Compassion may be the most beneficial of all meditation techniques, but scientists have to work harder to understand it
In preparation for some upcoming blog articles, including looking at the Luberto et al. meta-review of compassion meditation research, I wanted to talk about terminology and concepts in this field.1 While science is a powerful system for measuring and predicting nature, it has problems in understanding and thus evaluating complex human behaviours such as compassion. But these challenges are made harder by imprecision and generalisations. For example, scientific reviews frequently combine or aggregate the findings from compassion, empathy, and loving-kindness studies. Cognitively speaking, these practices draw on related but different processes. Empathy, identifying with the experiences of others, is quite different from compassion, seeking to alleviate the suffering of others. If scientists compare the effects of belief-based versions of these practices, it becomes even more problematic. Even within Buddhism, the major schools have distinct ontological perspectives, which makes the operational deployment of their meditation methods quite different.
While the psychological sciences can observe almost any human behaviour, including meditation, the problems arise when attempting to understand what takes place, particularly in methods, like Buddhist meditation, developed in non-positivist environments. So while it’s relatively simple for scientists to measure the before and after effects of one form of meditation, understanding what the meditators are doing is more challenging. And aggregating the impact of different forms of compassion meditation seems likely to deliver unreliable data. These problems become even greater when empathy, metta, loving-kindness and self-compassion practices are thrown into the mix.
Understanding the concept of compassion as an object of scientific inquiry is preliminary; we don’t yet have comprehensive knowledge of trait and state compassion or how to measure them reliably. Added to this challenge, concepts of compassion are culturally embedded and can be incredibly complex to unravel. Simply moving a compassionate activity from a church or temple into a laboratory may change the psychological impact of the practice. As described in the scholarly literature, removing mindfulness from its religio-cultural contexts changed its nature.2 This doesn’t mean that medicalised mindfulness is not a useful intervention, simply that it does not reliably reflect the mental training present in the dozen or so known spiritual mindfulness practices.
Let’s look at the complexity of understanding compassion meditation in Buddhist traditions. First, we have to consider there are three main Buddhist schools or vehicles, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, each has a different world view. These particular world views lead to operational differences in how the concept of compassion is integrated into meditation methods. Furthermore, multiple schools exist within the three ‘vehicles’, each of which may have a degree of uniqueness in their compassion practices. At this stage, it’s probably better not to discuss the role of non-dual compassion as there is almost nothing replicated in the scientific literature about this element of human consciousness (although we all access it every day).
So the take-home message here is how well we define compassion will inevitably be linked to our ability to harness meditation practices’ health and well-being benefits.
Luberto, Christina M., Nina Shinday, Rhayun Song, Lisa L. Philpotts, Elyse R. Park, Gregory L. Fricchione, and Gloria Y. Yeh. “A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of meditation on empathy, compassion, and prosocial behaviors.” Mindfulness 9, no. 3 (2018): 708-724.
King, Richard. “‘Paying attention’in a digital economy: reflections on the role of analysis and judgement within contemporary discourses of mindfulness and comparisons with classical Buddhist accounts of sati.” In Handbook of Mindfulness, pp. 27-45. Springer, Cham, 2016.
We know that poverty can make poor mental health more likely. But therapeutic interventions rarely consider the root causes of mental illness. Could nondual treatments be a solution?
The BPS’s project to support people move from poverty to flourishing has highlighted several important issues; among the most challenging is the notion that mental health is not a ‘DIY project’.1 The challenge arises because, in psychology, there are technical and conceptual barriers to considering social factors such as community and institutional engagement in clinical intervention. However, the social networks that mediate mental wellbeing are becoming even more critical in the COVID and post-COVID worlds.2 Positive social interaction is foundational to health and wellbeing, but many clinical interventions fail to integrate biopsychosocial models into diagnosis and treatment. And the reductive nature of experimental psychology places barriers to considering the individual and the social concurrently. Understanding the personal cost of poverty requires a wide lens; mental suffering doesn’t exist in isolation to family, community or institutions.3 Integrating and tackling mental health’s inner and outer determinants is central to countering the psychological damage caused by enduring poverty. This article will discuss how compassion mind training (meditation) can address mental suffering while encouraging supportive social networks. I’m also going to argue that to access the full potential of compassion mind training, new psychological approaches to meditation are required.
Although there are challenges to defining compassion, the wish and/or the action to alleviate suffering is an acceptable description for many working in the field. Therefore, it is not controversial to argue that a more compassionate society would reduce suffering. There is also evidence that more compassionate individuals suffer less. Although an oversimplification, it’s worth pausing on the notion that compassion interventions can support individual psychological wellbeing and the social factors able to mediate mental health. The consideration of clinical interventions linked to broader social settings is unusual for many psychologists, certainly those working in experimental settings. But understanding how poverty affects a person within their environment is a priority. Without attention to the root causes of mental suffering, psychological interventions will only have a modest impact. I’m not talking about social policy here (in any direct sense); instead, I’m suggesting that more attention needs to be given to curative approaches that address both the internal (mental) and external (social) causes of suffering. Over the last two decades, the growth in compassion research has emerged from the project to medicalise spiritual meditation. But few of the 7,000 meditation studies published over the previous eight decades address the biopsychosocial potential of meditation. Ironically, this holistic and now neglected aspect of traditional meditation was critical to the initial academic and scientific interest.
The reasons for reluctance to consider social factors, alongside mental health treatment, are typically linked to preserving the integrity of the experimental method. Controlling potential confounding variables has always been a central goal of experimental psychology. But compassion mind training highlights that mental states are influenced by cognitive processes based on our inner and outer worlds. Medicalised meditation is one area of research and practice where therapy considers both the psychological and the social. Over the last twenty years, compassion mind training has been shown to improve, physical and mental health as well as social relationships. In their 2017 meta-review of published compassion studies, James Kirby, Cassandra Tellegen and Stanley Steindl concluded that compassion interventions held ‘promising’ potential to reduce suffering from depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.4 Two of the leading advocates for the use of compassion training are Paul Gilbert and James Doty. Paul Gilbert OBE is the founder of Compassionate Mind Training (CMT) and Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT), Dr Doty has been the driving force behind Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Between them, Doty and Gilbert have highlighted how compassion mind training can support individual and collective mental health. Gilbert’s 2019 exploration into the nature and function of compassion sets out current research and practice.5 Particularly relevant here is the notion of compassion as a ‘social mentality’. In this context, social mentality refers to the creation of relationships. Although this concept falls far short of the use of compassion in spiritual meditation, it signposts new opportunities for scientific understanding.
A multi-directional view of compassion allows a relationship of mutual support between the psychologist and the patient to develop. In this scenario, peers come together to solve problems; hierarchical limitations are less pronounced. Gilbert uses the primary caregiver-child relationship as an example of this reciprocity, but this illustration is most useful as a heuristic to think about compassion in new ways. Rather than the passive recipient of therapy, the patient also becomes a catalyst for compassionate thoughts towards others. Mind training in compassion can be, as Gilbert describes, a dynamic process between patient and clinician, but it is not necessarily limited to that. Compassion can support the mental health of the patient while also developing their compassionate insights towards society more generally, and thus stimulating increased social engagement. The research agenda of CCARE includes investigation of ‘methods for cultivating compassion and promoting altruism within individuals and society-wide’.6 These are the nondual insights that highlight the potential of mind training to support mutually dependent relationships between community and self.
Despite pioneers such as Gilbert and Doty, compassion research appears to be developing the same limitations as other forms of medicalised meditation. Construct validity is still uncertain, and reliable psychometric instruments are a work in progress. And if you follow the literature, you will find frequent overlaps between compassion and concepts such as empathy, altruism and loving-kindness. Attempts to reduce the idea of compassion by establishing the binary constructs of self-compassion and other-compassion have also run into difficulty; in 2017 Christian Kandler and his colleagues demonstrated that self-compassion is a facet of neuroticism.7 From a historical perspective, several common problems are visible in the relocation of meditation to psychology. For example, similar methodological and theoretical limitations exist in the research of mindfulness, compassion and related pro-social behaviours.8 While it might be premature to suggest the scientific study of meditation in its current form (and therefore compassion mind training) has reached an impasse; clearly, there are obstacles to making further progress. The scientific study of meditation technologies is rich with intersections between traditional spiritual practice and psychology. For example, Doty and Gilbert both draw heavily on Tibetan Buddhist influences in their work. But while psychology can safely observe the effects of traditional meditation from a scientific perspective, integrating practices from spiritual traditions with psychology is a risky undertaking. Risky on several levels, but primarily because of the conflict between the world views of Western science and Eastern knowledge systems.
The migration of traditional meditation from the temple to the laboratory followed a long and complicated path. Many of the problems and opportunities for meditation-based mind training come into sharper focus when we consider meditation’s scientific history. From the early engagements, western scholars and scientists have been working on two broad trajectories to medicalise Eastern mind training methods. The paths of integration and appropriation. The integration path can be traced back through the medical counter-culture, Zen psychotherapy and Buddhist reform movements of the late 19th century. Experimental work with electroencephalographic (EEG) technologies from the 1930s laid the foundations of the path of appropriation. The rise of scientist-practitioners since the 1970s, people such as Robert Wallace and Jon Kabat-Zinn, accelerated spiritual and psychological convergence. In both interconnected strands, foundational cognitive elements of traditional meditation, such as ethical judgement and compassion, were uncoupled from modern medicalised methods. These ‘human’ factors give spiritual meditation holistic curative potential through the interconnectivity between self and others. Richard King and Steven Stanley are just two of the academics that highlight the loss of these elements during meditation’s relocation. In scientific investigations of mind training’s operational features, I have found no comparative studies that evaluate traditional meditation methods with reference to their ontological frameworks. This inevitably means that we have uncoupled compassionate mind training practices, by accident or design, from their original conceptual contexts. This same point applies to mindfulness meditation.
There is no question of normativity here or comparative judgement of the psychological methods over spiritual practices (or vice-versa). The issue under discussion is, how can compassion mind training be best used to support people from poverty to flourishing? Despite a lack of replication, the cumulative evidence for the benefits of compassion methods is significant. However, in common with mindfulness, compassion meditation remains a ‘promising’ rather than an effective mental health intervention. We should not underestimate the impressive progress made in this field, particularly since the 1970s. But the challenges presented by increasing levels of poverty require more reliable and flexible meditation-based interventions. In order to harness the full potential of compassion mind training, two questions need to be addressed; what happens to traditional meditation methods translated to psychological interventions, and what is lost or gained in the process?
Even a preliminary investigation of Buddhist (Mahayana) ‘science and philosophy’ reveals foundational concepts underpinning meditation methods such as ‘relative compassion’, ‘nonduality’ and ’emptiness’. But acknowledgement of these elements in traditional meditation is almost totally absent from the psychological literature. It is problematic to relocate human technologies to new knowledge systems without understanding the original cognitive components. This is an approach that risks creating interpretive forms that lack essential elements. The uncoupling of meditation from its full potential during the migratory process probably explains the perennial ‘promising’ tag that has followed the clinical use of meditation for fifty years. New translated forms of mind training could develop into effective Westernised psychological interventions in their own right. But taking the historical perspective, I’d ask how long will it take and how useful will they be? The pressing challenge of tackling the suffering linked to poverty requires new approaches to develop our current knowledge.
Perhaps the most significant limitation in the project to medicalise meditation is the failure to find a common language for psychology to engage with the traditional forms of meditation. There is a need for a lingua franca, a conceptual rosetta stone that will allow psychologists to access the curative potential of compassion long observed in Buddhist meditation. Doty, Gilbert and others frequently hint at this potential but generally retreat into positivist terminology to investigate and describe it. The role of meditation in supporting mental health and social networks remains largely theoretical or anecdotal to psychology. The shortfall between what medicalised meditation is and what it could become appears to be brought about by inflexible approaches to non-Western knowledge systems; a tendency to translate human technologies ahead of the full documentation of psychological benefits. The scientific history of meditation indicates that psychology requires more sophisticated ways of understanding the world if it wishes to unlock mind training’s full potential. While positivism is a powerful investigative tool, its current form appears unable to penetrate aspects of traditional (non-positivist/nondual) knowledge systems. Given the growing role of meditation technologies in society, the creation of a new discipline to access traditional knowledge is long overdue. The development of nondual psychology would create an approach able to consider the curative potential of traditional compassion meditation (and its operational cognitive components) free of the distortions of cultural and ontological translation.
7 Christian Kandler and others, ‘Old Wine in New Bottles? The Case of Self–Compassion and Neuroticism’, European Journal of Personality, 31.2 (2017), 160–69 https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2097.
 Nicholas T. Van Dam and others, ‘Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13.1 (2018), 36–61 https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617709589.
A review of the origins of compassion and the benefits of compassionate mind training. from spiritual and scientific perspectives
Author: Paul Gilbert
Title: Explorations into the nature and function of compassion
Summary: Paul Gilbert has been researching and writing about compassion for much of his career. In this paper from 2019, Gilbert offers a general introduction to current thinking and research in the field. The article doesn’t concentrate on scientific evidence from a cognitive or neuropsychological perspective, although there are some useful citations. In the opening definitions of compassion, potential evolutionary origins discussed, highlighting the foundational influence of ‘mammalian caregiving’. According to this model, it is the caregiving instinct of mammals that eventually gives way to more complex processes leading to the forms of compassion that we recognise in human behaviour. In describing compassion used in spiritual traditions, Gilbert signposts approaches from Buddhism and Jainism. And in an attempt to homogenise definitions from East and West, he offers us his synthesis of explanations from different knowledge traditions. There is a discussion of clinical and experimental progress in the field, focussing on both medicalised and Buddhist compassion training methods. In conclusion, Gilbert makes the case that compassion is an inherent trait that can be developed through training and motivation.
Compassion (and compassionate values and moral) is not just automatic but something that can be deliberately chosen and worked at with a deepening of understanding over time.
Discussion: I want to acknowledge that Gilbert has made significant contributions to the western positivist understanding of the construct of compassion. This paper describes some complex ideas simply and at times, elegantly. But the overall impression is the presentation of the author’s particular perspective, a notion supported by a lack of critical insight. Citations of recent scientific studies are grouped logically, but I would have also valued some expert guidance on theoretical or methodological limitations in these papers. As a general principle, I find the use of evolutionary psychology to support definitions of complex human behaviours speculative, so it is perhaps unsurprising I wasn’t convinced by the accounts of the origins of compassion. The conclusions do offer a helpful overview of the subject, particularly to people new to this area. However, my central reservation was the selective use of concepts from different knowledge systems, particularly as the paper makes universal and generalised claims.
It is legitimate to draw on illustrations from Eastern spiritual tradition, but appropriate contextualisation is essential. So, for example, the discussion of Mahayana Buddhist concepts of compassion indicates that there are different understandings in Buddhism. These contrasting positions in Buddhism are supported by alternative ontological and epistemological frameworks that underpin interpretations of compassion, meditation and mind-training. I accept that this is a complex area, but if we fail to consider human understanding in its relevant context, we risk defining universal human traits and states from a narrow Western positive perspective. And in doing so, essential psychological constructs known and evidenced in traditional knowledge systems, such as non-dual compassion and relative compassion, will continue to be excluded from scientific study and consideration.
If you’re worried about covid19, self isolation or your future generally, there are actions you can take to reduce fear and anxiety.
At the start of any discussion about suffering, and this definitely includes fear, I like to stress that the information I provide is focussed on solutions. The objective of this article is to highlight ways of decreasing fear and improving health and wellbeing.
Underestimating Coronavirus is not an option, and it’s not the object of this short discussion of fear and mental health. But the reality is that each of us will face challenges during our lives. This is part of the nature of being human, to overcome obstacles. And while we know that Covid-19 is putting peoples lives at risk, it is just one of many dangers we face. However, both modern psychological medicine and traditional understandings of the human experience agree that disproportionate fear is a cause of suffering.
Threats exist, to be aware of potential risks and to take appropriate preventative action is both reasonable and desirable. However, awareness of risk is not the same thing as fearof the threat. Fear is largely an emotional response that each of us has some control over. While most of us manage anxiety well, there may be times when it can overwhelm us. If we experience sustained periods of acute fear, it is likely to have a detrimental impact on our physical and mental health. What’s important to recognise is that much of the anxiety we experience is under our control.
The way we think has a direct effect on our emotions. While we often claim that ‘you make me angry’ or ‘this song makes me sad’, the reality is, we are choosing to feel angry or sad. It is usually our reaction to what happens that creates our sense of happiness or sadness. This is as true of Coronavirus as any other perceived danger. At the time of writing, we face health risks from Covid-19, instability in the employment and financial markets and many other related problems. But these are not the cause of fear in a strictly scientific sense, it is our reaction to events that rests at the heart of how we experience life. It has been said that fear is healthy, it keeps us alive. While this might be true in rare examples (popular psychology often talks about our fight or flight mechanism), this visceral fear manifests in the form of a reflex and requires little conscious thought. However, the rumination about a threat is an entirely different matter, humans can turn relatively benign concerns into the source of prolonged stress and anxiety.
“Compassion training is the most important support to my health and wellbeing, it has given me improved mental health, greater resilliance and a good deal of happiness. “
Stephen Gene Morris
So what does all this mean for our health during the current challenging times? It goes without saying that we should take sensible precautions. But, we should pay attention to the way we think about risk. Too much fear will affect our health and reduce our ability to make rational choices. A number of nonrandomised studies indicate that compassionate practices may be useful in combatting fear-related conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.1 In this regard, compassionate meditation may be a helpful tool to combat fear. Nondual forms may be particularly important to maintain a proportionate sense of ‘self and other’, particularly in lockdown and social isolation.
So the take-home points; take Covid-19 seriously but know that compassionate practices can build resilience to fear and anxiety.
1 Graser, J., & Stangier, U. (2018). Compassion and loving-kindness meditation: an overview and prospects for the application in clinical samples. Harvard review of psychiatry, 26(4), 201-215.