Compassion and Loving Kindness
At a time when anxiety is high because it feels like there’s a great lack of compassion or loving kindness in the world, we can change our perspectives by literally changing our brain neuropathy through compassion and loving kindness meditation.
As I try to mind my mind hearing the ugliness of political rhetoric occurring here in the states over the Georgia senatorial run-off, I find myself being self-critical over the simple fact that I’m struggling not to judge. I realize I’m human and not many of us can simply stop judging, but since I teach mindfulness, my little voice really gives me a hard time when I fall short. I’m also sensing a little fatigue as I work to support people who are struggling with stress and anxiety throughout each day, followed by wading through an overflowing inbox with requests from very good organizations doing good work, all asking for donations of my time or money. Part of me just wants to shut down for a couple of weeks and block the world from my view. And of course, my inner critic is having a field day with that, too.
Dr. Kristen Neff is a pioneer in self-compassion research and was the first to define and measure it over 20 years ago. Her definition of self-compassion includes being kind to yourself instead of self-critical and seeing failures or mistakes as just part of the human condition. I sometimes turn to her book, co-written with Dr. Christopher Germer, The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, when I start sliding into self-harshness. It helps me to work through the exercises, so I’ll drop a link to it in case you’re struggling, but I would recommend any of her many books on the topic or you can find multiple videos online.
So that will take care of my inner critic, at least for a while, while regenerating my own self-kindness, but there’s still the issue of others. I need to take care of myself, but I also need to feel compassion for others, for me as well as them.
There are actually three kinds of empathy. The first is cognitive, which simply means we understand how another person is thinking, also called perspective taking. The second is emotional empathy, where we feel what someone else is feeling. And the third type, empathic concern or caring, is compassion, where we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but we’re moved to help or take action if needed.
We have no sympathetic feelings with cognitive empathy, while with emotional empathy, we can feel in our own body what the suffering person seems to feel. And that’s a problem if what we feel is upsetting because it’s common for us to tune out which makes us feel better but blocks compassionate action. Think about how you respond to a homeless person for example. Do you avert your gaze? That’s a typical withdrawal instinct because we don’t want to feel their pain. It’s too uncomfortable.
Empathy is not natural for a lot of people because of our fast-paced lifestyles these days. We aren’t encouraged to take a moment to genuinely connect with others, so for many, it takes a conscious choice to practice empathy. Studies show that empathy among young people has declined significantly over the past few decades with a 48% decrease in empathetic concern and a 34% decrease in perspective taking over the past 30 years, which researchers believe is in part due to social media, smaller family sizes and the pressure to succeed. Additionally, individualism is on the rise globally, stemming from socioeconomic development. While I’m all for self-reliance, our biggest problems can’t be solved individually, so perhaps it’s becoming critical that we learn how to be more empathetic so we can all live better lives.
There are two forms of meditation, loving kindness and compassion, that increase our empathic tendencies. Keep in mind that when we change how we respond to life, others change in response to us, so these practices can do a lot more than just change our own lives for the better, they could change whole environments. Loving kindness mediation, or LKM, and compassion meditation, or CM, have been well studied and the literature suggests that both are associated with an increase in positive affect and a decrease in negative affect.
CM has been shown to reduce stress-induced distress and immune response. Neuroimaging studies suggest that LKM and CM may enhance activation of brain areas that are involved in emotional processing and empathy. And intervention studies support the application of these strategies in clinical populations, combining meditation with cognitive behavioral therapy, that target many psychological problems that involve interpersonal processes including social anxiety, marital conflict and anger.
Loving kindness refers to a mental state of unselfish and unconditional kindness to all beings. Compassion can be defined as an emotion that elicits the heartfelt wish that all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. Both are linked to the Buddhist concept that all living beings are inextricably connected.
The foundation of the Buddhist ethical system consists of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These characteristics are necessary to achieve insight into the workings of our own minds, as well as the world around us, in order to reach a life free from misery. According to this system, we need to cultivate these four qualities through mindfulness.
In many Buddhist practices as well as psychological studies, LKM and CM are combined together. In CM, a series of contemplations are conducted and at each stage, the meditation exercise consists of thinking about specific wishes for someone else including that the person be free from hostility, mental suffering, physical suffering and that the person may happily take care of him or herself. The exercise may direct these compassionate feelings toward oneself or to others.
In LKM, we proceed through a number of stages that proceed from easier to more challenging types of contemplations. We start with a focus on the self, then a good friend, then a neutral person, then a difficult person, then on all of these and finally expand out to the entire universe.
These meditations are believed to expand attention, enhance positive emotions and lessen negative emotional states. They shift a person’s basic view of the self in relation to others and increase empathy and compassion. While this may sound sweet or even corny, they are in fact quite powerful. Studies show that they increase our ability to help others, for example. Both CM and LKM increase amygdala activation to suffering, while focusing attention on something neutral like the breath lessens amygdala activity. CM enhances empathic concern, activates circuits for good feelings and love, as well as circuits that register the suffering of others, preparing us to act when suffering is encountered. It has been shown to increase well-being, provide relief from illness and improve relationships.
Research indicates that LKM acts quickly. In as little as 7 minutes, a person’s good feelings and sense of social connection increases, albeit temporarily. But in as little as 8 hours of practice, a person shows brain changes toward more permanently increased compassion. Incredibly, reductions in typically intractable unconscious bias emerge after just 16 hours of cumulative practice.
These meditations have more benefits than just making us kinder humans. Scientist and research chemist David Hamilton found that intentionally focusing on kindness releases de-stressing chemicals in the body, making loving kindness the opposite of stress in our bodies. There is no pill without side effects that I know of that can do that. And consider that studies suggest that self-compassion moderates reactions to distressing events involving failure, rejection and embarrassment. Study participants with high levels of self-compassion reported less negative emotion when confronting real, imagined or remembered negative events and were more willing to accept responsibility for negative events, but less likely to ruminate about them compared to individuals low in self-compassion.
LKM can improve vagal tone, a physiological measurement of resilience and well-being. It also increases gray matter in the brain region responsible for emotional regulation. LKM decreases symptoms of depression while boosting a wide range of emotions including gratitude, contentment, joy, pride, hope and awe.
CM has been proven to reduce symptoms of PTSD, as well as negative symptoms in those with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. LKM has been shown in studies to quiet our inner critic, while decreasing negative emotions, even 3 months after practicing it. It also fosters empathy and compassion for others, perhaps more than any other type of meditation and it also increases these feelings when responding to others in distress. If that is not enough to convince you, it also enhances social and nature connectedness. At a time when we’ve become socially disconnected and our planet is starting to melt, I think that might be important.
There are physiological benefits as well. CM and LKM have been shown to decrease migraine pain and tension by as much as 33% and reduced the related emotional tension by as much as 43%. CM and LKM have been shown to reduce chronic pain. In an 8-week pilot study, LKM proved to be more effective than the standard care for chronic lower back pain, while decreasing anger and psychological distress.
There is also evidence that LKM slows the aging process. Telomeres are a small section of the chromosome whose length is a marker of aging, telling us how quickly or slowly we’re getting old. The longer the telomere length, the younger we are biologically. Studies show that those who practice LKM are significantly more likely to have longer telomeres.
Both LKM and CM with regular practice, reshape neural pathways linked to compassion and interconnectedness. They aim to cultivate a sense of altruism and warm-heartedness towards our fellow man. We first experience the positive benefits of these practices ourselves, but the resulting state of mind impacts others positively as well.
Mindfulness in general also helps strengthen empathy. Like me, we can take action when we recognize that we’re not practicing empathy or not feeling as compassionate as we normally do towards others. We can practice self-compassion when our inner critic takes hold. Observing our thoughts, we can also note when our innate biases arise. These biases make us less willing to try to empathize with people from different backgrounds or experiences. Once we’re conscious of our biases, we become more aware of ourselves and others which creates empathy. And we can practice loving-kindness or compassion meditation to change our neural connections, making us hard-wired to be kinder human beings. Don’t you think the world could use more of that these days?