Mindfulness and Training in Compassion

The Science and Wisdom of Emotions Summit conducted online from 2-5 May 2021 provided access to 30 of the world’s experts in the areas of compassion, mental health, well-being, wisdom, neuroscience, emotional intelligence and trauma counselling.  Access to the full recordings and transcripts are thoughtfully provided on a sliding scale, generosity-based pricing structure – with all levels of purchase receiving the full package together with the gift of free access for a friend, colleague, or family member.

There was so much covered in the Summit that is relevant to mindfulness.  However, in this post I want to look at compassion from the perspective offered by a one of the presenters.

Research into developing compassion

I have mentioned earlier in this blog the work of Richard Richardson and Daniel Goleman, authors of Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, whose review of research studies confirmed that compassion meditation developed the traits of kindness and compassion.  In the Summit, Dr. Sona Dimidjian, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, shared her own research work on the development of compassion. 

Sona had been concerned about the lack of research into the transfer of compassion training to the practice of compassion in daily life and set about establishing a participative research project to find out what works and for whom.  She was particularly interested, especially in our current environment of racialism and inequity, to establish what are the “barriers and facilitators” of bringing compassion into everyday life.

Fundamental to Sona’s approach, was engaging participants in her research in every phase of the research process – formulating questions, deciding the methodology and collaboratively undertaking the research.  She involved educators, young people and those experiencing mental health issues.  One such collaborative study led to the conclusion that brief compassion training (20 minutes a day compassion meditation practice) increased participants compassion while daily exposure to images of people suffering actually led to a decline in compassion.

One unexpected result from the study was that teachers, one of the core groups that Sona sought to help, became particularly concerned about the impact of their daily exposure to the suffering of their students and their parents.  The teachers indicated that they lacked training in self-care and care for their student children and yet they aspired to be kind and compassionate.   

This concern of the teachers led to another collaborative research project with educators to co-design a course in compassion that would lead to compassionate action on the part of the teachers.  The resultant program, Masters in Teacher Leadership, is available through Colorado University and incorporates a Certificate level component on Cultivating Compassion and Dignity in Ourselves and Our Schools.  Sona’s hope is that teachers become true models of compassion while teaching their students to be compassionate.

Compassion and dignity

While the abovementioned course incorporates self-compassion, fundamental to the content and approach is the recognition that compassion involves “honouring dignity within each other” – recognising the dignity of each person, irrespective of their race, religion, skin colour, gender (or identification as non-binary or non-gendered), sexual preference, culture or country of origin.  Compassion is inclusive and non-discriminatory.  It actively works against the prevailing ethos, created through “systematic conditioning”, that fails to see our common humanity and connectedness.

Compassion involves deep listening and the capacity to hear the perspective of another while seeking to understand and value the learning and diverse experiences of other people.  It involves curiosity blended with tenderness and caring.  Compassion training through mindfulness incorporates “mental training’ (involving both thinking and emotional elements) and serves to preclude reactive responses to those who are suffering (which Sona points out sometimes aggravates the suffering of others through a lack of understanding).  The mindfulness training involved in compassion training, on the other hand, enables the participant to “act more skilfully” and take compassionate action in their day-to-day interactions.

Compassion involves “seeing one another in our fullness”, in all our diversity and complexity.  Surprisingly, Sona found that the digital world, accessed through programs like Zoom, enables participants to have greater access to each other’s life – you get to see the bookshelves, dogs coming in and out of a room, children demanding attention or partners moving about undertaking their daily activities, the room layout and house surrounds (in some cases).  Sona points out that this is a much richer perspective than the perception of a person created by the role that they occupy – you get to see and engage differently through a more complete perception of a person in their natural environment.

Reflection

Reading something of Sona’s clinical research history and work on the ground with educators, new mothers and expectant mothers and youth experiencing mental health issues, you begin to appreciate that her life and work epitomises compassion-in-action.  In fact, one of her personal goals is to strengthen her own mindfulness practices to enable her to pursue compassion in her own life by avoiding the interference of her own biases and living with integrity and congruity with the compassionate values that she promotes.  Sona generously shares her research and insights through her Mind & Life Podcast.

Sona’s life and dedication pursued in a spirit of humility, openness and curiosity provides an exemplar for how we could pursue compassion through our own life and work and daily interactions with others.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the insight and commitment to enhance our deep listening skills and build the courage to take compassionate action in a skilful way.

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Image by Juanita Foucault 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.

Bodily Awareness: Movement and Stillness

The UCLA meditation podcast at the end of April 2021 was conducted by Tom Heah who has particular expertise in movement meditation and offers a range of Mindfulness in Action courses.    Tom’s guided meditation on Awareness in Movement and Stillness offers a way to pay attention to bodily sensations with openness and curiosity while moving and keeping still.  He makes the point that our body is always in the present moment through our senses while our mind is often consumed with thinking about the past or the future, e.g., planning, analysing, categorising, criticising, or summarising.  Tom describes the mind as a “thinking machine” while he sees our body as a pathway to the present moment and mindfulness.  His podcast meditation has three core parts – seeing, moving, being still.

Paying attention to what we see

As Tom’s meditation was conducted online via Zoom, he encouraged participants from around the world to turn their videos on and look to see who else is present in the collaborative meditation.  He maintained that through our sight we can reinforce our sense of connection to others wherever they may be in the world.  He suggested that “separation” is really a “conception of the mind” – ignoring the reality of our connectedness to every living thing.  He encouraged participants to spend a short time as they were looking at others to check into their own bodily sensations.  Tom reinforced the fact that our bodies enable us to experience our connection to the earth as well as to others.

Paying attention to our bodies while we move

Tom encouraged participants to stand or sit to undertake a number of conscious movements involving the arms, neck, and shoulders.  He offered stretching exercises for the arms, neck and shoulder rolls as forms of movement.  His main focus was on the bodily sensations experienced while undertaking the movements – encouraging the identification of points of ease or tension.

On completing the movements, Tom suggested that participants choose an anchor to be able to refocus the mind if wandering occurs – e.g., room scanning, focus on sounds within and/or without the room, focusing on the breath or remaining with bodily sensations.  He indicated that like a lot of other people his mind has been racing with the advent of the pandemic, as everything in life is impacted – work location, availability of work, physical and mental health, relationships, shopping patterns, income flow and capacity for free movement within a State or outside a country.

Tom suggested that focus on our body and body sensations is a way to still the mind and recapture peace, ease, and tranquility.  Movement meditations such as Tai Chi provide an excellent means to build bodily focus and concentration as well as to realise physical and mental health benefits. 

Paying attention to our bodies while being still

Tom suggested that the stillness meditation can involve sitting, standing, or lying down – whatever is comfortable and facilitates your ability to get in touch with your bodily sensations.  One of the easiest ways to pay attention to bodily sensations is to focus on our feet – observing sensations of touch, tingling, heaviness, connectedness to the floor or ground or other sensation.  I find that joining my fingers together from each hand also provides me with easy access to bodily awareness – to a sense of energy flow, warmth, connection, tingling and stillness.

Mantra meditations involving generation of bodily energy through voice and vibration, can still the mind and body. Lulu & Mischka, exemplars of the art of mantra meditations, maintain that in times such as the pandemic, mantra meditations can enable us to achieve both stillness and joy despite the pervasive challenges in our lives.  Their stillness in motion mantra meditation epitomises becoming grounded and connected through observing whales and singing while sailing close to these majestic marine mammals.

Reflection

Our bodies are the immediate and accessible pathway to being in the present moment.  We can readily still our minds and grow in mindfulness through body scans, chanting, mantra meditations and movement meditations such as Tai Chi.  The benefits are enhanced through daily mindfulness practice whatever form it takes according to our preference and however much time we can devote to the practice.  The increasing benefits over time serve to provide positive reinforcement so that what may have once been a chore becomes a pleasant and rewarding experience.

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Image by Ria Sopala 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.