Does Mindfulness Increase Compassion?

GGSC Compassion Conference

Shauna Shapiro speaks.

Last Friday I attended a one-day conference called Practicing Mindfulness & Compassion, put on by Cal’s Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley. The purpose of the day was to look into ways that mindfulness practice and compassion are (or are not) interrelated and help each other. Does practicing mindfulness meditation actually increase your level of compassion for others, or are the two things unrelated? And is mindfulness the most effective way to increase compassion, or are there better techniques?

The answers two these two questions are not obvious, for several reasons. One is what we actually mean when we use the word mindfulness. Does this mean only the practice of bare attention (sati), or does it include all the practices of Theravada Buddhism, including things like the Brahma Vihara (Divine Abode) practices, which specifically develop compassion? Different people may mean one or the other of these things (and many more) when they say “mindfulness” in English, and the differences matter. And we’re only just beginning to be able to measure the level of compassion a person is manifesting, while laying down in a huge fMRI machine, and this makes determining the effectiveness of various techniques a fuzzy prospect at best.

What we did learn, in no uncertain terms, is that compassion, including self-compassion, is a crucial resource for encountering the future. As the Dalai Lama says, “The cultivation of compassion no longer a luxury, but a necessity if we are to survive.” Speakers included Jon Kabat-Zinn, Paul Gilbert, Kristin Neff, and my friend Shauna Shapiro. Thanks to Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Science Center for inviting me to join. As Paul Gilbert put it, “The more we work together, the more we can make this life bearable.”

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