Human suffering is often accompanied by acts of compassion from those with a desire to alleviate it.
But, what compels someone to donate their time to a local food shelter, or animal rescue center? At our very core, we have a natural capacity for compassion – for ourselves, loved ones, even complete strangers.
The global volunteer workforce equates to around 109 million full-time workers (UNV, 2018). That’s almost 4 billion hours dedicated to unpaid, non-compulsory work per year. Although difficult to measure with precision, these figures say a tremendous amount about the compassionate nature of humanity.
In this article we will look at cultivating compassion through training, how compassion can be measured, and discuss some of the ways you can introduce more compassion to your life.
This article contains:
- What is Compassion Training?
- Can Compassion be Taught and Trained?
- How Can We Best Cultivate Compassion?
- Differentiating Compassion From Related Constructs
- The Three Orientations of Compassion
- Can Compassion Be Measured?
- The Compassion Scale
- The Compassion for Others Scale
- 5 Tests, Quizzes, and Questionnaires
- 12 Exercises & Activities for Training Compassion
- Teaching Compassion in Education
- What is Compassion Cultivation Training?
- What is the Compassion Project?
- Other Training Programs and Options (Incl. Online)
- A Take-Home Message
What is Compassion Training?
Compassion is an ever-growing area of interest within psychology and psychotherapy. Research into compassion has been conducted from the differing perspectives of evolutionary science, psychological science, and neuroscience, often in collaboration with spiritual teachers, to enhance our understanding of compassion and its associated benefits (Kirby, 2016).
Definitions of compassion within psychology are varied and divergent, with some researchers considering it to be an emotion (Batson, 1991), a biologically based characteristic (Gilbert, 2014), or a multidimensional construct (Jazaieri, McGonigal, Jinpa, Doty, Gross, & Golden, 2013).
Although definitions of compassion vary, there is broad agreement that compassion is comprised of a combination of affective, cognitive, and motivational components. Jazaieri et al., (2013) define compassion as a complex multidimensional construct comprised of four components:
- The cognitive component (an awareness of suffering).
- The affective component (sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering).
- The intentional component (a wish to see the easing of that suffering).
- The motivational component (a responsiveness or readiness to help remove that suffering).
Given the disparate definitions, it is perhaps unsurprising that a multitude of approaches and interventions have been developed as ways to train and cultivate compassion for the self and for others.
A key component of individual and societal well-being, compassion is a positive orientation towards suffering that can be enhanced through training (Jazaieri et al., 2013). Compassion training can be adopted at any age and involves training the mind to develop specific skills in order to relate to others and to ourselves, and making a conscious effort to think and act in a compassionate manner.
While everyone has, to some degree, a level of compassion, for some it can be beneficial to develop these skills further through training and practice.
Fortunately, developing compassion does not require years of commitment and can actually be advanced quite rapidly. In a study by Mantelou & Karakasidou (2017), it was found that even a short seven-minute intervention was enough to increase feelings of closeness and connection, improve compassion, and life satisfaction when compared to those who received no compassion training.
Much of the emphasis within compassion-based training is on stimulating a more compassionate social mentality – one which integrates the desire to achieve a more compassionate self and to develop a more compassionate perspective (Gilbert, 2009).
Compassion-based training works by activating affiliative processing systems in the brain. These processing systems include the myelinated parasympathetic nervous system which helps in the regulation of our fight/flight response.
Activation of the parasympathetic system when under a perceived threat encourages a feeling of safeness and security, and allows for mentalization, that is the ability to understand our own mental state (Klimecki, Leiberg, Ricard, & Singer, 2014).
Can Compassion Be Taught and Trained?
Compassion is a powerful aspect of the human experience and is one that can be trained. Weng et al., (2013) suggested that compassion can be cultivated with training and that greater altruistic behavior may emerge from an increased understanding of the suffering of other people.
With research on compassion interventions indicating significant improvements in psychological well-being and social connection (Neff & Germer, 2017), the importance of compassion is clear to see.
Compassion training focuses not only on suffering but also on supporting and encouraging compassion for the good of the self and others.
Through a range of breathing, postural, imaging techniques and developing recall skills that enable the recall of experiencing compassion, individuals are given the opportunity to experience what compassion is, or could be.
In essence, compassion training helps to create ideas in the mind about what can be achieved (Gilbert, 2014).
Compassion has been shown to have a number of benefits for both psychological and physiological health. With positive effects on mental health, emotion regulation, and interpersonal and social relationships (Kirby, 2016), it is clear that developing compassion can have significant and far-reaching benefits.
Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel (2008) examined the effects of compassion meditation on emotional well-being. Their findings suggested that participants who went through compassion meditation practice experienced improved daily positive emotions, reduced depressive symptoms, and increased life satisfaction.
Allen & Knight (2005) theorized the importance of compassion to the remediation of depression and other negative emotional states.
According to their findings, compassion is ‘other-centered’ and a shift in attention to others can alleviate negative self-focus in depression to a more positive other-focus in compassion. Additionally, compassion appeared to ameliorate negative symptoms of social isolation.
In light of these significant benefits, psychotherapies and compassion-based interventions have now been developed with the specific aim of cultivating compassion.
How Can We Best Cultivate Compassion?
A growing body of evidence suggests that, at our core, most humans have a natural capacity for compassion. In fact, Warneken & Tomasello (2009) suggested that compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival.
Their research indicated that infants too young to have learned the rules of politeness spontaneously engaged in helpful behavior without a promise of reward, and would even overcome obstacles to do so.
Despite this, everyday stress, social pressures and life experiences, in general, can make it difficult to experience and fully express compassion to ourselves and to others. Fortunately, we also have the capacity to nurture and cultivate a more compassionate outlook.
Compassion is a key component of individual, interpersonal, and societal well-being, thus the cultivation of compassion can be regarded as an important practice. Cultivating compassion is more than experiencing empathy or concern for others.
It develops the strength to cope with suffering, to take compassionate action, and the resilience to prevent compassion fatigue – an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of others (Batts-Allen & Leary, 2010). These qualities support a wide range of goals, from improving personal relationships to making a positive difference in the world.
There is an ever-expanding scientific and clinical interest in understanding how compassion can be cultivated and regulated by compassion training programs. According to Kirby (2016), there are at least six current empirically-supported interventions that focus on the cultivation of compassion:
Developed by Gilbert (2009), compassion-focused therapy focuses on two psychologies of compassion. The first is a motivation to engage with suffering, and the second is focused on action, specifically acting to help alleviate and prevent suffering.
Devised for individuals with severe and enduring mental health problems, compassion-focused therapy is an integrated and multi-modal approach concerned with alleviating the sense of shame and high levels of self-criticism we often experience. Through compassion-focused therapy, those who find it difficult to stimulate certain positive emotions can learn to do so through compassion and self-compassion practices.
Mindful self-compassion (MSC) was developed by Neff & Germer (2012) as a program to help cultivate self-compassion, that is treating yourself with the same kindness, concern, and support you would show to a good friend. MSC combines the skills of mindfulness and self-compassion to enhance our capacity for emotional well-being.
Designed for members of the general public, the program draws upon Tibetan Buddhist practices – incorporating traditional meditation and other informal self-compassion practices with evidence-based literature examining the benefits of self-compassion.
MSC offers self-compassion and mindfulness exercises to develop your compassionate voice, with an emphasis on distinguishing between the inner critic and compassionate-self.
Compassion Cultivation Training
Compassion cultivation training (CCT) combines traditional contemplative practices with contemporary psychology and scientific research to help you lead a more compassionate life. Developed by Jinpa (2010), CCT draws its theoretical underpinnings from contemplative practices of Tibetan Buddhism and Western psychology.
CCT delivers training in compassion practices across six steps (Kirby, 2016):
- Settling the mind and developing mindfulness skills.
- Experiencing loving-kindness and compassion for a loved one.
- Practicing LKM and compassion for oneself.
- Compassion towards others through embracing our shared common humanity.
- Compassion towards all beings.
- Active compassion practice where one imagines taking away others’ pain and sorrow and offering to them one’s own joy and happiness.
Cognitively-Based Compassion Training
Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) draws from what is known as ‘lojong’ in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and trains practitioners to cultivate compassion through simple contemplative practices.
CBCT incorporates mindfulness and cognitive-restructuring strategies to encourage a shift of perspective through reflection about ourselves and our relationship to others (Reddy, Negi, Dodson-Lavelle, & Brooke, 2012).
Cultivating Emotional Balance
The cultivating emotional balance (CEB) program is based on Western scientific research on emotions, and traditional Eastern contemplative practices and is aimed at building emotional balance (Ekman & Ekman, 2013).
This form of training is notably different from the other compassion-based interventions as there is an emphasis in the program on understanding emotions and being able to recognize the emotions of others (Kirby, 2016).
CEB is an educational training method that creates pathways to compassion by training and teaching individuals to recognize the suffering of others and of oneself, and to tolerate the distress more effectively through learning new ways of managing emotions.
Compassion and Loving-Kindness Meditations
Compassion Meditations (CM) or Loving-Kindness Meditations (LKM) are often combined and practiced together in compassion-based interventions to help settle the mind, increase compassion to self and others, and to improve mental health. CM and LKM are meditations during which the aim is to express goodwill, kindness, and warmth towards others by silently repeating a series of mantras.
Both practices involve a structured approach where individuals can learn to direct caring feelings towards oneself, then towards loved ones, then towards acquaintances, then towards strangers, then towards someone with whom one experiences interpersonal difficulties, and finally towards all living beings without distinction (Galante, Galante, Bekkers, & Gallacher, 2014).
Differentiating Compassion From Related Constructs
Compassion is often misunderstood and easily confused with related but distinct constructs (Shaver, Schwartz, Kirson, & O’Connor, 1987). While it is important to define compassion, it is equally important to define what it is not. Constructs including empathy, sympathy, pity, and altruism will be highlighted in order to emphasize how they differ from compassion.
Compassion is often confused with empathy and sympathy, most likely because each of these constructs is thought to be associated with helping. Unlike compassion, empathy does not incorporate the readiness to act in order to relieve the suffering of others, rather it is the ability to understand another’s feelings and become one with that person’s distress.
De Waal (2008) described empathy as the capacity to be affected by and share the emotional state of another and identify with the other, adopting his or her perspective.
Similarly, sympathy is the feeling of care and concern for someone which is often accompanied by a wish to see them happier. Sympathy is the experience of feeling sorrow for someone else’s misfortune but not necessarily a shared perspective or shared emotions.
With compassion, there is recognition of the other person’s emotional state and a desire to act in order to help.
Pity is commonly confused with compassion, however, the two concepts are very different – feeling pity for another is essentially an acknowledgment of their plight.
Pity refers more to feeling concern for someone thought to be inferior or weaker than oneself and is by definition, rooted in a hierarchical sense of superiority over someone else (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, Xu, 2002).
Compassion, on the other hand, does not consider the object of suffering to be weak or inferior in any way. Instead, it encourages a broader vision through common experiences (Ibbett, 2008).
Altruism is acting out of concern for another person’s well-being, while compassion encapsulates an openness to experiencing suffering and responding with genuine concern, and without judgment (Jinpa, 2010). It is also worth noting that compassion can exist in the absence of altruistic behavior.
According to Jazaieri (2018), compassion is functionally distinct from the two most common forms of love; romantic love and the love of a parent for a child.
The fundamental difference between the two is that compassion likely involves a complex combination of multiple positive and negative emotions. Where love is generally associated with positive affect and experiences, compassion is about being open to the experience of suffering.
The Three Orientations of Compassion
Psychological investigations of compassion have primarily focused on three specific orientations of compassion, namely: having compassion for others, receiving compassion from others, and self-compassion.
Here we will look at the differences between these orientations.
Jazaieri et al., (2013) proposed that feeling like one does not deserve kindness from others can create fear of receiving compassion. For some, being the recipient of compassion can cause avoidance, and negative emotions such as grief or loneliness (Gilbert et al., 2010).
Improving this orientation of compassion may enhance relationships and social connectedness by teaching individuals to become more comfortable being the object of another person’s attention (Jazaieri et al., 2013).
Defined by Neff (2007) as being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, self-compassion is associated with many positive qualities. Neff (2007) suggested self-compassion positively affects coping skills, life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, social connectedness, mastery of goals, personal initiative, curiosity, wisdom, happiness, optimism, and positive affect.
A key component of self-compassion is the absence of self-criticism, which is known to be an early predictor of anxiety and depression (Blatt, 1995).
Self-compassionate people tend to recognize that imperfection and failure are often unavoidable, and so are more likely to be kind to themselves when confronted with negative experiences.
Research into self-compassion within healthcare professions has shown that high self-judgment is negatively correlated with compassion for others, self-kindness, and well-being. These results indicate that we become less compassionate to ourselves and others if we judge ourselves too harshly (Beaumont, Durkin, Martin, & Carson, 2016).
Compassion for Others
Compassion for others is evident across most cultures and spiritual traditions and is thought by some to be easier and more palatable than compassion for oneself (Jazaieri et al., 2013).
However, Gilbert, McEwan, Matos, & Rivis (2010) suggested that compassion for others is not always expressed and can actually be suppressed or inhibited.
It was initially thought that self-compassion and compassion for others may be related given they have the same theoretical structure and base definition. However, as they have been mostly studied separately, little is known about their relationship and to what extent they differ or resemble each other. Research has, however, indicated that the two may be different because:
- Compassion is directed towards others as opposed to the self.
- Individuals are often more compassionate to others than they are themselves (Neff, 2003).
Can Compassion Be Measured?
Compassion can be measured as a subscale of a larger construct; however, over years of research items from other scales have been hand-picked and subsequently taken as a measure of compassion.
In order to explore the relationship between compassion, self-compassion and other psychological processes, several self-report instruments and scales by which compassion can be measured have been developed.
There are currently eight scales by which compassion can be measured, each with varying validity and focusing on different aspects of compassion (Strauss, Taylor, Gu, Kuyken, Baer, Jones, & Cavanagh, 2016);
Compassionate love scale (Sprecher & Fehr, 2005) – The CLS consists of 21 self-report items, rated on a Likert scale from 1 (not at all true) to 7 (very true). The CLS is intended for the general population and consists of two forms: one relating to close family and friends, and one focusing on strangers and humanity as a whole.
Santa Clara brief compassion scale (Hwang, Plante, & Lackey, 2008) – The SCBC is a short-form version of the compassionate love scale consisting of five items from the original. Unlike the CLS, this scale examines compassion in relation to strangers rather than those closest to us.
The compassion scale (Martins, Nicholas, Shaheen, Jones, & Norris, 2013) – The aim of this scale is to provide a measure of compassion across domains that could be strengthened through guided training.
Self-compassion scale (Neff, 2003) – the SCS is a 26-item scale with a 5-point response scale from “almost never” to “almost always” and does not include items specifically relating to being attentive to how one is feeling.
Self-compassion scale: short form (Raes, Pommier, Neff, & Van Gucht, 2011) – a 12-item version of the SCS consisting of two items from each of the original six subscales. The short-form SCS has a near-perfect correlation with the long scale when examining overall self-compassion scores, although is less reliable when considering subscale scores.
The compassion scale (Pommier, 2010) – a 24-item self-report scale targeted at the general population and based on the theory compassion consists of kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity.
Relational compassion scale (Hacker, 2008) – a 16 item scale rated on a four-point scale from ‘do not agree’ to ‘agree strongly’. The scale consists of four subscales which measure respondents’ compassion for others, for themselves, their beliefs about how compassionate people are to one another, and their beliefs about how compassionate other people are towards them.
Compassionate care assessment tool (Burnell & Agan, 2013) – a 28-item scale developed to measure levels of compassion demonstrated by nurses providing care in hospital settings. In contrast to the other scales, this scale is completed by patients in relation to their caregivers.
The Schwartz center compassionate care scale (Lown, Muncer, & Chadwick, 2015) – a 12-item scale developed to measure patients’ ratings of compassionate inpatient care received from physicians’ during hospitalization. Patients complete the measure by using a ten-point scale from 1 (not at all successful) to 10 (very successful).
The Compassion Scale
Also known as the self-compassion scale, the Compassion Scale was developed by Neff (2003) and consists of 26 statements – 13 positive and 13 negative – that measure typical actions towards the self during arduous times. Each response is scored on a five-point Likert scale (1 = almost never to 5 = almost always). The scale consists of 6 subscales, namely: self-kindness, self-judgment, mindfulness, common humanity, isolation, and over-identification.
The compassion scale is compiled of statements such as:
- ‘I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies.’
- ‘I am kind to myself when I am experiencing suffering.’
- ‘I try to be loving towards myself when I feel emotional pain.’
Each positive and negative statement is related to four elements of self-compassion: understanding the universality of suffering, emotional resonance, the ability to tolerate distressing feelings, and feeling motivated to act or acting to help ameliorate one’s suffering (Strauss et. al, 2016).
More recently, a shortened 12-item self-compassion scale was developed by Raes et. al (2011) which takes six positive and negative statements from the self-compassion scale and is rated in the same way.
The Compassion for Others Scale
Compassion is an increasingly prominent area of examination within Western psychology. Moreover, psychologists are becoming increasingly interested in the benefits of Buddhist conceptualizations of mindfulness and compassion. Thus, a scale to measure the concept was required in order to empirically investigate theoretical assumptions about the construct of compassion.
Multiple scales and measures have been specifically developed to assess compassion for others. Here we will look at Pommier’s compassion scale and the more recent compassion scale by Martins et. al (2013).
Based on the self-compassion scale, the compassion scale (Pommier, 2010) was developed in order to translate the theoretical structure of self-compassion toward compassion for others. The fundamental goal of the Compassion Scale was to measure compassion as defined by Neff (2003): “being touched by the suffering of others, opening one’s awareness to others’ pain and not avoiding or disconnecting from it, so that feelings of kindness towards others and the desire to alleviate their suffering emerge” (p. 86-87).
When completing the compassion scale, participants are asked to read 24 statements and rate them on a five-point response scale ranging from 1 (almost never) to 5 (almost always).
Statements are often written in a colloquial language in place of grammatically correct language to reflect how people naturally speak to one another and to avoid confusing or overly sophisticated language.
The scale includes statements such as:
- ‘Sometimes when people talk about their problems, I feel like I don’t care.’
- ‘I don’t think too much about the concerns of others.’
- ‘When others feel sadness, I try to comfort them.’
- ‘My heart goes out to people who are unhappy.’
The development of the CS allows compassion to be subjected to scientific analysis, and can be utilized to assess:
- The outcomes related to Buddhist practices such as meditation.
- The relationship between compassion and physical and psychological health.
- Compassion’s positive effects on negative psychological states.
- Fields of counseling and therapy.
- Compassionate care requirements within medical professions and educational settings that would benefit from a compassionate stance.
Martins et al., (2013) compassion scale is a 10 item self-report scale developed to measure five domains of compassion, namely: generosity, hospitality, objectivity, sensitivity, and tolerance across all social networks and relationships using a 7-point response scale.
The aim of the scale was to provide a measure of compassion across domains that could be enhanced through training, as the authors argued that other scales did not lend themselves well to measuring compassion in a way that can be targeted for education.
This scale focuses on the practical aspects of compassion such as giving financial help to others, using your free time to help others and doing things for others at a cost or risk to yourself or your family and friends. As such, items related to recognizing suffering, emotional resonance, and tolerating uncomfortable feelings are not included in this version of the compassion scale (Strauss et al., 2016).
5 Tests, Quizzes, and Questionnaires
Leading self-compassion researcher, author, and Associate Professor at the University of Texas Austin, Dr. Kristin Neff developed this 26-item self-compassion test. The test is compiled of statements in which you must indicate how often you behave in the manner detailed, using a five-point scale from ‘almost never’ to ‘almost always’. On completion of the short test, you will be given scores on self-kindness, self-judgment, common humanity, isolation, mindfulness, and an overall self-compassion score.
Developed by Dr. Martin Seligman, this compassionate love questionnaire measures your tendency to support, assist, and understand other people especially when you seem them to be suffering or in need. You will be asked to respond to 21 statements on a scale of ‘1 = not at all true of me’ to ‘7 = very true of me’. On completion of this short test, you will be given a score which indicates your level of compassion towards other people, and where you lie compared to others who have taken the test.
Alternatively, this compassion quiz adapted from Sprecher & Fehr’s compassionate love scale (2005) consists of 20 statements related to compassion for others; each statement requires a simple ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ response. On completion, you will be given your score and provided with resources and advice to help encourage compassionate feelings towards others.
This 66-item compassion fatigue/compassion satisfaction self-test is adapted from the work of Figley (1995). Developed for use with ‘helpers’ – that is, caregivers and professionals deemed vulnerable to compassion fatigue. Emergency care workers, counselors, mental health and medical professionals, clergy, advocate volunteers, and human service workers are all more likely to experience tension and preoccupation when caring for people.
While this test was developed with professionals in mind, it is a useful tool for anyone who has experienced this phenomenon. When the test is complete you will have scores for your potential for compassion satisfaction, your risk of burnout, and your risk of compassion fatigue.
This compassionate leader assessment by Hougaard, Carter & Beck (2018) will help you understand how compassionate you are as a leader and provides practical advice for improving your compassionate leadership abilities. On completion of the assessment, you will be given your score, a brief description of your compassionate leader style, and where you lie in relation to the average assessment score.
You will then be provided with a number of guided compassion practices to improve your score.
12 Exercises & Activities for Training Compassion
The aim of these exercises and activities is to cultivate compassion in whatever state you currently occupy.
1. Begin each day with compassion in mind – The Dalai Lama begins each day in the same way, “as soon as I wake up, I remember Buddha’s teaching: the importance of kindness and compassion, wishing something good for others, or at least to reduce their suffering. Then I remember that everything is interrelated, the teaching of interdependence. So then I set my intention for the day: that this day should be meaningful. Meaningful means, if possible, serve and help others. If not possible, then at least not to harm others. That’s a meaningful day.” (2016, pp. 64).
2. Volunteer – Donating your time to a worthwhile cause is just one of the ways you can actively show compassion to others. Volunteering implies hope and is a way to reach out and use your skills to improve the lives of others. Research suggests that compassionate helping triggered by volunteering improves stress regulation and immune function, cognitive functioning, health, and well-being (Brown & Okun, 2014).
3. Actively listen – Be fully present, put any distractions away, and give your full attention to what is being said. Listening provides relief to those in a world that can be indifferent to suffering. Let them lead the conversation and check-in on them at a later time to reinforce the knowledge that you were truly listening.
4. Have a self-compassion break – Neff suggests taking a self-compassion break to help bring the important aspects of compassion to mind when you need it most. Think of a situation that is causing you stress and tell yourself ‘I am struggling in this moment and that’s ok’, ‘I am not alone’, and offer yourself soothing words of acceptance.
5. Ask yourself ‘How would I treat a friend?’ – We are often more critical and judgmental about our own struggles than those of others. How would you treat a friend experiencing hard times? Why treat yourself any differently?
6. Practice mindfulness – mindfulness is an efficient way to cultivate compassion skills. Mindfulness is the process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment and develops the ability to recognize distress in ourselves while encouraging emotional balance in the face of adversity.
7. Keep a compassion journal – Neff recommends keeping a daily journal to record the moments you experienced compassion, anything you felt bad about, and anything you judged yourself harshly for. Write down some kind, understanding words of comfort.
8. Commonalities – Rather than focusing on how you differ from others, try instead to recognize what you have in common. Reflect on the commonalities you have with everyone else – we are all connected to the larger human experience.
9. Guided meditation – Compassion meditation and related practices can have many positive outcomes, including increasing self-compassion and other-focused compassion (Boellinghaus, Jones, & Hutton, 2014). Meditative compassion practices focus on developing feelings of kindness and goodwill towards yourself, loved ones, and those out with your usual social group. Neff provides seven guided self-compassion meditations including loving-kindness, affectionate breathing, and the compassionate body scan.
10. Watch this short video presented by Kristen Neff – focusing on the avoidance of self-judgment, this two-minute guide on how to practice self-compassion gives practical tips that you can incorporate into your daily activities right away.
11. Write a compassion letter to yourself – think of something that tends to make you feel bad about yourself; making mistakes, arguing with a loved one for instance. Now imagine an unconditionally loving and compassionate friend who can see all your strengths and weaknesses.
Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of this friend, focusing on the perceived inadequacy you tend to judge yourself for. What would this friend say to you from the perspective of unlimited compassion? After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back to it and read it again, really letting the words sink in.
12. Try the Eastern wisdom practice of Tonglen – take a moment to imagine all the people in the world who may be struggling in the same way that you are. Inhale and think of how you are experiencing the same feelings as others are. Exhale and focus on the compassion you feel both for yourself and for others.
Teaching Compassion in Education
Educational institutions play an increasingly central role in cultivating the necessary social, emotional, and ethical skills required to lead meaningful and successful lives.
In education, compassion serves an important function for teachers to provide an inclusive and healthy learning environment for students to learn emotional coping strategies.
Over the last decade, there has been great interest in bringing mindfulness to educators and students alike (Jazaieri, 2017).
According to Volling, Kolak, & Kennedy (2009), compassionate behavior in adulthood must, in part, stem from the experiences that the individual had as a child. Teaching compassion in education embraces the spiritual, moral, social, cultural and intellectual development of students and of society, as well as their physical and mental health. It includes approaches devoted to values and character education, to educating the heart, to emotional literacy and to the building of empathy and resilience (Coles, 2015).
Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, Wagner, & Chapman (1992) suggested that children as young as two years old have the cognitive, affective, and behavioral repertoire needed to alleviate discomfort in others. Pre-school learning that incorporates what compassion is, the various forms of compassion, and how to recognize compassion effectively, lays the foundations for the years to come as an increasingly important consideration for preschool education (Jazaieri, 2018).
Elementary school can be seen as an opportunity for pre-emptive compassion interventions. Gini, Pozzoli, & Hauser (2011) indicated that students who scored lower on moral compassion – that is emotional awareness and conscience concerning moral transgressions – experienced disrupted thinking, learning, and school performance.
Jazaieri (2018) noted the neural and psychological plasticity during adolescence provides an optimal time to cultivate compassion. When considering the prevalence of social comparison and negative self-talk during these formative years, educational institutions may in fact be the most felicitous opportunity to introduce compassion interventions.
Compassion Meditation Training
Cultivating compassion for others – and yourself – may feel like a daunting and demanding task, but it doesn’t have to be that way. While it can take time to develop, compassion through meditation has many benefits.
The aims of compassion meditation training are to:
- Be mindful, rather than over-identifying with problems.
- Connect with others, rather than isolating oneself.
- Adopt an attitude of kindness, rather than being judgmental (Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007).
Germer (2009) suggested that habitually entering a meditative state focused on interconnectedness is associated with a greater ability to be kind and understanding to the self and others.
Individuals who completed just two weeks of compassion meditation training have been shown to demonstrate more altruistic behavior and altered brain activity in response to pictures of suffering than those who did not.
After training, brain activity increased in areas associated with understanding the suffering of others, regulating emotions, and experiencing positive feelings in response to a reward or goal (Weng, Fox, Shackman, Stodola, Caldwell, Olson, Rogers, & Davidson, 2013).
The following tips and techniques from Dr. Helen Weng from the Center for Healthy Minds will help to guide you through a meditation grounded in simple techniques to help nurture compassion towards yourself, a loved one, and even a stranger.
- Settle into a comfortable position, relax your muscles and any mental tension you may have. For a few moments, focus on your breath and clear your mind of worries. Pay attention each time you inhale and exhale – let yourself experience and be aware of the sensations of breathing.
- It is important to be sincere. In the absence of sincerity, compassion loses its meaning and becomes shallow and harder to express. When beginning meditation compassion training try to focus initially on those that you can be truly sincere about.
- Picture someone who is close to you, someone toward whom you feel a great amount of love. Notice how this love feels in your heart. Perhaps you feel a sensation of warmth, openness, and tenderness. [10 seconds]
- Continue breathing, and focus on these feelings as you visualize your loved one. As you breathe out, imagine that you are extending a golden light that holds your warm feelings from the center of your heart. Imagine that the golden light reaches out to your loved one, bringing him or her peace and happiness. At the same time, silently recite these phrases for one minute:
May you have happiness.
May you be free from suffering.
May you experience joy and ease.
May you have happiness.
May you be free from suffering.
May you experience joy and ease.
- As you silently repeat these phrases, remember to extend the golden light to your loved one from your heart. Feel with all your heart that you wish your loved one happiness and freedom from suffering.
- As you become more comfortable and experienced you can extend your thoughts to acquaintances, strangers, and even those you don’t like.
What is Compassion Cultivation Training?
Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) was built on the understanding that compassion is fundamental to our basic nature as human beings and is part of our everyday experience of being human (Goldin & Jazaieri, 2017). Developed as a comprehensive compassion training program, CCT combines traditional contemplative practices with contemporary psychology and scientific research in order to develop a more compassionate life.
CCT has the potential to create significant changes in emotion experience, emotion regulation, and cognitive regulation which can enhance connections with others, while also reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression (Jazaieri et al., 2013; Brito-Pons, Campos, & Cebolla, 2017).
Through instruction, daily meditation, mindfulness, and in-class interaction, participants are encouraged to cultivate feelings of warmth, tenderness, concern, and connectedness, and to notice the embodied sensations that accompany these feelings.
The program incorporates a series of techniques for mental and emotional well-being and is designed to cultivate the qualities of compassion, empathy, and kindness for oneself and for others – whether they are friends, loved ones or strangers. Furthermore, taking part in CCT requires no previous experience or prerequisites to participate.
Standard CCT programs can be taught in groups of up to 35 (although groups of 20-30 individuals allow for adequate teaching and debriefing) and span eight or nine weeks in total. Originally designed for community-dwelling adults, CCT can be beneficial to a whole range of people: parents, sufferers of chronic pain, teachers, and health care providers, for instance.
Participants are encouraged to establish a daily home practice starting with 15 minutes per day initially, and later building up to 25–35 minutes per day. The goal is to build familiarity and momentum with a variety of practices and pattern of responses to the practices. To support home practice, participants are given CDs or access to MP3s of the recorded meditations to guide their practice each week.
In addition to the formal guided meditation practices, weekly homework in CCT also includes informal practices. The goal of the informal practices is to help the participant integrate the didactic lessons and formal meditation practices from that particular week into one’s personal and professional life. CCT teaches participants to extend their compassion to others.
Compassion towards others is cultivated by progressing from easier to more challenging targets. This is done explicitly to support the cultivation of compassion. The sequence of training begins with a loved one, then a neutral person, a difficult person, in-group, and out-group, and eventually extending to all living beings. This sequence optimizes the depth and stability of compassion (Goldin & Jazaieri, 2017).
CCT classes follow the same general structure (Goldin & Jazaieri, 2017):
- Each class begins with a brief guided meditation to focus and settle the mind.
- In small groups of two or three, the class will check each other’s ‘homework’, then discuss further in a larger group.
- The class is then introduced to the specific step of the week with pedagogical instruction and active group discussion.
- The class participates in interactive exercises designed to generate feelings of connectedness to others by reading poetry or reflecting on inspiring stories.
- This is followed by a second guided meditation on the specific step of the week, followed by a group debrief and discussion.
- Finally, new homework is assigned for the next week, consisting of both informal and formal practices for the week; and a brief closing activity.
By exploring specifically selected teachings and practices for self-compassion, participants learn to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion towards oneself. While this practice can be challenging for some, CCT encourages the cultivation of compassion for themselves by gradually generating attitudes of self-acceptance, non-judgment, and tenderness towards themselves.
What is the Compassion Project?
Too often, children are considered to be less sophisticated and incapable understanding the emotional complexities of their world, however, research suggests otherwise. Hawkins & Williams (2017) found that children as young as 7 years old demonstrate a desire to help when an animal is hurt or upset, suggesting that from an early age children’s attachment to animals is connected with compassionate orientations.
Learning about compassion and how to demonstrate it at an early age encourages more positive social behaviors, inclusivity and a healthy learning environment for students to learn emotional coping strategies. The Compassion Project is a collaborative no-cost initiative with a clear objective: to ensure every elementary school student understands what compassion is and how to practice it.
Why is compassion an important skill to teach children? By the time children reach the age of 7-8, they are capable of identifying their emotions and processing how their actions can impact others. Teaching compassion and its underlying skills help increase students’ motivation to learn and decrease feelings of anxiety and negative thoughts that can stand in the way of learning.
Co-created by education technology innovator, EVERFI, and LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner, the Compassion Project offers a simple framework for teachers to incorporate into the school day.
This 15-week curriculum looks at defining compassion, self-compassion, identifying emotions, performing acts of kindness and practicing mindfulness. The combination of PDF lesson plans, multimedia lessons, engaging animated videos, classroom-based lessons, and interactive digital activities provides a toolkit that any educator can incorporate into their own lesson plan.
What does the Compassion Project offer?
- Free multimedia curriculum containing 15 classroom-based lessons that each take approximately 30-45 minutes to complete.
- Digital activities, like the interactive mindful maze or the fast-paced compassion card game help to engage young children and bring the content to life.
- Videos of lessons in action.
- Discussion topics.
- Multi-sensory games.
- PDF lesson plans detailing the objectives of the lesson, materials required, activities, discussion topics, and scenario cards.
This free education tool provides all the resources you need as a teacher – or parent – to educate children about compassion in a way that is engaging and fun – you might even learn something about your own emotional competence.
Other Training Programs and Options (Incl. Online)
The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) was developed by compassion aficionados, Neff & Germer (2017) and combines the skills of mindfulness and self-compassion to provide a powerful tool for emotional resilience.
Available in multiple formats, MSC training can be completed in person over a course of 8 weeks, or an intensive 6 weeks version. The same training can be completed online and involves the same learning objectives as the in-person course. Additionally, the MSC offers a 6-day self-compassion training course specifically designed for those who would like to teach MSC to others.
MSC offers training on:
- How to stop being self-critical.
- How to handle difficult emotions with greater ease.
- How to motivate yourself with encouragement rather than criticism.
- How to transform difficult relationships, both old and new.
- Mindfulness and self-compassion practices for home and everyday life.
- The theory and research behind mindful self-compassion.
Germer & Neff (2017) also developed a number of training courses, workshops, and resources which can be found on Chris Germer’s website. These include international, 2-day workshops, Mindfulness and Compassion for Clients and Clinicians, an 8-month Community for Deepening Practice course for those who wish to continue developing compassion as an on-going practice, you can also find a free online 12 hour Power of Self-Compassion training course.
A Take Home Message
We often consider some people to be more compassionate than others, but we have the potential to adopt a more compassionate outlook through training and practice.
While it may be challenging, the cultivation of compassion is undeniably beneficial – to you and to those around you. After all:
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.
Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness.
Thanks for reading, and remember we’re all in it together.
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