I celebrated the winter solstice with friends who have a nine month old infant son. When I called ahead to finalize plans my friend told me that his son was ill and that he and his wife were having a new and precious parental experience - their son was subdued with his first-ever fever, and his reaction was to cuddle deeply into their arms, lying still so he could soak up their comfort. I was struck by the palpable energy in their home as I entered out of the windy and cold solstice afternoon. The love and connection that is always present, but usually expressed as boisterous, jester energy, was manifesting in an almost eerie calm and shared sense of wonder. It was a real-life presentation of the ideal human scenario of reciprocal compassion and love and it set the tone for marking the passing of the longest night.
Historically, in western culture, compassion has generally been thought of as something that we offer to others for their benefit. This is particularly salient as we enter into the Judeo-Christian holiday season largely celebrated by acts of generosity for loved ones and strangers alike. The impact on oneself by being compassionate is memorialized by Dickens in the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge as he is emancipated from a miserly existence to a beloved member of his community.
Compassion plays a particularly central role in Mahayana Buddhism where it is considered, along with wisdom, to be essential to the ultimate spiritual goal of enlightenment. The revered figure of the “Bodhisattva” is one who vows not to pass on to full enlightenment until they have led all sentient beings to enlightenment first. While many people in the West are now familiar with the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation, it is not as widely known that the fundamental purpose of meditation in the Buddhist tradition is the cultivation of compassion and wisdom. Mindfulness practice has largely been applied in the West as a method for reducing stress and cultivating a calm and focused mind, which it does quite well. It’s popularity is in no small way attributable to both the effect it has, but also the contextual aspect that it does not require belief in Buddhist doctrine to work; anyone with any belief system can benefit. Seeing as the ultimate goal is to develop compassion and wisdom, it’s no surprise that there are a multitude of Buddhist meditative, contemplative, and ethical practices aimed at cultivating compassion. Fortunately these are by and large also available to anyone with any belief system. There are a few circumstances in which the full philosophical framework of Buddhism may be required to buy into the appropriateness of compassion, but these are quite rare and one should focus on the myriad ways in which the methods are ecumenical in nature.
Western research on compassion falls largely into two distinct, but related areas of focus. One is aimed at remediation of mental illness. There are now numerous evidence-based compassion-focused psychotherapies to address trauma and depression. These approaches to healing mental illness highlight the role of self-compassion as the basis for healing. The other is aimed more at optimizing wellness, and promoting pro-social behavior. Which brings us back to the work of David DeSteno that I was referencing a few posts back,(here and here). DeSteno provides a clear overview of both his own and other’s research on the positive impact of compassion in his book Emotional Success. The evidence is clear that invoking compassion for others promotes prosocial behaviors (like reduced cheating and increased generosity). DeSteno has also turned the lens of his observations onto self-compassion and long term personal benefit. Although you cannot separate the reciprocal nature of compassionate action towards others and improving one’s own place in society due to the increase in likelihood of reciprocity, DeSteno has shown that self-compassion distinctly increases behaviors focused on personal benefit, such as being more likely to save money for retirement, spend more time studying and exercising, and make other decisions that have long term personal pay-off.
Simply practicing mindfulness meditation will increase one’s compassion, DeSteno and others have shown it in the scientific laboratory and people from Buddhist cultures have lived it for several millennia (not to imply that these societies are utopias, they are human just like the rest of us, but their social experiment of practicing compassion has clearly been retained and refined for its positive impact). As mentioned above, mindfulness meditation supports other forms of meditation and thought exercises for enhancing compassion. Some of these practices are quite simple, like the contemplation that the essential human desire is to be free of suffering and to have peace of mind, which makes us all members of the same human tribe. Others are more involved, such as the practice of ‘taking and giving’, which involves visualizing the taking-on of the suffering of others, transforming it through compassion and giving it back as loving kindness. Perhaps it is not surprising that Western Science has expanded our understanding of how compassion contributes to the welfare of future-me given our individualistic bent. Fortunately, as mentioned, the nature of compassion is such that you cannot separate future-me from the rest of the humans on the planet.