How Mindfulness forms the Foundation for Cultivating Compassion
What is one thing that teachers from pre-kindergarten through college-level have in common across the globe? They all want their students
to “pay attention!” The challenge is that many students are coming to class without ever having been equipped with the skills to pay attention – that is the ability to become aware of where attention is resting and direct it towards where it should go. This challenge is further amplified by the fact that students are also not provided with opportunities to adopt the strategies that would help them regulate the daily fluctuation of emotions common to learning. Add to this, the increased complication of their experiencing a myriad of life emotions and the stress, anxiety, anger and frustration that often arise from these experiences. The result is a negative impact on students’ learning and development. Ah wait… there is more…if you add to this the further complication of many adolescent-aged through young adult (12-22 years of age) students’ inability to choose a wise action1, even when they know that what they are doing is wrong, it is a wonder how any learning and development takes place at all.
What does all this have to do with the importance of cultivating compassion and the role of mindfulness within it? Well, we invite you to “pay attention” while we explain.
Research strongly suggests that emotions play a role in regulating and prioritising decision making for all of us throughout our lives…they also… appear to play a role in regulating what gets stored and recalled from short-term memory.
Stress, Anxiety, and Emotion
Experiences of stress, anxiety and certain kinds of emotion can activate a portion of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is a member of the limbic system, often referred to as the emotional centre of the brain. Another member of this emotional system of the brain is the hippocampus – a part of the brain that is a primary player in the storage and recall of short-term memory2. When the amygdala is activated, the resulting impulsive and often unaware behaviour is fight, flight, freeze or fornicate. Furthermore, when the amygdala is activated, it recruits several parts of the brain, in essence putting them “off-line” in order to survive. Basically, the amygdala recruits the neural activity of the reasoning part of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) so that it can instinctively tell the body to survive, rendering analytical decision-making somewhat inaccessible.
While research is still emerging, there is compelling evidence to suggest that the intentional cultivation of awareness of where attention is placed, attention towards how emotions are experienced in the body and attention towards the thoughts and beliefs associated with those emotional experiences can rewire
a reactive brain into a brain that consciously chooses a kind and wise response to any situation.
For purposes of this article, consider this oversimplified definition that emotions are physiological sensations experienced in the body and processed in the brain3. Research strongly suggests that emotions play a role in regulating and prioritising decision making for all of us throughout our lives (unless we have been diagnosed with a particular brain phenomena)4. However, many of us have been told that bringing our emotions into our decision-making process is inappropriate in the school or work setting. Instead, we are supposed to be logical, analytical and methodological. In order to attempt to leave our emotions at the door, we have skillfully learned (without being taught explicitly) to suppress, deny, or avoid emotions, only to have them erupt later into perhaps unwelcomed anger outbursts or seemingly unrelated ways, such as overeating, avoiding doing something we know we are supposed to do, or even aggressive behavior. Avoiding, denying and/or suppressing emotions often has a negative correlation with our overall well-being and sometimes the well-being of others.
While emotions play a role in regulating the prioritisation of our decision-making, they also, as mentioned earlier, appear to play a role in regulating what gets stored and recalled from short-term memory. As such, emotions are worth paying attention to, however what if we don’t know how to choose where to place our attention? So, when the teacher says, “pay attention,” we might actually not know how to do that on demand. And what if every time the teacher commands us to pay attention, we feel stress? This all undermines the ability to pay attention in a productive way.
How to Rewire the Brain to Pay Attention
Neuroplasticity, a term that is being referred to more often in popular media, can be defined as what we pay attention to and what we focus upon changes certain structures and therefore the corresponding functions of our brain5. Put more simply, we become what we focus upon6.
If I don’t even know what I am focusing upon, I can’t intentionally cultivate my becoming anything other than what I am instinctually designed to do – to survive. As a result, I lose awareness of the myriad of choices I actually have in any one moment and as a result, I give into the flight and fight reactivity of an emotionally run life.
Cultivating an awareness of where our attention resides and being able to re-direct that attention on demand optimises not only learning and development but the ability to intentionally change one’s reactive neural process; it is a foundational practice to access the doorway to regulating emotion, understanding the relationship of experience with thoughts and beliefs,
as well as being able to access kind choices. Mindfulness is known as one process that can intentionally rewire a reactive neural circuitry into one that chooses kind and wise responses.
Defined as the process of paying attention to what is happening right now with an attitude of curiosity and kindness7, mindfulness cultivates “awareness” of what is going on right here and now. This optimises the down regulation of emotional reactivity and the up-regulation of analytical reasoning to access prioritised choice. But how do we cultivate the selection of a kind and humane choice?
Building on mindfulness, compassion cultivation (or simply the fostering of empathy and offering kindness towards all human beings) seeks to build :
- an awareness of another’s emotional and physical suffering (attention)
- a sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering (affective component or often referred to as empathy)
- a wish to see the relief of that suffering (intentional component)
- a responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering (action component)8
Compassion cultivation is also known to reduce implicit bias, stereotype threat and racial bias9. Through mindful compassion cultivation, it may be possible to prevent violent extremism through education. In the very least, we can anticipate the likelihood that our students will be able to ‘pay attention’, become aware of how their emotions are influencing decisions, discern who they are in relation to their thoughts and beliefs and become more aware of where they can intentionally choose to act with kindness towards others.
|1 Wetherill, Reagan, and Susan F. Tapert. “Adolescent brain development, substance use, and psychotherapeutic change.”Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 27, no. 2 (2013): 393-402.2 Berkman, Elliot T., Lauren E. Kahn, and Junaid
S. Merchant. “Training-Induced Changes in Inhibitory Control Network Activity. ”Journal of Neuroscience 34, no. 1 (2014): 149-157.3 Gross, James J., and Ross A. Thompson. “Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations.”Handbook of Emotion Regulation (2007): 3-24.
4 Damasio, Antonio, and Gil B. Carvalho. “The nature of feelings: Evolutionary and neurobiological origins.” Nature Reviews. Neuroscience 14, no. 2 (2013): 143-152.
5 Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living, Revised Edition: How to Cope with Stress, Pain and Illness using Mindfulness Meditation. New York, NY: Bantam, 2013.
6 Tan, Chade-Meng. Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness
7 Mindful Schools. http://www.mindfulschools.org/ (accessed May 21, 2017).
8 Jazaieri, Hooria, Geshe Thupten Jinpa, Kelly McGonigal, Erika L. Rosenberg, Joel Finkelstein, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, and Philippe R. Goldin. “Enhancing Compassion: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Compassion Cultivation Training Program.” Journal of Happiness Studies (2012).
9 Kang, Yoona, Jeremy R. Gray, and John F. Dovidio. “The Nondiscriminating Heart: Lovingkindness Meditation Training Decreases Implicit Intergroup Bias. ”Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143, no. 3 (2014): 1306-1313.
Dr. Marilee Bresciani Ludvik holds a Ph.D. in Administration, Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Nebraska and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Hastings College. She is currently a Professor of Postsecondary Educational Leadership at San Diego State University.
Marilee’s most recent research focuses on using neuroscience to inform the design and evaluation of workshops and curriculum to decrease students’, faculty, and administrators’ stress and anxiety and increase their attention, emotion, and cognitive regulation, as well as enhance critical thinking, compassion, resilience, and creativity.
Dr. Bresciani Ludvik also currently serves as the UNESCO MGIEP Senior Research Fellow, where she is designing and evaluating mindful compassion curriculum that seeks to reduce violent extremism through education while fostering cross-cultural compassionate dialogue.