What is compassion meditation?

Elephants touching each other gently (greeting)

One of the main types of Buddhist meditation, compassion meditation is intended to cultivate loving-kindness, friendliness, and goodwill towards oneself and others. It is referred to as “mettā”, the original Pali word for the practice. This is an example of a concentrative form of meditation, as the practitioner places focussed attention on the feeling of loving kindness for the duration of the practice.

Compassion is defined as a ‘‘sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it’’[1].  Compassion meditation encompasses both of these elements, with the aim to increase altruistic feelings.

How is it practiced?

Compassion meditation instructs the practitioner to focus on the feeling of loving kindness and breaks it down into 6 steps. First one cultivates this feeling towards oneself, then they consider a loved one, then a “neutral” person whom they may not know well, then a person whom they find difficult, then all of the above, and finally towards the whole universe.

 

Why?

Eastern contemplative traditions maintain that people can train their minds to become more compassionate, and this leads to more altruistic behaviour in the real world.  Recent research lends credence to this view, where groups of people receiving compassion cultivation training demonstrate more altruistic behaviour than control groups[2] and show corresponding changes in their neural correlates.

Why should compassion and altruism matter? Studies have in fact linked compassion to improved physical and psychological wellbeing, with practitioners feeling increased social connectedness, kindness, and decreasing stress responses[3]. As for altruism, there is a view that altruism is essential for a society to function fruitfully.

Matthieu Ricard, the famous French biochemist-turned Buddhist monk, sometimes called “happiest man” on earth based on scans of his brain, puts across his case for compassion here.

 

Current applications

Stanford University’s Centre for the Study of Compassion and Altruism, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds, are just some of the research centres exploring how compassion cultivation training can further physical and psychological wellbeing. Specific non-religious “compassion cultivation training” modules are being developed for wide-spread application.

 

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[1] Merriam-Webster dictionary, 2011

[2] H. Y. Weng, A. S. Fox, A. J. Shackman, et al., Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI:10.1177/0956797612469537

[3] References to specific papers made in Jazaieri, H., G. Jinpa, et al. (2012). “Enhancing compassion: A randomized controlled trial of a compassion cultivation training program.” Journal of Happiness Studies: 1-14. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10902-012-9373-z

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