Cultivating Compassion | Week One at Stanford's CCARE

Before leaving bed this morning, I set a timer for 15 minutes and began to listen to myself breathe. As the air came in through my nostrils, I noticed where the oxygen traveled throughout my body, I could feel my stomach expand and the muscles along my neck and back loosen. As the air left my nostrils, I could feel a tingly sensation spread over my scalp. When thoughts arrived, such as those that visit most every morning when my mind becomes conscious, I mostly ignored them and returned to the whereabouts of my breath, as if it was the most worthy recipient of my attention.

This little practice, I’ve been told, is meditation.

This week, I attended the first of eight courses in Compassion Cultivation Training offered by the Stanford School of Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism and Research and Education (CCARE), which was architected by Thupten Jinpa – the principal English translator to the Dalai Lama since 1985 – and a team of psychologists, contemplative scholars, and neuroscientists.

Although my cohort is being taught by a Burmese monk turned bereavement counselor, the curriculum has been developed in such a way that it serves a secular audience. And even though many of the exercises have roots in ancient meditative practices, there are no religious teachings and/or traditions paired with the lessons we receive.

My intention for taking this course is prompted by an endless wonder over the complexity and depth of our human condition, and a curiosity for how ancient meditative practices are now being measured and observed in the modern world.

With these writings, I am eager to share what I learn with you. So, let’s dive into what the first session had to offer.

Why is meditation a part of the curriculum?

Meditating for 15 minutes before leaving bed each morning is not a normal practice for me, but it’s something that I’m being tasked to engage in for the next eight weeks as a way to get the most of the course. My cohort was instructed that, before we can practice compassion, we must cultivate mindfulness. You’ll gain a better understanding of why mindfulness is integral to cultivating compassion once you read CCARE’s four-part definition for compassion shared below.

What is compassion?

  • Compassion requires a cognitive awareness that suffering is happening
  • Compassion has an affected response (emotion) to the suffering that is happening
  • Compassion has the intention to alleviate the suffering
  • Compassion moves toward altruism

Put even more succinctly, compassion involves:

  • Recognition
  • Response
  • Intention
  • Action

If we are not mindful of the suffering of others, or our own, then we aren’t in a place where we can offer compassion. Being aware is a prerequisite for being compassionate.

Why aren’t we all more compassionate?

I don’t know how you respond to suffering, but, in many cases, I find myself fidgety and anxious in its presence. Upon realizing that a problem cannot be easily fixed or ignored, it’s reflexive for me to want to flee and/or numb my emotions. But this is not compassion, neither to myself or to others.

Presence itself is an act of compassion (this also applies to self-compassion).

People have many assumptions about how taking a compassionate posture might negatively affect their lives. As examples, my cohort shared many reasons why they don’t practice compassion:

  • It’s draining…and we’re much too busy
  • Those who we want to be compassionate toward might view it as us pitying them
  • It’s unprofessional and soft
  • If we allow ourselves to engage in others suffering too much, it may hinder our discernment

On the flip side, here are a few reasons why we were all drawn to a course centered on cultivating compassion:

  • Being compassionate reduces stress
  • Being compassionate makes us happier, resilient, and sociable
  • Being compassionate makes us healthier

As most first classes of any course tend to be, this one was a bit introductory in nature. What I am most excited to learn about, however, is how modern science is being used to track the brain’s development when undergoing regular meditative practice. Whatever I learn, I’ll be sure to continue to share it along with you.

In the meantime, let me leave you with this quote I jotted down from our instructor who, in a bumbling and offhanded way, shared a profoundly applicable interpretation of compassion:

Compassion involves seeing the humanity in someone through their behaviors, not seeing someone as their behaviors.

I'd love to hear how all of this sits with you. Please don't hesitate to reach out.