This summer, all roads seem to be leading me to a more compassionate sensibility. And one way towards this type of behavior is through meditation. My friend Wes, has a solid practice around this theme so I tapped him to tell me more.
What is compassionate meditation?
The compassion aspect is about setting an intention. It still starts with the foundational ideas of a mindfulness-based meditation practice – that we calm the body so as to learn about / train our minds, that we focus on the simplicity of the breath instead of the complexity of the mind, and that we observe our thoughts without judgment. Compassion and mindfulness go hand in hand – you have to be aware to be compassionate. Similarly, focusing on the breath during meditation helps us to develop compassion by making us aware of suffering in ourselves and others. Being able to connect to our own mind and breath helps us to connect to someone else. However, compassion-based meditation builds on that foundation and works to cultivate compassion through meditation by setting an intention that wishes that all beings may be happy and free of suffering, ourselves included. Recognizing that we are all people who have struggles and who want to be happy not only enables us to be compassionate towards others, but eases our own suffering. Being able to ease our own suffering in a healthy and productive way is the foundation of being able to help others to ease their suffering. Compassionate meditation seeks to let suffering connect us to others; not separate us. We all suffer and it is important to recognize that someone else has suffered in the same way, so wishing that we all may be free of this type of suffering helps us to feel connected and cultivates compassion for ourselves and others.
I should also add a bit about compassion because the word may have a number of connotations. Compassion is not just being nice, although it may be at times, but it does not mean that we let people walk over us. Similarly, self-compassion is not self-pity or self-indulgence. Rather, compassion seeks to reduce the overall suffering in any given situation. It is making decisions that align with our highest values and with our long-term well-being in mind. It is doing what we need to do; not just what we may want to do in the moment. As a result, compassion may look very different depending on the situation.
Please tell me about the compassionate meditation program.
Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) is an 8-week program that was created by Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). According to its website, CCARE was envisioned and initially funded by Dr. James Doty, a Stanford neurosurgeon, philanthropist, and entrepreneur with “the concept of a rigorous multi-disciplinary scientific effort at Stanford directed at understanding the neural, mental, and social bases of compassion and altruism.” After visiting CCARE in 2005, the Dalai Lama also provided funding for the program. Again according to its website, CCT is an 8-week program designed to help people improve their resilience and feel more connected to others. It combines traditional contemplative practices with contemporary psychology and scientific research to help participants lead a more compassionate life. Through instruction, daily meditation, mindfulness, and in-class interaction, the goal is for participants to strengthen the qualities of compassion, empathy, and kindness. Participants learn how to train their minds to intentionally choose compassionate thoughts and actions and develop skills that help them relate to others and to themselves.
What’s the difference between compassionate meditation and mindfulness meditation?
The meditations are mostly guided. So while we do some mindfulness (breath focus) meditation, many of the meditations are guided with short intervals of silence to meditate on a particular intention, idea, person, or image. The guided meditations have a variety of focuses, such as self-compassion, compassion for a loved one, common humanity, and compassion for a difficult person. With each, the goal (or one of the goals) is to cultivate an intention of compassion toward all beings. Within this broad idea, however, there are a lot of nuances and more specific ideas that we learn about and discuss.
I appreciate that compassionate meditation seeks not only to improve our own well-being, but that of all beings. This is not to say that there is a belief that wishing well to all beings through meditation will magically heal all ills. Rather, setting an intention of compassion for all beings through meditation is merely a first step (albeit an important one), that hopefully leads to more compassionate interactions with those we encounter. Unless someone is a public figure or has some other way of reaching many people, we can only control our interactions with the people we encounter, whether loved ones, friends, acquaintances, strangers, or even difficult people. By setting an intention to relieve the suffering of one person, we are wishing it for many while also relieving our own suffering, which gives us more joy, which leads to more positive interactions, which brings joy to those we interact with, which hopefully leads to them having more positive interactions with others, and so on. The idea is that relieving the suffering of one person is relieving the suffering of the world because compassion compounds, so the more you give, the more you create. While there have been lots of studies published in the past few years about the benefits of meditation, they usually address the benefits to you, the meditator. I like the idea of compassionate meditation because while it still has the same personal benefits, it also has a broader goal of easing the suffering of all beings.
Is there a connection between compassion meditation and Buddhism?
CCT is based on scientific studies and does not focus on Buddhism or any other religion. That being said, my understanding is that compassion is an important aspect of Buddhism and there are certainly people who come to CCT with a long-standing meditation practice grounded in Buddhism.
What drew you to compassionate meditation?
I was going through a difficult period and found that I lacked some of the tools I needed to cope with it productively. I started doing yoga and became interested in the contemplative side of it. One of my yoga instructors recommended CCT after we discussed some of the ideas I was learning about in yoga and through some reading I was doing. Aside from yoga, I had never meditated and I really didn’t know what I was getting into with CCT. The ideas really resonated with me immediately and I knew CCT could have a positive impact on both my mindset and my interactions. It’s also a wonderful community that has enabled me to meet interesting people of all different ages and backgrounds, and I learned a lot from their questions and comments when I took the class. The course introduced me to so many fascinating concepts related to a more mindful and compassionate way of life. Since the course, I have continued to meditate, read, and go to CCT drop-in classes. While I feel that I am only just scratching the surface of this mindful way of life, I also feel like it has enabled me to find more nuances in my thoughts and interactions and I am eager to continue exploring contemplative practices.
Can you take me through the steps you go through in your compassionate meditation practice?
I try to stick to the program recommended and provided by CCT. It involves a different guided meditation for each day of the week, all of which are taught during the program. The meditations are available to past students of the class, including a number of versions of each meditation guided by different people for different lengths of time. The goal is to meditate for at least 20 minutes a day, but I don’t get there every day. I typically sit on my couch with grounded feet, a straight back, and one hand in the other, but I sometimes meditate lying down. I try to incorporate some informal / on-the-go practices when I am busy, such as taking a few mindful breaths, mindful walking, or just bringing my attention to anything else briefly to bring me back into the moment. I also love yoga. I typically get to class or do some on my own 2-3 times per week and I use shavasana as an opportunity to work on my breath-focus meditation.
How has your practice seeped into your everyday life?
The biggest change I have noticed is just noticing more, if that makes sense. Since I started meditating, I am more cognizant of what I am thinking about, what I am doing, and what I am saying. There is a quotation from Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, that goes, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” The idea being that if we can take ourselves off of autopilot, become engaged in the moment, and take control of our thoughts, judgments, reactions, and responses, we will be so much better off for it because we are taking control of our lives. A related idea that really resonates with me is that everything is a mental event. That is, we cannot experience something without our minds processing it. One goal of having a mindfulness meditation practice is to minimize our judgments and get closer to the actual sight, sound, taste, smell, or touch as it exists. It is still very much a work in progress, but there have been many instances when I have been in a situation, started to react a certain way, noticed that I was falling into an old pattern, and shifted my reaction. These are some of my favorite moments. Typically, this happens when I notice myself getting agitated or anxious about something and I am able to catch myself and shift to a more relaxed or compassionate mindset or reaction. I also try to catch myself if I am being short with someone and I do my best to correct that. Not only does it improve the other person’s experience, but being short simply means that I have compromised my internal peace, so it is also an act of self-compassion. I have also learned to be more accepting of those times when I fall into old bad habits because just noticing is a step in the right direction.
Ultimately, the goal is to figure out our higher values and then act in accordance with those values. So often we strive for happiness in the wrong ways – in ways that we think will make us happy, but that may actually diminish our well-being. A number of studies and commentators have noted, however, that happiness actually comes from meaningful pursuits. While this will differ for every person and can be found in countless ways, it seems that lasting contentment is best achieved by identifying those things that have meaning to us and then living a life that is geared towards those things.
Thank you, Wes!
Free talks offered by CCARE’s NYC-based teacher, Elizabeth Pyjov, on the science of compassion are at Tibet House US, near Union Square in NYC. Visit the Tibet House calendar for more info. 8-week CCT classes are offered in New York City at Tibet House US and The 92nd Street Y. The program is also offered at a number of other locations in California and throughout the country. You can learn more about CCT here.