Increase Compassion by Remembering the ‘Good Stuff’

Recently, I asked participants in a domestic violence offender group about how they would define compassion. Some connected it with sympathy, others with doing what others want you to do. The fact that for most of them the word was not part of their daily vocabulary did not mean that they had never been compassionate. Unsurprisingly, they could remember some ‘good stuff’ and doing so may also help you to feel more secure in your relationships this year.

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The term compassion is not something we readily hear on the news; it’s hardly used in block buster movies. Although the word ‘compassion’ sounded strange to some men in the offender group, they were all familiar with acts of kindness that come out of concern for another person. They also agreed that there is a difference between feeling what another feels and acting upon this feeling.

Commonly, in psychology this distinction is made to distinguish between empathy and compassion. Empathy has been defined as the vicarious experiencing of an emotion that is congruent with, but not necessarily identical to the emotion of another individual, as well as the knowledge or understanding of another’s feelings tied to it (Eisenberg and Janet Strayer 1990). Compassion is more than that.

In broad terms, the term compassion refers to the ability to be touched by the suffering of others and the desire to alleviate their suffering. It has been associated with the vicarious experience of distress in response to another person’s suffering, a variant or blend of sadness or love, and as an evolutionary adaption that motivates helping behaviors for the sake of survival, reproduction, or both (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas, 2010).

The great news is that compassion also spreads. It reproduces itself because the recipients of compassion tend to become more compassionate themselves. Some researchers argue that higher “attachment security” is closely related to higher levels of compassion towards others and altruistic helping behavior (Shaver and Milkunicer (2004).

Attachment security or feeling valued, safe, and cared for in a relationship may be a result of your past experiences. It includes instances of having been treated supportively as a child, being involved in security enhancing close relationships during adulthood, being able to call upon mental representations of being cared for, being influenced by a security enhancing context, or a combination of these factors.

From this perspective, our human capacity to experience compassion is enhanced through trusting, secure, and protective relationships. While people with more attachment security are said to be able to show more compassion, little is known about the positive effects of compassion on attachment security and wellbeing in relationships.

In my own clinical practice, I found that even people who went through intense trauma, including many domestic violence offenders, “big” and “small” acts of compassion are common. Sometimes they are not seen as such and remain undervalued or not integrated into a coherent story about personal values and relationships.

For the men who had abused in the past, communication in the group provided a way to expand awareness about the benefits of compassion. In the past year, several had cared for sick family members, supported someone who struggled with everyday life problems, or intended to do so in the year to come. The group discussion provided them with a rare forum to develop a language around these act, to share and celebrate them.

In my opinion, one of the keys to cultivating compassion is to remember and become aware of the “small” compassionate acts we already perform. Once we value, understand, and enjoy them, we may create more possibilities to practice compassion – perhaps with the result of enhancing our own and other’s sense of safety and “attachment security.”

When I focus attention on the ‘good stuff’, I change neural pathways in my brain, a process called neuroplasticity. The term neuroplasticity is used to refer to our ability to change the physical structure of our brains throughout the lifespan (Siegel 2010). We can literally grow new synaptic connections through sustained and focused attention on compassionate acts. Is this going to increase your compassion? Try it out.

By reflecting and talking about past instances of turning empathy into action you may turn neural pathways into superhighways that inform future action.You turn something that is already present into the forefront and thereby make it more powerful. How have you acted compassionately lately?

 

 

 

Remembering: The Forgotten Aspect of Mindfulness

How do you remember what really matters to you in each new moment? When my mind runs on automatic pilot I often get carried away by things that don’t matter at all. A retreat at the Metta Forest Monastery near Escondido made me aware of how mindfulness can be seen as purposefully letting go of what keeps me stuck and keeping in mind what makes me genuinely happy.

 

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The teachings of Thanissaro Bhikkhu, also called Ajaan Geoff, emphasize the role of thinking, recalling, and memory in meditation. From this perspective, mindfulness is about active memory or calling to mind and keeping in mind instructions and intentions that are helpful in attaining the goal of ending stress and suffering.

Alertness

Being aware of what is going on in the moment is important for the cultivation of mindfulness. It has a purpose. The Thai Forest Tradition of Buddhism as taught by Ajaan Geoff suggested that alertness helps the meditator to notice what works and what doesn’t during meditation. He continuously asked all students to be very alert and vigilant in order to see what kind of mental and bodily state makes them feel good and what kind of state produces stress. I was told to be alert not merely for the sake of alertness but in order to notice what makes me feel more wholesome.

After several days, I started to attend to particularly energizing or calm bodily states with more appreciation as well as to thoughts of goodwill towards self and others that made me feel simply more at ease. Instead of just noticing what came up, I tried to notice when, where, and why a particular experience arose. This made me somehow more committed to learn from insights.

As Ajaan Geoff pointed out, once they are noticed skillful states can be remembered and later recalled on purpose. In this process meditation becomes a skill in which the beginner actively shapes his or her experience.

Ardency

The practice of brining back the attention to the breath or the body as an object of focus is an expression of ardency. Ardency is about making a commitment for training the mind and developing mindfulness. I came to see this attitude as a passion for making a difference, a desire for personal change and growth. Ideally ardency enables me to pull myself out of unskillful states based on my remembrance of skillful ones that made me feel wholesome in the past.

When for example a negative emotion or a thought seeks to dominate experience Ajaan Geoff recommends to argue with the reasoning behind it and to remind oneself of its drawbacks. However, the dangers of striving, clinging to particular states of mind, and repressing uncomfortable thoughts has to be taken serious.

“You do want to succeed, but you need a balanced attitude toward failure and success so that you can learn from them. Nobody’s keeping score or taking grades. You’re here to understand for your own sake. So this process of developing your foundation of mindfulness or developing your frame of reference is not “just watching.” It’s more a participation in the process of arising and passing away — actually playing with the process — so that you can learn from experience how cause and effect work in the mind.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

Discernment

Mindfulness as practice of remembering is inextricably tied to discernment. It is important to be aware of whether or not a particular state of body and mind is skillful or not. Thanissaro Bhikkhu asks questions such as: Is a particular thought “worthy” of your attention? Is it helpful to identify with it? What is it composed of? Why is it coming and why is it going? Is it in line with your intentions? If not, how can you take it apart? This does not mean that meditation is merely about arguing with oneself. In his opinion, mindfulness seems to be a means to an end, namely, the transition into more calm and peaceful states without conceptual thought.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s approach is straightforward. When we know that a particular state has been harmful in the past, we should keep it from arising or take away it’s energy by focusing on the breath. When skillful thoughts and bodily states come up, he recommends to attend to them for a few times until one lets them go, too. During the retreat he also emphasized continuously that each meditator has to discern for him or herself what actions are skillful or unskillful during meditation.

Although the Buddhist teachings provide a compass, they do not exactly prescribe how to deal with one’s unique experiences on the path. In this sense discernment seems to be a matter of what he called “experimentation” – on the most basic level with the breath.

During my sittings in one of the monestary’s avocado groves I became intrigued about the notion of mindfulness as remembering. From this perspective meditation is not just about being in the moment. Remembering can keep me connected to the Buddhist teachings but also to my own knowledge about what works for me and what doesn’t. It also keeps me in touch with a broader vision of what I want in life. It is about choices and how to continuously shape my future based on what happened in the past. This aspect has largely been neglected in contemporary mindfulness-based therapies and stress-reduction.