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Closer to Compassion Part 1: Why Do We Need Compassion?

Our model of compassion, and how it has evolved to help us face our fears.

Happy Summer.

This next blog entry takes us a little further into ways that compassion can transform our relationship with anxiety.

When I first attended a training with Paul Gilbert in Derby, UK, one of the initial questions that he asked the group of psychologists was:

"Why do we need compassion?"

After the silence came and went, the answer that followed was suddenly obvious . . .

"We need compassion because life is hard."

This deceptively simple idea really hit home. Compassion is a human capacity that has evolved with our species to fulfill a specific function - the alleviation of our suffering, and the cultivation of the courage needed to face the challenges of life. As we will see, the way I'm putting it just now is a bit of an oversimplification. Nevertheless, we can find the roots of compassion in our evolved tendency to feel soothed in the presence of others. We can also see the ramifications of compassion in our ability to maintain a secure base, from which to face difficult situations and move toward valued aims.

For millennia, the deliberate development of compassion for all living beings, including oneself, has been one of the great healing traditions of Eastern wisdom traditions. The Dalai Lama, for example, points out that compassion can quite literally transform our minds, and recent neuro-imaging and behavioral research has supported this observation.

Our science has demonstrated that experiencing compassion from other people has a calming effect on us: when we are upset because of frightening or saddening circumstances we turn to our partners or friends for help, support and attention. They listen carefully, validate our feelings and make it clear that they will do what they can to help. We become secure in the knowledge that they care about what happens to us, that they are not condemning us and that they are kind.

We all have an intuitive wisdom that loving kindness, support and compassion helps us to bear our suffering, and that criticism, neglect, shaming and blaming usually make things much worse.

Much like Buddhist psychology, CFT and the self-compassion movement in psychology have realized that this compassion can be generated from within us, and can be directed towards ourselves. This self-compassion can result in an enhancement of our experience of well-being, and a dramatic change in our struggle with anxiety.

Self-compassion can allow us room to feel the pain and complexity of our emotions, which we may need to confront so that our anxiety loosens its grip.

This may be painful, and complicated, but when we develop a basic orientation to be helpful, supportive, kind and accepting towards ourselves we may be able to deal with, and more importantly, tolerate, our distress better, and have more control over the direction of our behavior and our lives.

The Compassion Focused Therapy approach to anxiety is based upon this basic idea.

Compassion is more than just kindness, and involves a range of attributes, qualities and capacities. The Dalai Lama defines it as a sensitivity to the suffering of others with a commitment to do something about it. He points to two key elements: attention (sensitivity) and motivation (commitment).

The approach to compassion we will develop here incorporates these insights. We should also note that over 2,600 years ago the teacher known as ‘The Buddha’ (which is Sanskrit for ‘The One Who Woke Up’) talked in terms of an eight-fold pathway for the cultivation of compassion involving attention, thinking, speech, livelihood and action.

Developing scientific-based approaches to the cultivation of compassion is fundamental to what we call Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT). CFT is linked to Buddhist approaches to mindfulness; for example, in the Mahayana tradition, compassion is seen as having a central transformational power and trains people in particular kinds of attention, thinking, feeling and behaviour to help them transform their experiences of things such as anxiety. CFT shares part of this approach, in that specific methods are used to bring about changes in attention, emotions, and compassionate action. However, unlike traditional Buddhism, CFT is also based on evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.

When CFT was being developed, Paul Gilbert and his first trainees noticed that shame and self-criticism were often triggered by experiences of anxiety and distress, and interfered with their patients’ ability to move towards their goals in therapy. As a result, one of the central aims of CFT is to help people address the shame and blame they may heap upon themselves in response to anxiety and distress.

CFT emphasizes that we have emerged from an evolutionary process, as a part of the flow of life on our planet. We did not choose to be here; we did not choose our families, the cultures we were born into, or the many elements of our history that have shaped who we are. In a very real sense, who we have become and what we are experiencing is not our design and, again, not our fault; however it’s important not to collapse into a heap of ‘giving up’ but to see this as the beginning of moving towards a fuller understanding of ourselves and taking responsibility for our lives.

We have the ability to think about and make decisions about how we want our minds to be developed – in the same way we make decisions about how we develop and train our bodies. If we do nothing and simply lie around and eat anything available, whenever we wish, we will become unhealthy. But knowing this gives us the option to learn about our diet and the importance of exercise. It is the same with our minds: knowing how tricky they are and sensitive to anxiety gives us the option to learn how to learn to cope with the anxiety and become calmer. We may choose to take responsibility for the course of our lives but also we must bear in mind that suffering is a universal part of the human condition, that anxiety is a natural and unavoidable part of the human experience. If we are worried, or agitated, panicked or desperate, we can take some comfort in remembering that this is not our fault. By doing so, we can see anxiety as a natural part of our design and then learn that we can respond to our anxiety by taking a mindful and accepting mental stance. We can respond by doing things that will help us cope, rather than by habitually responding in ways that can actually make things worse such as trying to suppress our experiences, misusing drugs and alcohol, or adopting a self-critical attitude.

As we begin to look at the steps involved in cultivating a compassionate mind, I would invite you to check out some of the resources at We have just posted a podcast that includes a number of free audio download exercises from The Compassionate Mind Foundation. Of course, it is best to work with a therapist or teacher, and to read more about mindfulness and compassion in one of the books in the CFT series available from New Harbinger in order to really get a taste of how this work might proceed. Our hope is that this podcast will help support the work of people using CFT in their personal journey, and might also serve as an introduction to experiential exercises for anyone who is interested in brining greater compassion to bear in their work with anxiety, and their road towards a richer life.

Sending warm wishes,

Dennis Tirch

author of The Compassionate Mind Guide To Overcoming Anxiety

available at:…

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