In recent years, mindfulness meditation has garnered loads of attention for its beneficial effects on the body and mind. Now, there's a new star on the block: compassion meditation, a less well-known but increasingly popular contemplative practice that aims to strengthen feelings of compassion and empathy toward different people (both those you care about and those who are difficult).
"It's deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy, which has taught us a lot about how people are connected and what is the purpose of our existence," explains Stefan G. Hofmann, a professor of psychology in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University. "Compassion is the fundamental idea at the root of Buddhist philosophy – if life is suffering and we can't avoid it, we need to embrace it and be compassionate toward the suffering of others. It brings us closer to others."
More than just a feel-good practice, compassion meditation leads to improved mood, more altruistic behavior, less anger, reduced stress and decreased maladaptive mind wandering, according to recent research. A 2013 study at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle found that practicing loving-kindness meditation (a form of compassion meditation) for 12 weeks reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as well as anger and depression among veterans with PTSD. A 2005 study from Duke University Medical Center found that practicing loving-kindness meditation for eight weeks reduced pain and psychological distress among patients with chronic low back pain. And a 2015 study from Brazil found that practicing yoga along with compassion meditation three times a week for eight weeks improved quality of life, vitality, attention and self-compassion among family caregivers of patients with Alzheimer's disease.
Moreover, compassion meditation may even rewire the brain. In a 2008 study, researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison found, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI scans, that the brain circuitry that's used to detect emotions and feelings, including empathy, is altered in people who have extensive experience practicing compassion meditation.
It's important to note that the practice of compassion meditation is fairly different from other forms. Mindfulness meditation encourages people to focus on their breathing to develop an awareness of the present moment, the here and now, and to allow their thoughts to pass without judging or engaging them, Hofmann notes. Transcendental meditation involves silently repeating a mantra that you are given.
By contrast, with compassion meditation, you're focusing your attention in specific ways, rather than letting your mind wander, Hofmann explains. It might involve silently repeating benevolent phrases or visualizing kind wishes that express the intention to move from judgment or dislike to caring, compassion and understanding of someone else.
Yet, mindfulness meditation is a prerequisite for compassion meditation, says Dr. Charles Raison, a psychiatrist and professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. "You need a stable mind to benefit from other practices." With compassion meditation, participants might think of someone who's struggling or suffering and focus on invoking kind thoughts or visual images of the person. "In a way, it's a fake-it-'til-you-make-it strategy: You imagine the person suffering and work on generating powerful empathy to activate compassion toward the person," Raison explains.
[Read: 6 Reasons Why Men Should Meditate.]
The underlying rationale is "that all sentient beings are in the same boat – we all want to be happy and we're all trying to get by and it's our ignorance that gets in the way" of happiness, connection and fulfillment, Raison explains. The big-picture goal with compassion meditation is to develop a deep sense of kinship and connection with other people.
To do that, you might sit quietly, breathe gently and silently repeat a phrase designed to evoke a feeling of goodwill, such as "May [name of person] be free from mental suffering and free from physical suffering" as you picture the person's face, Hofmann suggests. (Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher, offers other compassionate phrases worth repeating on his website.) It helps to start with people you like, then to move on to people you're frustrated by, Raison says.
With a variation called self-compassion meditation, the goal is to cultivate kindness, understanding and empathy toward yourself, to recognize that your negative emotionsand thoughts are harming you and to cut yourself a break by changing the conversation in your head. "Self-compassion is an idea that doesn't exist in the Tibetan world," Raison notes. "Western people seem to need something akin to 'I'm good enough and doggone it, people like me!'"
Even so, some experts, like Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas–Austin, believe that self-compassion meditation is an essential part of the equation. "If you just give compassion to others and not yourself, you'll burn out," says Neff, author of "Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself." "With compassion toward the self and others, there's an element of common humanity, a sense of connectedness that we're all in this together. It's different when you practice in the context of suffering: You're finding ways to accept and acknowledge that suffering is there then you're focusing on what you can do to soothe, comfort and alleviate it."
As with other forms, there's a reason compassion meditation is often referred to as a practice. "All of these meditation practices are like exercise – they require active participation and discipline and they're not easy," Raison says. Only, in this case, you're basically training your mental muscles to challenge your thoughts and cultivate a sense of empathy and connection toward others.
You can learn to do compassion meditation at local mindfulness or mind-body centers or by downloading guided meditations from the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds or from Neff's self-compassion meditations. With regular practice, you'll get better at it, experts say, but if you stop doing it, your skills are likely to atrophy, just as they would with a physical skill. It's worth the effort, experts say, because it may turn out to be powerful medicine for your state of mind and your relationships.
Stacey Colino CONTRIBUTOR