A Compassion Workout To Train Your Empathy
With this much pain and suffering on the planet, it's easy to feel "empathic burnout" and the knee-jerk response to look away when we see pictures that are distressing--like refugees fleeing life-threatening aggressors or immigrant children being separated from their parents.
However if a picture is worth a million words, this painful photo encapsulates the importance of a new study," Visual Attention to Suffering After Compassion Training Is Associated With Decreased Amygdala Responses," lately published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. This analysis was conducted at the Center for Healthy Minds in Madison, Wisconsin.
The main research question for this research 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.
In a statement, Weng summed up the main takeaway of this paper,"People seem to be sensitive to other people's suffering, but that is hard emotionally. They learn to control their feelings so they approach people's suffering with caring and wanting to assist instead of turning away. It's kind of like weight training... We discovered that individuals can actually develop their compassion 'muscle' and react to others' suffering with care and a desire to help."
Weng echoed this opinion when describing the impetus behind her latest follow-up study on empathy 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."
"May You Be Free From Suffering. May You Experience Joy and Ease."
There are lots of approaches to practice compassion meditation. Any sort of systematic psychological exercise aimed towards relieving your suffering and the suffering of others may be considered loving-kindness meditation (LKM).
The empathy meditation method utilized by Weng et al. for their latest research comprised 5 groups 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 would be:" May you have happiness. May you be free from suffering. May you experience joy and ease." As you imagine the above groups of people (including yourself), they recommend quietly reciting this phrase numerous times in succession. The 30-minute training session finishes with a few minutes of "Resting in joy of the open heart:" while the meditation guide states," 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."