Self and Other: A Brief Manual for Training Compassion

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Photo Credit: The Buddha preaching the Abhidhamma, by Hintha

The measurable benefits of meditation and mindfulness have already made their way into the mainstream. Companies like Google, Apple, Nike, and HBO have all implemented official meditation programs to boost the happiness and productivity of their employees. The New York Knicks—and many other sports teams—use meditation to focus and ground their players to improve athletic performance. Unsurprisingly, I am delighted that our culture is beginning to regard mindfulness as a powerful, rather than minor, virtue.

But I am perhaps most intrigued in the recent focus on compassion, as it is a cultural value associated with gentleness, kindness, and other virtues we, in the West, tend to think of as weak, quietistic or “sweet.” Compassion has not always been recognzied as a powerful tool for transforming our relationship to ourselves and our experience.

That said, I have recently found myself present at multiple conferences and other public events where a neuroscientist or researcher has presented their findings from a study specifically involving compassion meditation. Their concluding statement typically includes a variant on the comment, “From this kind of finding, we can begin to see how compassion might be regarded as a skill that can be trained.” This notion that compassion is not simply an innate characteristic, but actually a trainable skill, is often framed as a significant departure from conventional ways of viewing compassion.

In many ways, this conclusion is a significant departure from the past. While the possible trainability of compassion is undoubtedly a positive cultural development, it’s also possible to view such a statement as somewhat cold or mechanistic. Do we more commonly think of compassion as a gift, where you either have it or you don’t? If you aren’t born with some measure of compassion are you simply out of luck? Or is compassion a spontaneous emotional reaction, not necessarily grounded in an ongoing worldview?

In psychological systems that provide the contexts for mindfulness meditation practice (such as the Abhidharma in southeast Asia), compassion has to do with paying attention in a certain way. Compassion is considered trainable because it is an emergent property of the way we pay attention. Almost by definition, meditation is the practice of training our attention—to be more focused, more inclusive and expansive, and more balanced; these are all considered attributes of compassion.

But how should we pay attention in order to practice cultivating compassion? Are we fragmented and distracted, thinking about the fifty emails we need to send instead of actually listening to the person with whom we are in conversation? Or are we practicing mindfulness, truly taking in that person?

Part of the difficulty with understanding compassion is that our tendency to “other” the people and external experiences in our lives clouds our connectedness. This Us-versus-Them, Self-versus-Other story may arise from antipathy and prejudice, but usually it’s just the result of indifference. This is where mindfulness becomes essential. A mindfulness practice can help us tune into our world with more presence and awareness. Mindfulness allows us to recognize the Us-versus-Them dynamic as a story we have been taught and that we continue to tell ourselves, not as a hard fact. Once we separate ourselves from the story, we can instead choose to let go of those divisions and begin to gain insight into our fundamental connectedness.

While we may be physically alone, or feel emotionally isolated, we can still choose to recognize, with mindfulness, that our lives are connected to all other beings. We can be both alone and deeply connected at the same time. Mindfulness allows us to accept this contradiction.

One way to encourage mindfullness is by practicing meditation. Meditation training rests on noticing when we’re lost or disconnected, gently letting go of the distraction, and returning our attention to the present moment. Meditation helps us sustain “one-pointed” attention, and provides us mental and emotional space to experiment with new ways of thinking and feeling. In this space, we can allow ourselves to take risks with how we pay attention, how we view ourselves, how we view others, and how we allow others to view us. Thus, if we dedicate ourselves to the practice, the training, of learning to be more focused, more fully present (either directly or in our mind’s eye) with others and ourselves, we expand our ability to connect, which fosters an authentic sense of caring and compassion.

A recent study by Northeastern University’s David DeSteno, published in Psychological Science, specifically looks at the impact of meditation on compassion.[1] In the study, participants were invited to complete eight-week trainings in meditation after which they were asked to come to the lab to examine their interpersonal behaviors. A waiting room was staged with actors seated in two of three available chairs. With one empty chair left, the participant sat down and waited to be called. A third actor, using crutches and appearing to be in great physical pain, would then enter the room. As she did, the other actors would ignore her by fiddling with their phones or opening a book. The question being tested was whether the subjects who took part in the meditation classes would be more likely to come to the aid of the person in pain, even in the face of everyone else ignoring her.

Among the non-meditating participants, only about 15 percent of people acted to help. But among the participants who were in the meditation sessions DeSteno found 50 percent chose to help the injured actor. “The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous—to help another who was suffering—even in the face of a norm not to do so,” DeSteno said. “The fact that the other actors were ignoring the pain creates a ‘bystander-effect’ that normally tends to reduce helping. People often wonder ‘Why should I help someone if no one else is?’”[2]

When we think of life in terms of Me-versus-You, Us-versus-Them, Self-versus-Other, it’s easy to assume that happiness must lie in repressing parts of ourselves, or triumphing over others. It takes awareness, resilience, and equanimity to make the courageous choice to question that cultural assumption and shift the internal dynamic—to learn to train the powerful skill of compassion.

True happiness, as the Buddha saw it, is a form of resilience. Resilient happiness is an inner resource that allows us to care about ourselves and others without feeling depleted or overcome by whatever suffering we encounter. When using mindfulness, we can open up a world of options for how to work with difficult emotions, rather than against them. Normally, we get lost in the stories our minds tell us, and we overly-identify with these challenges: “I can’t believe I’m still angry at my friend. I am so awful and unforgiving.” However, with mindfulness we can simply identify the emotion, non-judgmentally and without assumption. Self-judgment transitions to mere recognition: “Oh, it’s anger.”

Psychologist Kristin Neff is known for exploring this terrain of “self-compassion” in her work. First is self-kindness, the art of cutting ourselves slack when we fall short of our own expectations. The second component is awareness—specifically remembering that imperfection is necessarily part of being human. Last but not least is mindfulness: Neff asserts that we need to recognize our suffering before we can cultivate compassion. We can regain balance and cultivate compassion if we mindfully recognize our experiences—of suffering and otherwise—as part of a collective human struggle.

Training compassion for particular individuals, or for humanity at large, first requires that we extend the gift of compassion to ourselves. This takes practice. With mindfulness, we can find emotional freedom through learning to simply notice the negative, often critical, feelings we direct toward ourselves. We don’t have to attach ourselves to these feelings, just because it is our habit to do so. We can change our relationship to our experiences. We can begin to let go. Attention is powerful. By training our attention, we can train compassion.

[1] Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W.B., & DeSteno, D. (2013). Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering. Psychological Science,24, 21252127. doi: 10.1177/0956797613485603

[2] Lennon, Lori. Can Meditation Make You a More Compassionate Person? Retrieved March 2, 2015, from

Image Credit

“Meditation” by Sebastien Wiertz. (CC BY 2.0)

  • Sharon Salzberg

    Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. Sharon's latest book is Real Happiness At Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace, published by Workman Publishing.

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