Can compassion be learned?

Is compassion something you are born with, or can you learn to become more compassionate?

New research suggests that compassion can be both taught, and learned. Richard Davidson and associate scientist Antoine Lutz studied the brain scans of 16 monks and 16 control subjects. All were asked to practise a special compassion meditation whilst undergoing an fMRI scan. The scientists found that areas of the brain used for empathy were stimulated during the meditation practice.

Davidson and Lutz believe that this research could be useful in treating people with depression. The theory is that if people suffering with depression could be taught a compassionate meditation practice, they could relate to the suffering of others more easily. “Thinking about other people’s suffering and not just your own helps to put everything in perspective,” Lutz says.

This is a subject that science is taking very seriously. The Dalai Lama is speaking at the CCARE Conference on Scientific Explorations of Compassion and Altruism on Friday, October 15, 2010 at Stanford University. You can watch a live webcast of the conference here.

From personal experience, I can say that compassionate practise has helped me deal with family problems more usefully. Over the summer, I learned a compassionate meditation practise during my three weeks on working retreat at Casa Saraswati. This is based on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and involves visualising a being or situation that gave you love, feeling the love grow in your heart, and then transferring this same love to others. Often we would sing the Avalokiteswara mantra after meditating, which also encourages compassion. I practised for three weeks, and noticeably became a much kinder, more generous and giving person in my daily life.

When I returned from my retreat, I found that my mother had become mentally ill again. Up until now, I have been notoriously unkind to her during her bouts of illness. As a child and younger adult I felt angry at my mother for not taking her medication, and bringing such suffering to everyone around her, not just herself.

This time, things were different. I was much more understanding of my mum. I felt more tolerance towards her. It wasn’t always easy: sometimes the old anger would arise while I was sitting with my mother, so I would sing the Avalokiteswara mantra over and over in my head until I softened. This would always work, and allow me much greater empathy for my mum. As a result, I was much more able to help and support her through this difficult time, and she managed to come out of hospital much sooner and with much less stress than in the past.

I am extremely grateful to the Buddhist tradition and my teacher Didier Danthois for this incredible gift. I also had the support of a very loving and compassionate partner, Caroline, who is a care-worker. She has already achieved a very high level of compassion towards others, without any mediation.

Imagine if we could teach compassion practices like these to children who were bullies, or to prisoners?

Imagine how greater compassion could better your relationships with your family and work colleagues?

Imagine how we could all care for the environment and put an end to war if we all learned to develop greater emotional understanding of all living beings around us?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s