Compassion: Its Cultivation, Practice and Benefits

Compassion is the second of the brahma viharas in this IMH series. On the first Monday of last month, Ginger led a practice in Equanimity and reviewed the four brahma viharas. As a reminder for those of us who are relatively new to Vipassana meditation, the brahma viharas, or four divine abidings, are Buddhist practices to cultivate the natural healing impulse in the heart, and they integrate with mindfulness meditation, helping bring the dharma to life. (Besides equanimity and compassion, the other two brahma-viharas are metta/loving-kindness and mudita/ sympathetic joy. These will be presented on first Mondays of upcoming months).

Compassion, or Karuna in the Pali language of the Buddha’s teachings, involves resonating with pain and suffering-our own and that of others. As we grow compassion, we resonate with the tender and painful aspects of life, and we become more accepting of the truth of suffering.

Further practice and growing of our natural compassion helps us develop nonjudgmental caring.

We open to the universal nature of suffering itself, and we recognize that all human beings suffer from wanting reality (inner and outer) to be different from what it is.

The near enemy of compassion is pity. Pity has a hidden quality of aversion. In holding ourselves separate from the ones we see suffering (by pitying them), we are trying to protect ourselves. But Karuna dissolves the boundaries within us and those between us and other beings. As we grow it, compassion makes us less apt to look away from the suffering of all beings, including ourselves.

Outside the circle of Buddhism, compassion is being explored in other contemporary scientific, social and spiritual discourse as well. Research scientists, including neuroscientists, have been studying compassion physiologically and psychologically. Scientists are identifying aspects of compassion with a biological and evolutionary basis. Emotion researchers have defined compassion as “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering”,.

The differentiation of compassion from the related concept of empathy appears to turn mainly on this final phrase, concerning the desire present in compassion to relieve the suffering or to act upon the arising empathy. The action of altruism, by definition, favors the recipient and may or may not benefit the giver. Compassion always benefits the giver, and that is the basis upon which we can talk about its benefits.

Many see compassion as one path to peace in the world. All major contemplative traditions envision the possibility that, through deliberate cultivation, one can learn to extend one’s empathetic concern even to one’s adversaries. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has stated: “The cultivation of compassion is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, if our species is to survive”.

Before I speak about the cultivation of compassion, a few remarks about its benefits beyond its potential for world peace. Berkeley’s Greater Good website lists these among known findings from compassion research: compassion makes us feel good and activates pleasure circuits in the brain; it can reduce the risk of heart disease by effects on the vagus nerve; it makes people more resilient to stress; it makes us more caring parents, better spouses and better friends; it helps calm the mind and direct thoughts more positively.

Research has also demonstrated that compassion can be cultivated and its advantages increased through targeted exercises and practice. General practices to cultivate compassion include encouraging cooperation over competition, noting and savoring how good it feels to be compassionate, modeling kindness in order to cultivate it in children, curbing inequality and not taking on other people’s suffering as our own.

Formal programs to cultivate compassion and self-compassion have emerged in the West in recent years. They are based upon existing science and undergo their own vigorous research based on outcomes among trainees. One of these, the Cultivating Compassion Training (CC,T) program developed at Stanford University, has been offered twice in Houston in the past year. I and at least two other members of this sangha have attended this training. It is 9 weeks in length, ecumenical in nature and offered at no financial cost.

CCT combines traditional contemplative practice, contemporary psychology and scientific research. It uses daily guided meditations, instruction and class exercises to progressively cultivate compassion. The first focus in the sequence is on cultivating mental stability through present-focused or breath attention. Next, there is a focus on compassion for friends and family (those we hold near and dear). Then there is focus on self-compassion, followed by a focus on our common humanity and, finally, compassion for strangers and disliked people, including those we might see as our enemies.

Personally, I found the CCT program to be intense, challenging, moving and very valuable. The sessions on self-compassion, especially an exercise that involved writing a letter to myself, concerning a specific personal trait, as though it were from a kind, wise and non-judgmental friend, provided enormous insight. Later in the class, I used an image of a difficult family member as a compassion meditation focus. When later in the presence of this person for several days during the holidays, I felt that a miracle had occurred: I experienced none of my usual reactivity or negative bias though I had made no conscious effort to do this.

Tonight I’ll lead you through a guided meditation on common humanity and interconnectedness from the CCT program. Seeing our commonalities is an important step in increasing feelings of compassion. This meditation was developed by Kelly McGonigal of the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism. Gratitude and full credit to her!


Please close your eyes and take a comfortable position. We will begin by taking a few deep breaths, focused on a long inhalation followed by a long exhalation.

Now think of what for you is a compassionate image: someone or something that represents true wisdom and compassion to you. This might be a wise and compassionate teacher, mentor or friend; a religious or spiritual figure or leader; a symbol that has such meaning for you; or an image from nature (the spacious blue ocean, a magnificent tree or mountain, the sun that shines on all). Choose just one such source of compassion as your focus.

Picture this image in your mind and imagine yourself in the presence of this source of compassion. Imagine that you are the recipient of its compassion. Feel that in its presence you can be completely yourself. There is no judgment, only total acceptance of you, just as you are.

Imagine that this image awakens in you your own deepest source of wisdom and compassion. You might sense this awakening beginning in your heart and spreading throughout your entire body.

Now bring to mind someone that you care about. Try to vividly feel his or her presence in front of you. Notice how you feel when you think about this person. Now consider the fact that, just like you, this person


“ has had ups and downs in life; just like you this person has or has had goals and dreams; just like you, this person is of deep concern to someone: a parent or child, or spouse or dear friend to someone; just like you, this person knows what pain, anger, fear and sadness feel like; just like you, this person wants to love and be loved, to contribute and to be appreciated.”

With all this in mind, silently repeat: “just like me, this person wishes to be happy and free from suffering”. See if you can feel the fundamental truth of this statement. (Repeat) Notice how it feels when you consider this.

Now bring to mind someone you don’t know well but see from time to time, a person you feel neutral about. This might be someone who is a neighbor, a grocery store employee, a person you pass in the hallway at work.

Notice how you feel when you think about this person. Now consider the fact that, just like you, this person (repeat HUMAN COMMONALITIES from above).

With all this in mind, silently repeat “just like me, this person wishes to be happy and free from suffering”. See if you can feel the fundamental truth of this statement. (Repeat) Notice how it feels when you consider this.

Now bring to mind someone that you have difficulty or discomfort with. This may be someone who doesn’t share your beliefs or values or is difficult to get along with.

Notice how you feel when you think about this person. Now consider the fact that, just like you, this person (repeat HUMAN COMMONALITIES).

With all this in mind, silently repeat “just like me, this person wishes to be happy and free from suffering”. See if you can feel the fundamental truth of this statement. (Repeat) Notice how it feels when you consider this.

Finally, picture the three of these people together in front of you: the one you care about, the one you don’t know well and the difficult one. Remember, they all share a basic desire to be happy and free from suffering. On this level, they are all exactly the same. This shared aspect is a common bond that unites us with all other beings. Let your mind abide in this awareness for a while.

Now silently repeat “Just as I do, all others aspire toward happiness and wish to overcome suffering”. Repeat.

Now contemplate this thought: Your life is supported in many ways, both big and small, by countless others in ways you may never know. For all of us, in ways we may never truly know, our lives are supported by countless others. Now consider that you too may play the same supportive role in the lives of countless others, known and unknown to you. Let your mind abide in this awareness of interconnectedness for a little while.

As this practice draws to a close, let your heart and mind be touched by the bond of common humanity and your connection with others. And now, rest your attention again simply on the rhythm of your natural breath as you become aware of your surroundings.