Mindfulness and Compassion – What’s the connection?

compassion mindfulness

Mindfulness has been brought from its traditional origins in Buddhism, into the main street of 21st century western societies as a way to help people respond more effectively to the challenges, pressures and stresses of modern living. The motive of Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, a key player in the translation of mindfulness from contemplative practice to mental hygiene, was to help people with chronic health conditions who had come to the end of the options able to be provided by the medical system. Dr Kabat-Zinn, then a director of the Medical School of the University of Massachusetts, was motivated to ease the suffering of patients – a compassionate instinct.

In its original form, mindfulness was always taught together with practices that cultivate beneficial qualities or emotions such as kindness, compassion, generosity, equanimity and joy. It is embedded in a deep appreciation of the interconnection of all living beings and the inevitability of change. A philosophy of care and interconnection underpins all good mindfulness teaching. Not surprisingly, there is research showing that mindfulness practice supports people to develop compassion and other pro-social qualities, and that it strengthens relationships. Compassion is an archetypal pro-social quality. Recognising the benefits in a workplace of supportive employee relationsips, compassion is being embraced as a key factor for a healthy workplace culture and employee well-being.

Initially, mindfulness was taught by practitioners who were educated in the broader contemplative tradition and incorporated compassion, generosity, kindness and equanimity into their approach. Inevitably, given the mental health benefits being shown in the research, mindfulness has, to some extent, been captured by psychologists and scientists, not always aware of the broader framework. Psychologists understandably want to share the benefits of mindfulness with their suffering clients. Coming to mindfulness through the research, many are unaware of the importance of the accompanying practices and that mindfulness itself is infused with these qualities. The research showing various psychological benefits from cultivating mindfulness is overwhelmingly based on programs with a deep understanding of the broader ethical and philosophical context such as the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program.

mindfulness compassionCompassion has always been a part of mindfulness. To take compassion out would be to remove much of the power of mindfulness. Similarly, compassion without mindfulness is very difficult to sustain. Mindfulness strengthens our capacity to be present without reactivity, to life’s difficulties. Compassion requires us to stay grounded in the face of suffering rather than try and escape. Compassion as understood in this context is not emotional contagion but clearly seeing the suffering of another (or oneself) and having the desire to alleviate it. This requires courage, clarity and acceptance of one’s limits. We may not all be the person on the right. Some of us may be best suited to other forms of caring.

Even though there is an important relationship between mindfulness and compassion, they have distinct elements and are cultivated using different practices. For example, compassion can move in three directions. We can offer compassion to others, receive compassion from others and offer it to ourselves. Mindfulness is predominantly (but not exclusively) an intrapersonal practice, albeit with important interpersonal effect. Both mindfulness and compassion can be cultivated using formal meditation practices and informal practices.

The popularity of mindfulness has been followed by a growing interest in the cultivation of compassion. Much research is now being carried out in this area. Some of the benefits of cultivating compassion that are being reported include greater resilience, decreased negative emotions, enhanced relationships and greater happiness.

Research centres at a number of leading universities (e.g. Stanford University) are dedicated to studying how best to cultivate compassion and what the effects of doing so are.

Next Sunday a One-Day Retreat on Cultivating Compassion (for self and others) will give interested people a taste of what this might mean for you.

May everyone benefit from your compassion.


Kathryn Choules (PhD)

Dr Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats along with compassion training in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.

For more about Kathryn and to sign up for Mind and Movement’s monthly newsletter.

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