Compassion – an emerging topic in meditation research

By | January 20, 2014

An extremely busy period of the academic year has come to an end and after a brief X-massy respite I finally find a bit of time to return to this blog.

Instead of commenting on one particular study I start here by discussing a topic that is emerging strongly within meditation research: compassion and the effects of developing it through meditation practice. This new focus deviates quite significantly from the emphasis on negative emotional states and their alleviation that we find at the centre of much research and discourse regarding mindfulness and the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for alleviating chronic stress, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for the treatment of recurring depression, Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) for treating borderline disorders or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to address eating disorders.

Compassion can be defined as a “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” (Merriam-Webster: compassion). It goes further than empathy, “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions” (Merriam-Webster: empathy), as the crucial point is the wish to become active to remove the suffering, distress or pain another being experiences, rather than just knowing about it or feeling it. In distinct ways compassion has been central to the major religious traditions Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism and takes a particularly prominent role in Buddhism. Classic texts such as the Bodhicaryavatara by Shantideva, a great 8th Century master of Indian Mahayana Buddhism, exclusively deal with this topic, providing poetic and inspiring advice how (and why) to develop this quality.

Given the importance of compassion it is not surprising that there is a strong emphasis on practical methods how this mental quality can be developed. These methods include the meanwhile well-known Loving Kindness Meditation, the meditation of Giving and Taking (Tibetan: Tong Len) or the meditation on the Buddha Form Loving Eyes (Tibetan: Chenrezig), with his well-known mantra of compassion OM MANI PEME HUNG. Within the Great Way (Mahayana) or Bodhisattvayana the development of compassion is given an even more central role and is at the heart of the teachings on the six liberating actions (Sanskrit: paramitas), practical advice how to employ all of one’s daily activities in the endeavour of developing compassion, in the end culminating in the realisation of wisdom – complete insight into the relative world of appearances as well as their ultimate nature.

Approaching this huge topic scientifically is not an easy feat, nevertheless first impressive steps are being made: Klimecki and co-workers (2013) investigated changes in compassion-related neuronal activity after introducing participants to a Loving Kindness Meditation and practicing this for merely six hours during the course of one day. To get an idea of the development of compassionate emotional responses the researchers asked the participants to watch several videos of humans in distressing situations while at the same time relevant changes in neuronal activity were recorded in a scanner (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Using different videos this procedure was carried out before and after the training. Changes in brain responses in the Loving-Kindness training group were compared to changes in a control group who underwent the same measurements but instead of practicing meditation participated in memory training. The most important result was that after the Loving Kindness training participants reported positive affective experiences, even in response to witnessing others in distress. Concurrently, activity in brain areas that are associated with positive mood, the feeling of love etc. was increased, in particular when watching the distressing clips. Interestingly, the activity in areas related to negative affect did not decrease, indicating that participants were still able to experience both emotional states concurrently. These changes were also related to changes in self-reported emotional experiences. In the control group no such changes were observed.

As mentioned before, these are early days of research into compassion. However, this is one of a series of studies from Tanja Singer‘s group at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. In future posts I will explore some more results from that group and discuss where this research takes us. For instance, one important question would be whether as a result of the training in Loving Kindness participants would actually engage more in compassionate activity, i.e. whether the ‘desire to alleviate suffering’, the defining aspect of experiencing compassion, actually expresses in action.


ReferenceKlimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2013). Functional neural plasticity and associated changes in positive affect after compassion training. Cerebral Cortex, 23(7), 1552-1561. [pdf]



© 2014 – 2015, Peter Malinowski. All rights reserved.

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