Over the past 80 years, science has been investigating the health benefits of belief-based meditation methods. Mindfulness is perhaps the best-known family of practices that have been medicalised. Since Gary Deatherage used mindfulness as therapy in the mid-1970s, scientists and health practitioners have been looking to harness its curative benefits. However, when a spiritual meditation practice is translated into scientific terms, changes are inevitably made to the method. One of the most frequent omissions in the adaptation of meditation is the role of compassion. I’m not talking about compassion as a tool of faith or belief, but rather its function as meditation’s conceptual engine. The connection between Buddhism and compassion is well known throughout the world; Buddhist teaching and practice are synonymous with care for self and others.
The psychological understanding of compassion is preliminary; we still lack reliable psychometric instruments to measure and test human insights and experience of compassion. In his attempts to define compassion, the scientist and researcher Paul Gilbert found that “different languages and cultures do not always have exactly the same meaning for the words they use, and heated debates can arise because people are actually talking at cross purposes. Hence, striving for precision and clarity are important, but we also recognize different definitions for different functions.” The point is that we meditation scientists have not yet understood Western concepts of compassion, and we have almost no tools to evaluate what compassion means in ancient belief-based practices. Gilbert is one of the few Western clinicians who delves into traditional understandings of compassion and tries to make sense of them.
The precise use and meaning of meditation concepts are crucially important. Meditation is a systematic way of changing your brain function and structures (yes, quite literally). So before you undertake any regular meditation practice, you need to think about how you are reshaping your mind. In traditional meditation, mainly in the Mahayana Buddhist schools, thousands of scholarly texts and commentaries define and explain all concepts present in meditation practice. One such foundational idea is compassion; The Nalanda philosophical tradition holds that the Buddha is the embodiment of compassion for all beings; thus, it is central to all meditation. So, a clear definition is essential for practitioners.
Although you will find several ways of describing compassion in different Buddhist schools, many find resonance in the wish that “may all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering”. While this explanation is regarded as a reliable definition based on centuries of meditation research and practice, the point for meditators is not to obey it but rather to understand it. The goal of traditional compassion meditation is to generate the mental states linked to the practice. So without a clear understanding of the concept and your engagement with it, meditation progress is abstract because you have not developed a point of departure or arrival. The potential of compassion meditation is still emerging in the West, in part because of known incongruence between belief-based and scientific worldviews. However, in traditional meditation systems, compassion is a quality that has long been associated with happiness, health and sustainable relationships. Once science develops a clear understanding of compassion, we can begin the much more complex task of defining the dual, nondual and integrated forms, concepts still abstract to psychology