• Mindful Mondays: How Can Mindfulness Support Compassion?

    Compassion means to "suffer together.” It is the ability to feel the pain of others and be moved to do something about it.

    It is a skill that can be developed and a mindfulness practice can support. In a study, funded by the Mind Life Institute, researchers "recruited from the Greater Boston community for an 8-week study on meditation….Individuals were randomly assigned either to complete meditation classes or to be in a waiting-list control group." One of the classes was a mindfulness class, another was a mindfulness and compassion class, and those in the control group were placed on a waiting list. The researchers then measured the rate in which they were willing to give up a seat in a waiting room to a stranger who was using crutches and seemed to be in pain. The researchers found that “50 percent of people from either of the meditation classes gave up their seat, whereas only 15 percent of the non-meditators did. It didn’t matter which class they’d taken.”

    One theory to explain why compassionate action is cultivated through mindfulness meditation is that mindfulness "gives people a heightened awareness of their surroundings and enhances our ability to take the perspective of other people.” Mindfulness supports awareness, kindness, and curiosity so that when we see someone is suffering, we are primed to take their feelings into consideration and want to do something to alleviate their pain.

    Compassion asks for more than being empathetic or altruistic. While empathy and the ability to see the world from another person's perspective is an important skill to develop, it doesn’t always lead to the desire to want to help; “empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.” Altruism and to be giving is also an admirable trait but "altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.” If altruism isn’t  paired with a heart-felt understanding of those we’re helping, then we might not offer support in the way that is needed most.  Altruism must include understanding, validation, and compassion otherwise it can become self-serving rather than an act of service.

    Compassion can be challenging but researchers are beginning to understand our brains are wired to be compassionate.

    They argue our survival as individuals and communities is dependent on our understanding of others and the pain they carry. In addition, compassion is a skill we can promote and develop. Dr. Dacher Keltner explains, “compassion and benevolence, this research suggests, are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good.” Furthermore, neuroscientists are now seeing that acting in a compassionate manner is pleasurable. Kechner also cites research that argues, "Helping others triggered activity in... portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. This is a rather remarkable finding: helping others brings the same pleasure we get from the gratification of personal desire.” In other words, when we help others we can feel as much fulfillment as when we do something nice for ourselves. Mindfulness can therefor support self-satisfaction by helping us be more compassionate to ourselves and others.  

    This article is part of our Mindful Mondays initiative. Receive weekly emails with instructions for the practices of the week, links to guided practices, and suggestions for implementation by registering. The program is free for all. Sign up now to access this week's recorded practices for you and your students!


    Argos Gonzalez is a teacher, lecturer, and mindfulness and yoga instructor.  He has 13 years of experience teaching high school in the Bronx and teaches pre-service and in-service teachers at Hunter College School of Education in NY.  Argos is certified through both Mindful Schools and Little Flower Yoga (LFY), and currently serves as the director of professional development for The School Yoga Project, a program of LFY. For more information about Little Flower Yoga and The School Yoga Project, visit www.littlefloweryoga.com. Contact Argos by email at argos@littlefloweryoga.com

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