I recently attended a talk with Joseph Goldstein, one of the leaders in the field who have introduced mindfulness to the West. One of the key themes of his talk surrounded to topic of compassion.
Compassion arises when someone brushes up against suffering and is a combination of empathy, feeling what another is feeling, and also an opening of the heart where there is a wanting to help in some way. As science reveals the benefits of cultivating compassion, it is starting to gain more prominence as something that could have a positive impact not just in our personal lives, but around the globe.
Here is a short list of the mainstream work being done with compassion and self-compassion:
- In 2008 Dr. Richie Davidson received a $2.5 million grant from the Fetzer Institute to look into the neuroscience of compassion. One study has already shown that experienced meditators show more activity in the Insula in response to stimuli that were meant to generate compassion. The Insula is part of the brain that is responsible for the awareness of our embodied emotions. This suggests that we can take advantage of the brain's plasticity and by generating compassion, we can change our brain.
- Tan Chade-Meng, one of the earliest engineers at Google, also known as "the Jolly Good Fellow" (which nobody can deny), has cofounded the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research (CCARE) at Stanford University. This group has a number of research projects under way.
- The Compassionate Action Network (CAN) is a large site of self-organizing groups meant to spread compassion around the world.
- Self-Compassion -- Kristin Neff is coming out with a book on Self-Compassion in 2011 and Christopher Germer has already published "The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion." Kristin and Christopher both lead workshops around the world spreading practical ways to cultivate compassion.
Here is another thought about compassion:
There are so many other compassion heroes out there like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Father Thomas Keating... feel free to enter in some people in the comment section below so we can all know more, even anonymous acts.
It seems that a continued and intentional practice of compassion can not only change our lives individually, but the ripple effect can be significant. People do this every day by giving donations, making sandwiches for people on the street, helping someone across the street, visiting those who are dying, or even just offering a smile to someone who seems to be having a tough day.
Is there someone in your life who is suffering, maybe yourself? Can you sense what the feeling is? Is there an authentic wanting or pulling to help? What is one small thing you can do today to help out? Perhaps even just wishing the person or yourself well, safe from harm, free from whatever this suffering is. This intentional attention not only primes your mind to be more compassionate, but apparently can take advantage of your brain's plasticity and change your brain.
It only takes intention and a few moments.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is co-author of "A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook" and author of the upcoming book "The Now Effect" (Simon and Schuster, 2011). A version of this piece was originally published on Elisha's blog on Psychcentral.com, "Mindfulness and Psychotherapy." To read more of Elisha, visit his blog, or subscribe. You may also find him at www.drsgoldstein.com.