Understanding the Science of Compassion

In her presentation on The Science of Compassion during the Mindful Healthcare Summit, Kelly McGonigal highlighted the body-mind impact of compassion and compassion training. Over the past 10 years she has worked with the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in the capacities of researcher and educator. Kelly was a co-author of the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training [CCT] and has undertaken research into its impacts on mind and body.

The mind-body effects of compassion training

The research undertaken by Kelly and her colleagues highlights the effects of compassion training on the mind and body. Kelly summarised these effects as follows:

  1. The process of compassion starts in the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, which registers a form of “sympathetic stress”, experienced by the observing individual as sadness or suffering. At this stage a person can become overwhelmed, particularly where they become too identified with the person who they perceive as suffering in some way, e.g. through grief, chronic physical illness, relationship breakdown or mental illness. The person who is experiencing overwhelm may adopt flight behaviour by distancing themselves (mentally and/or physically).
  2. The next stage involves the pre-frontal cortex and other parts of the “midline structure of the brain”. Here the sympathetic sufferer, through a process of “social cognition”, can separate themselves from the perceived sufferer. They recognise the suffering of the “other” and understand that they have a relationship to that person (as part of humanity) but are quite distinct from that other person – they don’t take the suffering on-board or “own the suffering” of the other person. This ability to achieve separation mentally is critical for the balance and welfare of the observer and is foundational to their willingness and ability to act to relieve the suffering of others. Without this balance, the observer may experience what Richard Davidson described as “empathy fatigue”.
  3. When we actually take compassionate action to relieve the suffering of another, we experience the “reward system” – our brain releases dopamine which make us feel good, hopeful and courageous. It thus serves to strengthen our motivation to redress the suffering of others. It activates “the approach motivation system of the brain” – motivating us to act on environments that we experience as unjust or toxic.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassion meditation and compassion training, and take action to redress the suffering of others, we can experience an increasing capacity for compassionate action and strengthening motivation to act on unjust or toxic environments.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Developing Mindful Cities

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) conducts 2 day mindful leadership courses around the world based on the three pillars of mindfulness, neuroscience and emotional intelligence. Participants in these courses tend to be motivated to practice mindfulness and spread the learning and ideas to various local arenas such as schools, organisations and community settings. There are now movements underway to integrate these initiatives on a local level by developing “mindful cities”.

The Mindful City Project

One of the initiatives designed to aggregate local mindfulness activities is the Mindful City Project established by co-founders Deb Smolensky (CEO), Michelle Spehr and Ellen Rogin. Their approach is based on the three pillars of awareness, compassion (including self-compassion) and generosity. These pillars are underpinned by the knowledge, practices and insights emerging from neuroscience and emotional intelligence research.

In an interview with Jen Arnold, Deb and Michelle discussed their own background and experience with mindfulness and the motivation and purpose for the Mindful City Project. Deb mentioned that she had been introduced to mindfulness at age 10 by her drama teacher who taught his class to use body scan to overcome nervousness. In her twenties, she resorted to meditation to deal with her anxiety attacks.

Deb, Michelle and Ellen each have experience in the wellness arena, with Ellen’s experience focused on financial wellness. They saw the need to help communities to become more connected, collaborative and compassionate – to adopt a holistic approach to enable the whole community to thrive. The Mindful City Project initiative sets out to develop a framework that will enable both a common language and a set of practices (encapsulated in checklists). The aim is to provide education, resources and funding to enable leaders in city communities to progressively develop their own mindful city and to share their relevant knowledge and experience with leaders in other cities.

A beta mindful city project

Deb and Michelle discussed a pilot project in the city of Highland Park Illinois where they are working with three community groups – schools, businesses and public services such as hospitals and the military. A key intervention strategy is the development of a “layered form of education and practices” for each type of participant group.

For example, different seminars are conducted for students, teachers and parents – enabling reinforcement in all directions and exponential growth in the use of mindfulness practices. Schools are provided with a checklist of practice options that they can adopt – the practices covering each of the three pillars. A school, for example, could inculcate the practice of taking a mindful breath when the bell rings and/or instituting mindful pauses in classrooms.

A key pillar of the mindful city project is generosity. Schools can choose the level and breadth of their generosity endeavours, e.g. supporting a charity or adopting a pay it forward program. Deb and Michelle gave the example of a school that raised USD160,000 for childhood cancer.

In developing awareness in businesses, Deb and Michelle stated that they found the foundations for mindfulness already present in organisations in a number of forms:

  • emotional intelligence incorporated in leadership training
  • a focus on “unconscious bias” within diversity and inclusion training

Unfortunately, these mindfulness initiatives are often segregated and lose the opportunity for mutual reinforcement and the synergy that comes from a holistic approach. In the Mindful City Project approach, mindfulness training covers both internal and external elements:

  • internal – emotional intelligence and inner awareness
  • external – compassion and generosity

As people grow in mindfulness through education and mindfulness practices in schools, businesses and homes, the potential exists for leaders to build mindful cities that thrive on connection, collaboration and compassion. The Mindful City Project provides the resources and funding to enable cities to create their desired future.

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Image by Marion Wellmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.