Compassion Is Like a Muscle That Gets Stronger With Training

Loving-kindness meditation and compassion training boost empathic resilience.

Posted May 23, 2018

Pixabay/Creative Commons
Source: Pixabay/Creative Commons

With so much pain and suffering in the world, it’s easy to feel “empathic burnout” and the knee-jerk reaction to look away when we see images that are distressing—such as refugees fleeing life-threatening aggressors or immigrant children being separated from their parents. To be honest, when I was choosing the imagery to accompany this blog post and stumbled on the photograph of a child crying out for help reflected in the eye of a bystander at the top of the page, my impulse was to look away. This image is unsettling and makes me want to avert my gaze. 

But, if a picture is worth a thousand words, this distressing photo encapsulates the significance of a new study, “Visual Attention to Suffering After Compassion Training Is Associated With Decreased Amygdala Responses,” recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. This study was conducted at the Center for Healthy Minds in Madison, Wisconsin. 

The primary research question for this study was, "What if, just like strengthening a muscle, we could train ourselves to be more compassionate and calm in the face of others' suffering?" The good news: After just two weeks of compassion meditation training—which is also commonly referred to as loving-kindness meditation (Fredrickson et al., 2008)—study participants felt less distress and more heartfelt compassion when looking at images of another person suffering.

Based on the use of advanced eye-tracking technology, the researchers also found that compassion training made study participants less inclined to divert their gaze to avoid witnessing images depicting human suffering. Additionally, those with the empathic fortitude to not look away after seeing images of someone suffering either emotional or physical pain had less amygdala activity in the fMRI brain scanner while viewing these pictures.

Richard J. Davidson, who founded the Center for Healthy Minds, served as senior author for this paper. Helen Y. Weng, who is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at UCSF and a core faculty member of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine was the lead author. 

Before diving into more details about the latest research by Weng et al. on compassion training, please take two minutes to watch this video of Davidson describing his life's work at the Center for Healthy Minds and Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.Exactly five years ago, on May 23, 2013, I first reported on Helen Weng's groundbreaking research in a Psychology Today blog post about a study, "Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering." 

In a statement, Weng summed up the main takeaway of this paper, "People seem to become more sensitive to other people’s suffering, but this is challenging emotionally. They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people’s suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away. It's kind of like weight training. . . We found that people can actually build up their compassion 'muscle' and respond to others' suffering with care and a desire to help."

 Tom Gowanlock/Shutterstock
Source: Tom Gowanlock/Shutterstock

Weng echoed this sentiment when describing the impetus behind her most recent follow-up study on compassion training and eye-tracking in the face of adverse images, "Your eyes are a window into what you care about. We wanted to know: 'Does looking more at suffering in the mind's eye translate into looking more at suffering out in the real world, and can this be done with less distress?' We communicate a lot with our eyes, and this research suggests that compassion training has an impact on the body and can actually shift where you direct your visual attention when you see others in pain. People can learn a calmer and more balanced response when they see someone suffering, even when they are attending more to suffering.”

If you're interested in "beefing up" your compassion muscles through loving-kindness meditation, please click on this link to access a website that features an audible (and readable) 30-minute "Compassion Meditation Script." The audio files and script provided via this link are the exact method used for research into the effectiveness of compassion meditation conducted by Principal Investigator Helen Weng with Drew FoxAlex Shackman, Diane Stodola, Jessica Kirkland Caldwell, Matt Olson, Greg Rogers, and Richard Davidson at the Center for Healthy Minds. 

In the predawn hours earlier today, I signed up to receive updates from the Center and to gain free access to their compassion training. On the homepage, the authors describe the program, "This training was scientifically validated to show that practicing compassion meditation for 30 minutes a day for two weeks increased altruistic behavior and changed the brain’s responses to human suffering."

As the sun was coming up, I did my first "compassion training" session at home. Anecdotally, I can reaffirm that this tool helped to cultivate a deeper sense of compassion in my heart and mind before heading out to face the day—which included squeezing in a "compassion-inspired" cardiorespiratory workout at the gym and writing this post.

"May You Be Free From Suffering. May You Experience Joy and Ease."

There are lots of ways to practice compassion meditation. Any type of systematic mental exercise geared towards relieving your own suffering and the suffering of others can be considered loving-kindness meditation (LKM). 

The compassion meditation method used by Weng et al. for their most recent study included 5 categories of people: (1) Loving-kindness & compassion for a loved one, (2) Compassion for self, (3) Compassion for a neutral person, (4) Compassion for an enemy, (5) Compassion for all beings

The specific mantra recommended by Weng and colleagues is: "May you have happiness. May you be free from suffering. May you experience joy and ease.“ As you visualize the aforementioned groups of people (including yourself), they recommend silently reciting this phrase numerous times in succession. The 30-minute training session ends with a few moments of "Resting in joy of the open heart:" while the meditation guide says, "Now bask in the joy of this open-hearted wish to ease the suffering of all people and how this attempt brings joy, happiness, and compassion in your heart at this very moment."

As someone who has been practicing various forms of mindfulness and meditation for decades, I like to mix things up and complement structured LKM sessions with other tools that flex my "compassion muscle." For example, this morning after completing the 30-minute audible "compassion training" while sitting at home, I was in the mood to listen to some loving-kindness inspired music at the gym. So, I made a quick playlist of songs on YouTube with lyrics that emphasize "joy, happiness, and freedom from suffering" to watch while I was working out. Piggybacking these videos on top of a 30-minute guided "compassion meditation" session seemed to turbo-charge my empathic mindset and felt like "high-intensity compassion training" while actually doing HIIT. 

What songs would you put on a playlist designed to flex your "compassion muscles" and evoke feelings of loving-kindness?

The compassion-based anthems below are some of my all-time favorite songs about "agape" love. As a warning: If you haven't seen the "Man in the Mirror" video before, brace yourself for some upsetting footage. Some of the visual imagery of human suffering in this poignant Michael Jackson video might make you want to turn away. Hopefully, after practicing the "compassion training" prescribed by Helen Weng for at least two weeks, your empathetic resilience to these type of images will become more robust. 

10 Compassion-Based Songs That Flex Our Loving-Kindness Muscles

1. "Man in the Mirror" —Michael Jackson

2. "Lean on Me" —Bill Withers

3. "You’ve Got a Friend" —James Taylor & Carole King

4. "Come Together" —Macy Gray

5. "The Weight" —The Band (Featuring The Staples Sisters and Company)

6. "Get Together" —The Youngbloods (Includes “Woodstock” footage)

7. "Everyone Is Good" —The Roches

8. "Love Is the Message" —Arthur Baker & the Backbeat Disciples (Featuring Al Green)

9. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" —U2

10. "Willow" —Joan Armatrading

References

Helen Y. Weng, Regina C. Lapate, Diane E. Stodola, Gregory M. Rogers, and Richard J. Davidson. "Visual attention to suffering after compassion training is associated with decreased amygdala responses." Frontiers in Psychology (First Published: May 22, 2018) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00771

Helen Y. Weng, Andrew S. Fox, Alexander J. Shackman, Diane E. Stodola, Jessica Z.K. Caldwell, Matthew C. Olson, Gregory M. Rogers, and Richard J. Davidson. "Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering." Psychological Science (First Published: May 21, 2013) DOI: 10.1177/0956797612469537

Barbara L. Fredrickson, Michael A. Cohn, Kimberly A. Coffey, Jolynn Pek, and Sandra M. Finkel. "Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2008) DOI: 10.1037/a0013262

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