion.

When you generate negative emotions like anger or hatred, you become the first victim of your negativity. You become miserable and your misery infects others. The anger doesn’t stop cleanly at the intended destination, and instead spreads to others. It’s a virus, if you will. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. When you direct love, compassion, and goodwill to others, you are the first beneficiary of that positivity.

Several decades ago, the Dalai Lama challenged the academic community: “You Scientists have done a remarkable job mapping the pathologies of the human mind. But you have done little or no work on the positive qualities like compassion, let alone their potential for cultivation. Contemplative traditions, on the other hand, have developed techniques to train our mind and enhance positive qualities like compassion. So why not use your powerful tools to study the effects of these contemplative practices? Once we have better scientific understanding of the effects of these trainings we can then offer some of them to the wider world, not as spiritual practices but as techniques for mental and emotional well-being.”

Scientists listened. Mindfulness research has grown exponentially. Government and private grants are widely available to study mindfulness and it has slowly but surely become a part of our institutions.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a key figure in bringing mindfulness to the West, defined mindfulness as awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Kabat-Zinn, who earned a PhD in molecular biology from MIT, created the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week course with specific protocols that has allowed for clinical research and scalability. Regardless of where you live, there is probably a MBSR class available for you take in person or, if not, surely via video conferencing.

When we practice mindfulness in a formal intentional form, it becomes meditation. Popular forms of meditation include:

· Breath meditation: focusing on breathing in a controlled or uncontrolled manner.

· Mantra meditation: focusing on and repeating the same word or phrase repeatedly.

· Visualization/Imagery meditation: focusing on a specific image or visualizing something happening.

· Chanting/Praying: meditation generally connected to spiritual aspects.

· Body scanning/Insight meditation: nonjudgmentally observing the sensations in the body without reacting.

· Compassion/Metta meditation: generating goodwill for yourself and others. We will take a deep dive on this particular practice soon.

Right now, you might be wondering what form of meditation is the best. It’s simple: if you give a technique a fair trial, feel that you are benefiting from it, and it isn’t causing harm to anyone else, yourself included, it’s good. Don’t complicate it. Don’t let meditation snobs turn their noses up at you. If they are judging you, their practice isn’t working as well as they think. Most serious practitioners incorporate more than one form of meditation because a one size fits all exercise doesn’t exist for the mind just as it doesn’t exist for the body.

This need not be an expensive endeavor. The most popular apps are excellent and reasonable if you use them regularly. There is an abundance of free resources readily available online. Whatever you choose, it’s helpful to seek some sort of support from a teacher or experienced friend. Don’t go into a specific practice expecting miracles. Whatever you can integrate into your daily schedule and practice with consistency is the best.

Before we dive into compassion cultivation, let’s first practice a quick breathing meditation, the simplest yet often most difficult way to help increase awareness, calmness and concentration.

To begin, with the mouth closed, observe every breath, the entire breath, as it goes in and out of the nostrils. Breathe naturally without controlling it. When the mind wanders (it will almost immediately), calmly observe that it has wandered and bring the attention back to the breath.

Try not to get frustrated. Our minds are difficult to control and the only way to improve control is by calmly returning to concentration and awareness of the breath.

Put down your device(s) and practice on your own for a minute or two. I created an audio guide here.

Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved. Going further back to its Latin root, compassion means “to suffer with.” But just suffering with someone is closer to what we call empathy. Compassion, on the other hand, offers the possibility of responding to suffering with understanding, patience, and kindness rather than fear and repulsion. We open ourselves to the reality of suffering and pursue its alleviation.

When compassion occurs, almost immediately we:

  • perceive the other’s suffering.
  • emotionally connect with that suffering.
  • respond instinctively by wishing to see the suffering relieved.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, compassion makes us more optimistic. Even though it is focused on suffering, the focus is energized with the positive desire to help end the suffering.

Compassion can:

· provide a sense of purpose beyond our persistent petty obsessions.

· lighten our heart and alleviate our stress.

· make us more patient.

· give our minds an alternative to anger and other reactive states.

· help us understand ourselves and others.

It’s important to understand the following terms related to compassion:

  • Pity: feeling sorry for someone’s suffering but from a position of superiority. You might help them but it’s because you’re superior. Stay away from it.
  • Sympathy: feeling sorry for someone without any motivation to change it.
  • Empathy: taking on the emotion of another without a plan or motivation for change.
  • Lovingkindness(Metta): an act or feeling of goodwill toward another (or yourself) without expectations or judgements. While it’s used interchangeably with compassion, metta is different because it does not have to be connected with suffering.

While you can take on too much empathy for your own emotional good, you have an endless amount of compassion and kindness. It won’t run out. You can’t spend it all. Use this limitless credit card wildly for it does not need to be repaid.

Truly self-compassionate people take care of themselves while being attentive to the feelings and needs of those around them. In fact, properly taking care of yourself provides the mental and physical health necessary to better take care of others.

Self-compassion should not to be confused with self-centeredness in that self-centered people are so caught up in their own world that they don’t have room for anyone else. Self-compassion also should not be confused with self-pity in that self-pity creates a narrow imagined world oblivious to reality that can lead to self-absorption. While people who are self-absorbed tend to make small problems appear to be overwhelming and unbearable, those who are self-compassionate can understand difficulties within a larger context of shared human experience and that sense of proportion helps to deal with problems in constructive ways.

Self-compassion is not self-gratification. The most compassionate thing we can do for ourselves may be to not eat the whole bag of Doritos or confuse wanting with needing to buy something we don’t need. Self-compassion is not a simple impulse to treat ourselves, though sometimes, with a clear mind, we can certainly allow ourselves a treat.

Compassion cultivation is widely studied under strict academic standards. Stanford Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) has been performing research to examine the neural correlates and biological bases of compassion, the effects of compassion on the brain and behavior, and methods for cultivating compassion and promoting altruism within individuals and society-wide. They developed an eight-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) course that I recently completed. The course is not as widely offered in person as MBSR but COVID-19 accelerated the availability CCT via video conferencing and the course is now available to anyone with an internet connection.

As an alternative or in combination with CCT, I highly recommend the book A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, by Dr. Thupten Jinpa, one of the Dalai Lama’s main interpreters and the principal author of the Stanford CCT course. The book explains the CCT course in detail including practices. For anyone interested in a history of the academic research of mindfulness practices, I also recommend Altered Traits, by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson.

As we prepare to discuss scientific research, it’s important to first understand the limitations of mindfulness research.

· Lack of replication: a limitation for many studies including mindfulness studies. Often, it’s impossible to replicate a study and, even when it’s possible, research incentives favor original work, not duplication.

· Bias/Conflict of Interest: a lot of the “evidence-based” research completed by commercialized practices is done by the organization’s own researchers. For example, Transcendental Meditation uses their own researchers so, while the research might be good and the practice might be beneficial, there is an obvious conflict of interest. Unfortunately, the more marketing claims I hear about “evidence-based” from a practice, the more skeptical I am about the actual evidence and its validity.

· WEIRD: stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, from Democratic culture. This is the make up of most subjects but not a proper representative of all humans on the planet.

· Variety of Mindfulness Practices: different types of meditation work on different parts of the mind yet some studies don’t properly define which type of meditation is tested or they use a hodgepodge of meditation practices that aren’t uniform.

· Accuracy of Self Reporting: it can be difficult to verify the accuracy of time spent meditating and, more importantly, the accuracy of reported feelings.

Psychological factors, like self-reporting of one’s mood in the moment, are labeled soft measures, which aren’t inherently inaccurate in a well-designed study but can be influenced by expectation demand, the pressure or desire to report positive outcomes or what the subject thinks the researcher wants to be reported. Hard measures, on the other hand, are biological processes such as heart rate and brain activity that are more difficult or impossible to be influenced. Mindfulness researchers have been able to transition from relying solely on soft measures to including many hard measures in their research.

Metta/Lovingkindness meditation, which we will practice in a few moments, is the most studied form of compassion meditation. Peer-reviewed research studies with excellent research design and few or no limitations have found increases in positive emotions such as love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, amusement, and sense of connection from subjects taught metta meditation compared to control groups. Moving to harder measures, results of studies have shown that the practice activates brain circuits connected to loving concern, joy, and happiness and improves heart rate variability.

How long does it take to feel benefits? One study with novices learning loving-kindness meditation revealed a heightened amygdala reaction to images of pain and suffering. The amygdala is a part of the brain connected to behavior and emotions. Another study found that seven minutes of loving-kindness meditation increased a person’s good feelings and sense of social connection, if only temporarily. In a separate study, after approximately eight hours of metta training, subjects showed strong echoes of brain patterns found in more experienced meditators.

What about long term meditators? Brain scans have shown that they can completely change their neural networks. For example, while listening to disturbing sounds, long term meditators were able to keep concentration on a small light at a greatly increased level compared to typical subjects. Even typical typical subjects who were offered a reward to keep focus on the light could not keep focus at near the level of experienced meditators offered no reward.

We have all been barraged lately with information and presentations on implicit bias but, unfortunately, we tend to forget about it after it’s over and continue our typical practices without any actual change. Researchers at Yale University dug deeper into this phenomenon by administering an implicit bias measurement, the Implicit Association Test, to three groups: a group that was taught and practiced a loving-kindness meditation, a group that only discussed loving-kindness, and a closely matched control group. The only group that showed a decrease in implicit bias against stigmatized groups was the group that practiced. Just talking about loving kindness created no lasting effect. You must practice something!

So let’s practice! I understand that, based on the findings presented, you might expect some sort of miracle hypnosis or complicated mental magic but the practices are quite simple.

To practice metta meditation, you follow a specific sequence of inner dialogue to generate goodwill for yourself and others. Remember that you are wishing peace for someone without expectation of anything in return and without consideration of merit. You can use any combination of positive phrases such as peace, happiness, joy, etc and the list of recipients can be as long as you want. To keep it simple as possible, we will stick to two phrases: May I be peaceful, may I be free from suffering.

Start with yourself. This practice is about sharing your peace. So if you don’t have any, you will have none to share. Generate peace for yourself whether you deserve it or not. You might just be a terrible person although if think it, chances are you’re not. But that’s a separate discussion. In this case, it’s doesn’t matter.

  • May I be peaceful
  • May I be free from suffering

Next, consider a benevolent being in your life. Someone who is consistently and relentlessly kind to you. If no human fits the bill, consider a canine. I use my dog Louie. This step automatically helps to generate true feelings of goodwill that you can use for momentum to generate similar feelings for those you deem less worthy.

  • May ____ be peaceful
  • May ____ be free from suffering

Next, choose someone close to you such as a child, parent, sibling, or friend.

  • May ____ be peaceful
  • May ____ be free from suffering

Next, choose a random person you see on a regular basis without interaction. If you choose the same person daily for a week or two, you might be surprised about the way you feel the next time you see them.

  • May ____ be peaceful
  • May ____ be free from suffering

Next, choose someone you don’t like at all. This is the most difficult yet rewarding step. Remember again, you are the first recipient of your goodwill.

  • May ____ be peaceful
  • May ____ be free from suffering

Finish by generating metta for all beings.

  • May all beings be peaceful
  • May all beings be be free from suffering

Try practicing now on your own if you remember the steps or close your eyes and listen to the audio prompts I created here.

Whether or not you think metta meditation is for you, a second practice called intention and dedication can easily be integrated into your daily schedule. Intention is a deliberate conscious articulation of a goal. In this case, the goal can be kindness to yourself and others. You should connect the intention to an activity completed at least a couple times a day such as washing hands, brushing teeth, or putting on shoes. Every time you wash your hands, for example, you set the intention. At the end of the day when you get into bed, complete the circle through the step called dedication, by quickly taking a mental note of how you did that day with your intentions without any judgement. The key is to make intention and dedication part of your daily life so it’s not a hassle or addition.

In conclusion, I want to share a paragraph from Dr. Jinpa:

“Sometimes in the process of becoming “educated,” we slide into cynicism and lose touch with our caring heart. When I was at Cambridge I was surprised to see how cynicism was often equated with intelligence and sophistication. If you weren’t cynical, you were naïve. But we shouldn’t confuse cynicism with skepticism. The skeptic is open to being persuaded; the cynic, on the other hand, is uninterested and dismissive — closed, because it’s safer that way; closed, because the cynic is afraid people will see how much he doesn’t know. There is a danger that in wearing the badge of a cynic we might forget how to take it off, and get stuck with it. Cynicism breeds distrust and distrust breeds loneliness, even bitterness, both known sources of misery. Learning — daring — to care is the way to get unstuck from cynicism.”

And since you probably recognize this guy and think he had a good head on his shoulders, please take a look at what he wrote:

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

You probably just shook your head in agreement but remember that Einstein said all living creatures, not just the ones you agree with. If I ask you about politics right now, I am confident that many of you will immediately forget about Einstein’s words that you agreed with heartily ten seconds ago. Free yourself from your sects, from this prison.

I’m more of a wannabe than an actual kind person. I fail every day. Many times. But setting that intention and using it as a compass is, as Einstein said, helpful in and of itself. I’m talking to myself right now as much as I’m talking to you. Be kind. Be compassionate.

And don’t forget that the intellectual understanding of this topic will probably end up affecting you very little, as we learned from the implicit bias study. Try the practices I offered or similar practices on a regular basis to see if it helps make a difference.

  • May you be peaceful
  • May you be free from suffering


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