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On the science of compassion


Row boats tied up in Havana

I came to be consciously aware of the power of compassion through my interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Compassion in Buddhism is a relatively simple idea, it is the wish for someone(s), including oneself, to be free of suffering. Despite this simplicity, compassion is considered to be one of two essential qualities of one’s mind that are the ultimate goal of Buddhism, the other being wisdom.

Unlike compassion, the topic of wisdom includes a vast literature of diverse philosophical theory and meditation practices for first-hand exploration. Yet, when you look at the universe of literature and documented teachings on Buddhist practice, compassion occupies an equal amount of time as wisdom. In fact, it is customary, perhaps even compulsory, that before a teacher addresses wisdom, they give a complete and thorough discourse on the importance of and methods for cultivating compassion. It is so central, that the Dalai Lama, ostensibly the leader of all branches of Tibetan Buddhism, frequently states that “my religion, is compassion”.

Centuries before the Christian era, the Buddhists of India had carried on what the Hindus had started as a science of the mind. They investigated and developed theories about how our sensory and perceptual systems operated. They categorized different aspects of mental activity (e.g. interest, discrimination, concentration, craving). These ideas were an intricate part of Buddhist philosophy where the focus was on how we as humans formulate knowledge and particularly how we can know what is real in the world verses what is erroneous (due to errors of interpreting perception).

Despite what has turned out to be more than two thousand years of discourse, debate and discovery in the area of the mind and notions of wisdom, it is fair to say that relatively speaking, very little attention was paid to the details of how compassion works and what affects it has, other than being an essential part of metaphysical life. Compassion is just a given, and frankly, its power is self-evident when cultivated. Since it is incorporated in every part of Buddhist culture then, there just hasn’t been the need to investigate it like the more abstract and complex notion of wisdom.

I never really thought much about this difference until recently when I began paying more attention to the Western scientific research on compassion. Like with mindfulness, although much less visibly, scientists who encountered Buddhism began to get interested in compassion as a force in healing and wellness. Mindfulness probably has more visibility and adaption in our culture because it is essentially agnostic with respect to secular and religious beliefs. With mindfulness we are asked to merely observe what arises in our minds with nonjudgmental attention (in a nutshell). It turns out that doing this routinely, bestows a host of positive psychological and physiological perks. Who could argue with that?

Compassion though is a bit more controversial in the sense that one must wrestle with the question of whether everyone (anyone in particular) deserves compassion at any given time. Certainly, in Western culture, this is a debatable question. In fact, the place that many of us have the most difficulty with applying compassion is towards ourselves! Just getting people to feel that they are worthy of compassion can occupy a tremendous amount of therapeutic effort. Because in Buddhism, compassion is a given, and there is no question that every living being deserves our compassion, and that it is our moral obligation to direct our compassion to them, Buddhism does not have a robust toolbox of debates and theories aimed at convincing us of the universality of compassion.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people, including a host of behavioral scientists who are not conflicted about the value of compassion to facilitate significant progress in the scientific investigation of compassion.

I've written several times about the work of David Destino demonstrating that compassion is a powerful way of getting us to invest in future-me. But that is just one branch of a quickly expanding discipline of compassion research. The research on compassion has enhanced our understanding of how compassion is activated in specific neurologic regions and systems (e.g. the insula, amygdala, temporal parietal junction and the pre-frontal cortex). We have knowledge of how compassion manifests as a stress response, but one that is antithetical to the classic fight, flight freeze stress response. We have solid evidence that compassion is associated with our drive (motivation) system, aimed at reducing avoidance and enhancing engagement in proc-social, stress reducing behaviors.

In conjunction with the biological understanding of how compassion arises and then influences neurologic pathways, we have clinical theories and interventions that have been shown to influence trauma and shame very differently from other clinical approaches. It has been shown that individuals high on self-compassion are less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (including soldiers) and how the development of self-compassion can transform profound shame, a psychological wound that is infamous for being resistant to change.

This is perhaps one of the most important contributions of science to the understanding and valuing of compassion – namely how disruptions in the natural development of self-compassion lead to immense psychological suffering and subsequently the adaptations of classic Buddhist techniques for building compassion that are compatible with Western cultural practices.

I cannot possibly address all of the findings and contributions science has made in the area of compassion within this blog. Below, I’ve provided a copy of a bibliography I received as part of the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine as a part of their course on the Clinical Applications of Compassion. Just perusing the list will give you a sense of the depth and breadth of the research that is being done, and this is certainly a selective list.

I’ve also recorded a guided meditation for cultivating compassion. You can watch the video on my YouTube channel here or download just the audio file here.

Bibliography

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Au, T. M., Sauer-Zavala, S., King, M. W., Petrocchi, N., Barlow, D. H., & Litz, B. T. (2016). Com- passion-Based Therapy for Trauma-Related Shame and Posttraumatic Stress: Initial Evaluation Using a Multiple Baseline Design. Behavior Therapy, 48(2), 207–221.


Barlow, M. R., Goldsmith Turow, R. E., & Gerhart, J. (2017). Trauma appraisals, emotion regulation difficulties, and self-compassion predict posttraumatic stress symptoms following childhood abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect, 65, 37–47.


Braehler, C., Gumley, A., Harper, J., Wallace, S., Norrie, J., & Gilbert, P. (2012). Exploring change processes in compassion focused therapy in psychosis: Results of a feasibility randomized controlled trial. British Journal of Clinical Psychology.


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