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.
Visit http://tedxatlanta.com/videos/09132011-balance/charles-raison/ to 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.
Brooke Dodson-Lavelle, M.A. is the Senior Research Officer for the Mind and Life Institute's new Compassion and Secular Ethics Initiative. She is also completing her PhD in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University. Her work focuses on the confluence of Buddhist contemplative theory and cognitive science, as well as the cultural contexts that shape the transmission, reception and "secularization" of Buddhist contemplative practices. She is currently completing her dissertation, entitled “Cultivating Compassion and Mindfulness: The Rhetoric of Secular Buddhist-based Practices in America”.
Brooke is a lead instructor for several studies examining the efficacy of Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), and has helped to develop and adapt CBCT for school children as well as adolescents in Atlanta’s foster care system. In 2010 she helped developed the CBCT Teacher Training Program, and now serves as the Associate Training Director.
Brooke also served as the Program Coordinator for the Emory-Tibet Partnership and from 2009 to 2011 co-led the Emory Tibetan Mind/Body Sciences Summer Study Abroad program in Dharamsala, India. Prior to attending Emory, she earned her B.A. in Religion and Psychology at Barnard College and her M.A. in Religion at Columbia University. While at Columbia, she also worked as a Research Coordinator for the Columbia Integrative Medicine Program, where she developed and taught mindfulness-based meditation programs for a variety of clinical populations.
Brendan Ozawa-de Silva, Ph.D., received his doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University in 2003, an M.Phil. also from Oxford University, and a Master of Theological Studies from Boston University. From 2003 to 2005 he taught at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology as a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology and as Visiting Professor of World Religions and Spirituality. Since 2005 he has served as Associate Director for Buddhist Studies and Practice at Drepung Loseling Monastery, Inc. He is one of the lead meditation instructors for the Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) research at Emory, and has worked to bring compassion training into elementary schools in the Atlanta area and to foster children in Georgia’s foster care program. Since 2009 he has co-led Emory’s summer study abroad program in Dharamsala, India, each year, and since 2007 he has also served as Religious Life Scholar and Advisor on Buddhism to the Dean of Religious Life at Emory.
In his current studies, he is working towards a second Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies, investigating what Buddhist contemplative practices and contemporary findings in cognitive science may have to offer each other in terms of our understanding of the mind, body, and health, particularly with regard to the cultivation of compassion. He is involved in several current meditation studies in Atlanta and in Japan, and has published recent articles on the mind/body relationship in Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan medicine, the secularization and scientific study of contemplative practices, scientific research on compassion meditation, suicide and mental health in Japan, and the introduction of contemplative practices into education.
Timothy Harrison is a Senior Teacher of Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT). He co-leads the CBCT Teacher Training Program, and leads CBCT courses for college students and teenagers in foster care. He has been studying and practicing various forms of meditation, including Rinzai Zen and Tibetan lojong, for over 20 years.
Tim is also a Visiting Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Architecture. He has a Masters from the Harvard Design School (’94) and B.S. from Duke’s School of Engineering (’89). His two lively children, ages 7 and 10, continue to give good reason for deepening his practice of compassion.
Desbordes, G., Negi, L.T., Pace, T.W., Wallace, B.A., Raison, C.L., and Schwartz, E.L., (2012) Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Mascaro, J.S., Rilling, J.K., Negi, L.T., and Raison, C.L., (2012) Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Ozawa-de Silva, B. & Dodson-Lavelle, B. (2011) An education of heart and mind: Practical and theoretical issues in teaching cognitive-based compassion training to children. Practical Matters,Spring 2011, Issue 4.
Ozawa-de Silva, B., Dodson-Lavelle, B., Raison, C.L., and Negi, L.T. (2012) “Compassion and Ethics: Scientific and Practical Approaches to the Cultivation of compassion as a Foundation for Ethical Subjectivity and Well-Being.” Journal of Healthcare, Science & the Humanities. Volume 2(1): 145-164.
Pace, T.W., Negi L.T., Adame, D.D., Cole, S.P., Sivilli, T.I., Brown, T.D., et al. (2008). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology 34 (1) 87-98.
Pace TW, Negi LT, Sivilli TI, Issa MJ, Cole SP, Adame DD et al. (2009). Innate immune neuroendocrine and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress do not predict subsequent compassion meditation practice time. Psychoneuroendocrinology 35(2) 310-5.
Pace, T.W.W., et al., Engagement with Cognitively-Based Compassion Training is associated with reduced salivary C-reactive protein from before to after training in foster care program adolescents. Psychoneuroendocrinology (2012).
Reddy, S., Negi, L.T., Dodson-Lavelle, B., Ozawa-de Silva, B., Pace, T.W., Cole, S.P., Raison, C.L., and Craighead, L. (2012) “Cognitive-Based Compassion Training: A promising prevention strategy for at-risk adolescents.” Journal of Child and Family Studies.