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  • Writer's pictureM. Baggetta

Don't wait for science to catch up to master compassion

Updated: Jun 19, 2018

Compassion is an innate human quality, a capacity and a skill that can be strengthened and mastered with practice. Scientists have been empirically examining compassion for a few decades now, here's what they've found.

Compassion is a word that conjures different ideas for different people.

If you grew up in the West, you may have heard compassion used in a religious context in the sense of suffering with another while desiring to end their suffering.

In Eastern paradigms, compassion has long been viewed as a capacity or faculty that can be developed through meditation.

Today in the West, scientists are carefully examining the purpose, methods, effects and results of meditation (mental training) on the mind and personality, and its affects on the body and physiology.

Psychiatrists, psychologists and neuroscientists have been focusing on the empirical examination of compassion for a few decades now. So what have they found?

Where is the science of compassion today?

It’s catching up.

As a field of study, compassion science is unique because it takes methods and practices out of the religious and cultural contexts that have existed in for centuries, and studies them in a lab, using rigorous scientific protocol and apparatus.

Emma Seppälä, Ph.D, is Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. To become more precise about about what compassion is and is not, Seppala describes common conflations and distinguishes compassion, from empathy and altruism:

Empathy, as defined by researchers, is the visceral or emotional experience of another person’s feelings. It is, in a sense, an automatic mirroring of another’s emotion, like tearing up at a friend’s sadness. Altruism is an action that benefits someone else. It may or may not be accompanied by empathy or compassion, for example in the case of making a donation for tax purposes. Although these terms are related to compassion, they are not identical. Compassion often does, of course, involve an empathic response and an altruistic behavior. However, compassion is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.

In the 2013 study Mind your Hormones! The Endocrinology of Compassion, researchers focused on understanding how compassion training affects the production, release, and uptake of hormones. The primary hormones involved are cortisol, key to immune system functioning, and oxytocin (aka the ‘love hormone’) for it’s impact on social behaviour and empathy.

For the their study, researchers defined empathy as “sharing the emotional state of another,” in contrast to compassion, as “the aspiration to help free others from suffering.”

Compassion training, stress management, and immunity

According to a recent study of college freshmen, students who engaged in significant at home compassion practices after participating in a 6-week compassion-based training program, showed reduced production of an important molecule in the blood that associated with stress management.

When experiencing social stressors, subjects were better able to respond with empathy and compassion. These findings suggest that the regular practice of compassion meditation may have reduced the level of stress perceived by individuals exposed to the stressor tests.

Additionally, in a large randomized trial, patients with colds who experienced their doctors as more empathetic during a clinical visit recovered from their illness more rapidly and had less severe symptoms than those who experienced doctors as less empathetic. Participants who received empathetic treatment and showed resilience to pathogens also had increased levels of an important and well-documented immunity molecule.

In each case, the observations favour those who experienced receiving compassion, or had cultivated it themselves, versus a control group that did not. There is more work to be done before the relationship between compassion and physiology can be precisely understood, but researchers are well on their way to figuring it out.

Compassion in action

The jury may still be out when it comes to hard facts on the science of compassion, but for an area of research that is still in its adolescence, this is to be expected. In addition to the empiricism afforded by the scientific perspective, experienced meditation practitioners have been doing their own experiments in the labory of their own lives, using or adapting centuries-old meditation methods that have emerged from Eastern cultures.

In his work and practice, author Thupten Jinpa, PhD unapologetically straddles the ancient and contemporary, Eastern and Western worlds, in an effort to move the needle on the science of compassion.

Jinpa’s training as Buddhist monk as a child is complemented by a doctorate from the University of Cambridge, and led him to be the personal translator of the Dalai Lama for the past 30 years. He is also the chairman of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting dialogue and collaborations between the sciences and contemplative knowledge.

Jinpa writes of compassion in action in his recent book, A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform our Lives:

Compassion isn’t heroic; it’s human. When we look, we can always find opportunities to express our compassionate side through kindness in our everyday life. The question is not whether I am compassionate; rather, the question is: Will I make the choice to express the more compassionate part of me? Whether we live our lives with compassion, whether we relate to ourselves, others, and world around us from a place of compassion, understanding, and kindness is up to us.

This simple choice, though far from easy to exercise, is what compassion comes down to. Compassion is an innate human quality, a capacity and a skill that can be strengthened and mastered with practice. Jinpa’s book is one manual on how to train oneself in compassion. In addition to the book, Jinpa created and teaches at the Stanford University Compassion Cultivation Training course, an 8-week educational program designed to help people improve their resilience and feel more connected to others.

Western science has started to study compassion in the first place, is that compassion is a fundamental characteristic of the human condition–and one that scientists still know very little about.

What if you were to start your own experiments with compassion training? Maybe you’d get sick less, maybe you’d handle stress better–or maybe not. The only thing you’ve got to lose is the uncertainty of finding out for yourself.

For more information on the latest on the science of compassion, you can download the free ebook Compassion: Bridging Practice & Science, or view the most current peer-reviewed research at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

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