The mindfulness craze has already been tapped for a huge variety of benefits — improved sleep, increased productivity, cutting out mindless snacking and so on. And we now may be able to add another upside to the list: Researchers with the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University and the University of California, Davis, have found that mindfulness practice can be channelled to increase compassion, which can in turn, help us all deal with irritating (or downright) difficult people we encounter in our day-to-day.
In a new study published online last month by the journal Mindfulness, researchers analysed day-to-day trajectories of 51 adult participants in Stanford's nine-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). An educational program developed by a team of clinical psychologists and contemplative scholars including the Dalai Lama's principal English translator Thupten Jinpa, CCT trains individuals how to choose more compassionate thoughts and actions and build relational skills.
While taking the course, participants used an app to record twice-daily ratings of four emotional states — anxiety, calm, fatigue and alertness — along with their capability and desire to manage how they were feeling. They also provided week-to-week feedback about the strategies they employed — including techniques such as modifying their reaction to a situation to simply accepting a situation.
The results? Researchers found that actively practising compassion — the capability to recognise another's suffering and be motivated to relieve that suffering — not only decreases anxiety, but it also increases an overall state of calm.
And, more importantly, they found that it is indeed possible to teach people to be more compassionate.
Want to do some training of your brain at home with a few CCT concepts? Try tips like these suggested by the Wall Street Journal:
- Notice and pay attention: Notice how you're feeling in a situation and how your body is reacting. Figure out what you need. You might just need a few deep breaths to settle your mind and those sweaty hands.
- Put yourself in the other person's shoes: Take time to consider life from her perspective. Recognise that just like you, she has family and friends, goals and dreams... and baggage.
- Let it go: Acknowledge that you're anxious about a person or situation and let that thought move on to allow the flight-or-fight part of your brain to relax instead of obsess. (Meditating daily, in particular, can help train your brain to let go.)
- Practise makes perfect: Start where it's easier. Practise compassion with yourself and with a loved one. Then ease into those more difficult relationships.
And if you want to take it further, Stanford's CCT program, now in its eighth year, is open to the public, and you don't have to be in California to take the classes. More than 100 certified teachers offer sessions year-round across the US and in 10 other countries (there are two teachers in Australia). Through meditation and mindfulness practices, lectures and interactive communication exercises (and homework), participants learn to develop resilience, strength and courage in the face of suffering, both others' and their own.