Interest in contemplative practices has burgeoned in recent years as research suggests that meditation practice may have significant effects on health and well-being. The scientific study of compassion meditation in particular and methods for cultivating it is significant for several reasons, including individual physiological and psychological health, as well as broader social issues of human connection and survival.
Scientists in diverse fields are more recently pointing out the importance of compassion for human happiness and well-being. Primatologist Frans de Waal has surveyed a growing body of empirical evidence to argue that our common perception of human nature as a self-centered drive for individual survival is largely distorted, if not altogether wrong. Rather, the roots of empathy, compassion and morality run deep in our evolutionary history. Developmental psychologists have also noted that humans are “wired for connectivity”, and in fact have a powerful need for affiliation from infancy on. Further, work in social neuroscience has shown that perceived social isolation is a risk factor for poor cognitive performance and executive functioning, increased depressive thoughts, and in increased sensitivity to social threats. Taken together, this research suggests that practices that enhance our sense of connectivity with others, such as compassion training, might show positive effects on our physical and mental health, and emerging data is lending support to this view.
Visitto view a talk by Dr. Charles Raison on the need for cultivating compassion.
Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT)
There are doubtless many methods one could employ to enhance compassion beyond the biological level to an impartial altruism, and in fact many religious traditions contain methods for such cultivation. In our studies, we use a protocol for the cultivation of compassion developed by Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, drawn from the lojong tradition of Tibetan Buddhism but rendered into secular form for use by individuals of any, or no, religious inclination. The term lojong means "mind training" or "thought transformation" and refers to a systematic practice of gradually training the mind in compassion until altruism becomes spontaneous.
Lojong is based on the view that self-centered thinking and behavior cause suffering for oneself and others, while other-centered, altruistic thoughts, emotions, and behaviors ultimately benefit both oneself and others. Compassion is the heartfelt wish that others be free from suffering and the readiness to act on their behalf. It arises from a deep sense of endearment for others, coupled with empathy for and sensitivity to their pain. This empathy arises both from a sense of closeness or connectedness to others as well as a recognition of the causes of their and one’s own suffering.
The CBCT program therefore aims to help practitioners progressively cultivate other-centered thoughts and behaviors while overcoming maladaptive, self-focused thoughts and behaviors by moving systematically through eight sequential steps. These are:
(1) developing attention and stability of mind through focused attention training; (2) cultivating insight into the nature of mental experience; (3) cultivating self-compassion; (4) developing equanimity; (5) developing appreciation and gratitude; (6) developing affection and empathy; (7) realizing aspirational compassion; and (8) realizing active compassion.
The adult CBCT program is an 8-week intervention that meets for two hours a week. Each session contains pedagogical material presented by the instructors, a guided meditation of around twenty to thirty minutes, and group discussion, with subjects being asked to meditate daily for the duration of the program using guided meditation recordings. Our team has expertise in adapting CBCT to meet the needs of diverse populations, including elementary schoolchildren, adolescents in foster care and survivors of trauma. Visit our Research page for more information about our ongoing projects.
Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, Ph.D., is the founder and spiritual director of Drepung Loseling Monastery, Inc., in Atlanta, GA, and a Senior Lecturer in Emory University’s Department of Religion. He also serves as Director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership, a multi-dimensional initiative founded in 1998 to bring together the foremost contributions of the Western scholastic tradition and the Tibetan Buddhist sciences of mind and healing. In this capacity, he serves as Co-Director of both the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative and the Emory Collaborative for Contemplative Studies. He also developed Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), a compassion meditation program that is currently utilized in a number of research studies, including an NIH-funded study examining the efficacy of compassion meditation on the experience of depression.
Dr. Negi, a former monk, was born in Kinnaur, a small Himalayan kingdom adjoining Tibet. He began his monastic training at The Institute of Buddhist Dialectics and continued his education at Drepung Loseling Monastery in south India, where he received his Geshe Lharampa degree, the highest academic degree granted in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, in 1994. Dr. Negi completed his Ph.D. at Emory University in 1999; his interdisciplinary dissertation centered on traditional Buddhist and contemporary Western approaches to emotions and their impact on wellness.
Timothy Harrison is the Assistant Director of Teacher Training for Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT).
Timothy Harrison joined the ETP staff as Assistant Director for Cognitively-Based Compassion Training in 2013. In this capacity, he coordinates the expanding CBCT Teacher Certification program as well as the provision of CBCT for research studies – most recently including studies involving breast cancer survivors (University of Arizona, Tuscon), PTSD sufferers (Atlanta VA Center), HIV patients (Grady Clinic), and NICU nurses (Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta).
Tim teaches CBCT courses to students at the Emory School of Medicine as well as to undergraduates through Emory’s Counseling and Psychological Services. He also works with several of our community outreach programs, offering CBCT to incarcerated individuals, adolescent foster children, and young victims of domestic violence.
Having studied architectural history and engineering at Duke University, and then architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Tim thrived as an Atlanta architect for 20 years both in practice and as visiting professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Alongside his professional journey, he studied and practiced several forms of meditation (including lo jong and Zen) and saw these practices as deeply beneficial on a personal level. He was unaware there could be a way to share these benefits more broadly, until coming across CBCT in 2010.