Compassion meditation practice is designed to support health, happiness and wellbeing. A new compassion meditation group has been created at the University of Kent. Supported by funding from the Postgraduate Community Experience Awards, the group meets on the Canterbury campus every Thursday.
A new meditation group has been formed at the University of Kent to teach students compassion-based methods. Funded by the Postgraduate Community Experience Awards, the group will learn traditional approaches that focus on health, happiness and wellbeing. Stephen Gene Morris, an experienced meditation teacher, researcher and neuropsychologist, will be leading the weekly sessions.
The group’s founder, Stephen, has practised meditation for 25 years and studied its structures and operational components. He will teach a secular compassion practice, rooted in traditional methods, supported by reliable scientific evidence. Care for oneself and the wider community is a foundational concept in many spiritual traditions, and compassionate meditation has been used in Mahayana Buddhism for almost a thousand years. But in recent decades, scientists have been investigating the relationship between compassion and health; several interventions such as Compassion Focused Therapy have demonstrated the importance of kindness towards others in our thoughts and feelings. The group will be using self-other compassion training to think positively about oneself and the wider community, bringing benefits to the meditator and a sense of interconnectivity with the people around us.
‘The goals of this self-other compassion meditation are health, happiness and wellbeing. I use a well known Buddhist form of compassion training, Tonglen, as the basis for this method. But while the original psychological elements have been retained, the imagery and context are adapted for a modern secular audience. In my experience, this is a form of meditation that can bring long-lasting benefits to practitioners, and it’s suitable for beginners and more experienced meditators
Stephen Gene Morris
Compassion meditation classes take place every Thursday at 5 pm in room CNWsr5 on the University of Kent Campus in Canterbury. The meditation is followed by a brief social when people can ask questions and share experiences. Soft drinks and snacks are provided. A second session is held two hours later online using the Zoom platform (7 pm) for those who wish to participate remotely. For more details or to register for the online session, email Stephen at email@example.com. To keep in touch with the group’s activities, follow the @KentCompassion Twitter account.
To access the immense benefits of compassion meditation, you will need to understand the concept as a prerequisite of creating a compassionate mind.
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
Tonglen meditation is a compassion mind-training practice., but the method and purpose are frequently misunderstood in the West.
Tonglen is a meditation practice where you exchange suffering for happiness, both literally and as a metaphor. It highlights the unlimited nature of human compassion. That we can at any moment, make our experience of the world more joyful by altering our cognitive understanding of self and others. By transforming ourselves into the solution of suffering for others, we also become the catalyst for positive self-development. In any meaningful way, tonglen cannot simply be used to benefit one’s health without reference to others. This truth is self-evident to people seeking holistic solutions to health problems. The idea that only I matter doesn’t seem to be positively correlated with good physical and mental health.
Through tonglen meditation, we transform ourselves, but not necessarily in any mystical way, we reorganize our understanding of the interdependence between people. In doing so, we gain the confidence to challenge the self-centred dualistic thoughts that are the source of many of our day-to-day problems. Tonglen is a compassionate practice; traditionally, you breathe in others’ suffering and breathe out the solution to solve their problems. It is this selfless act that also brings benefits to the practitioner. Depending on the knowledge of teacher and student, the nondual foundations of the practice might also be taught as part of the preliminaries, but this is becoming quite rare.
As a simple example of how to apply this meditation consider when you have a difficult day at work, you can practice tonglen, taking on the problems of workers who have also had a challenging day. You mentally exchange their problems with compassionate wishes and solutions. If you can generate a strong sense of relative compassion, then your ability to overcome your own problems can be greatly increased. Tonglen meditation also develops your own real world compassion. This same approach can be used to address almost any aspect of suffering. But be advised; you can’t trick your own mind; the curative potential rests in the compassion for others.
Where does tonglen come from?
Tonglen (giving and taking) has a documented history of at least 1,000 years in Buddhism. The theoretical framework of this practice can be found in the slogans used to illustrate the Seven Points of Training the Mind (lojong). Tonglen has been popularized in the West by a range of meditation teachers, and modifications to the original practice appear from time to time. New meditators often undertake compassionate meditation as an essential preliminary to tonglen. It is also possible to encounter Westernised forms of Tonglen more accessible to non-Buddhists. However, it is essential that modified versions of the meditation are consistent with the original elements of the training. I tend to base my tonglen teaching on the Jamgon Kongtrul commentary translated by Ken McLeod. This is generally regarded as one of the most reliable expositions. As I’ve already suggested, because of ontological conflicts, there are no secularised equivalents of tonglen.
What do you have to do?
No text can fully explain what tonglen is and how to practice it. I highly recommend you receive training from a qualified and experienced meditation master if you wish to practice. In its essence, tonglen meditation is the breathing in of suffering and problems followed by the exhalation of happiness, virtue and solutions. The breath is the device, the method by which the meditator exchanges suffering for happiness as a psychological and physiological training. A key point to remember is that you begin the practice with your own conditions; you (the meditator) are always included in the transformation of suffering into happiness and joy. The object of the meditation can be as narrow or as wide as you wish, for example you can exschange with someone in particular, such as a sick relative or perhaps everyone in a hospital or even all living beings.
You should not think of yourself as a filter that absorbs suffering but rather as a catalyst to solve problems and transform negativity. This is a crucial point and one an experienced teacher can help you with. The tonglen meditation should not be seen as a passive, passionless exercise, but the meditator should attempt to generate a sense that they are transforming suffering. You visualize all suffering, limitations and obstacles as thick black smoke; you imagine it entering your nostrils on the in-breath. On the out-breath the black smoke is transformed into white smoke or’ rays of moonlight’ bringing happiness, surplus and solutions to the object of your meditation. Consider that in one breath you have taken in many difficulties and instantly transformed them into joyful solutions. You can’t trick your own mind; if you don’t generate compassion, the practice will be limited and may even make things worse for you. If you naturally struggle to feel compassion for others, tonglen should be seen as progressive training, starting with some simple objects of compassion and extending your reach as you become more experienced.
Tonglen is a spiritual practice that should be taught by someone of relevant experience and practiced within the appropriate context. This is a meditation method to persevere with, if you put your heart into tonglen and practice diligently, it can offer significant benefits to both experienced and novice meditators alike.
How does tonglen work?
From the neuropsychological perspective, we don’t have a complete understanding of the brain networks and cognitive processes linked to compassionate behaviour. For example, the scientific understanding of absolute compassion is in its infancy. However, there is preliminary evidence that compassion for others might be associated with increased health and wellbeing through mirror neurones and network correlations. The Buddhist theoretical framework of tonglen considers that selfishness and lack of compassion are causes of mental and physical suffering. By training ourselves in compassion, we rebalance the brain networks to restore our ‘natural state’. It is the return to this condition that improves our health and wellbeing.
As always, email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.
Despite eighty years of meditation research, science is still trying to understand what nondual meditation is.
It’s a wrong view to consider nondual compassion merely a method; it is really an entire approach to lived experience. Thus from the outset, we need to define what we mean by nondual. You will find many different ways of thinking about the ‘nondual’ in Western academic literature, but traditional forms of meditation use the term to describe one of three primary states of human consciousness. As the name implies, ‘nondual’ consciousness exists in relation to the ‘dual’, and as every new generation of nondual practitioners ‘discovers’ this means nonduality is part of a binary system. This binary system of dual and nondual describes human consciousness. Most humans spend their entire waking (and sleeping) experience fluctuating between the dual and nondual without ever realising. All Buddhist (spiritual?) meditation challenges the belief that the most common configuration of consciousness, the dual, is the only or most important way to experience life.
Several Buddhist schools have developed meditation (mind-training) methods that explicitly reduce our dependency on dualistic consciousness. Many of these nondual approaches are linked to permanent and enduring states of happiness which also have profound health benefits. What’s more, there is clear but preliminary evidence from neuroscience that the dominance of the brain network responsible for dualistic experience is linked to poor health. Unfortunately, because neuropsychology and neuroscience see the world from a dualistic perspective, only a handful of scientific studies demonstrate the importance of nondual meditation.
Many people find this subject challenging, but altering consciousness is actually the point of meditating. The way we see the world, reduce stress, increase happiness, create less damaging psychological habits are all linked to the dual-nondual relationship. There is almost nothing you can do to explain what nondual consciousness is to someone rooted in dualistic thinking (most of us). Several crucial Buddhist texts describe this problem through abstract teachings and metaphors. But as helpful as these guides are, they can take a considerable time (years) to master. However, one naturally occurring human mental state that we use every day can help us resolve the dual-nondual dichotomy; it is compassion.
Most Buddhist practices cultivate compassion, not just because it leads directly to a reduction in suffering but also for its potential as a nondual teaching aid. From both Buddhist and scientific perspectives, we know that compassion has the potential to be active in the dual and nondual brain networks. Over time this can increase the nondual experience of life. This state offers a wide range of mental and physical health benefits but can also lead to rapid spiritual development. Unfortunately practising the method alone will not necessarily develop nondual compassion, you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Similarly, meditation is mainly in the mind, so the method alone won’t guarantee positive results without the correct approach and motivation. This is one of the main reasons why a reliable teacher is essential. When we begin these practices, we can easily mistake the experience of dualistic compassion as our goal, and by concentrating on this form, we create new barriers to nondual consciousness. The danger of getting stuck in dualistic meditation is why many experienced practitioners recommend finding a reliable teacher before committing to a specific meditation practice.
How to practice compassion meditation, an explanation of how it works and a description of its benefits.
Some of the greatest health benefits come from compassion.
If you are looking for an introduction to compassion meditation but don’t know where to start, you might benefit from this brief guide. I recorded the video during the first lockdown in 2020. I created it for people who are newcomers to compassionate meditation or who want a primer to nondual methods. Although this practice is based on Buddhist mind-training, I have adapted it as a modern secular practice. In common with all the meditation methods I teach, it is consistent with reliable teachings and supported by the latest evidence from neuropsychology.
This is an introductory training video as well as a guided meditation. Here I offer explanations of what the practice is, how to start and what to expect. If this is your first time, listen to the whole explanation, when you are confident with the method, you can simply follow the meditation and cut out the preamble. Please note; for brevity, I have edited out long sections of my meditation. If you want to use this resource as a guided meditation, you can go straight to the meditation and pause the clip when the practice begins; restarting when you come to a natural break in your own meditation. To get the full health and wellbeing benefits of the method, you will need to develop a clear insight into how the mind training works.
From my personal experience and the accounts of my students, this can be a life-changing practice. But its full effects take time to emerge, three times a week, over three months is a productive medium-term meditation goal. However, you should get immediate short term wellbeing benefits from just one focussed twenty-minute session. Expect to feel uplifted, happier and calmer from the first practice.
As a nondual meditation, this is a preliminary practice; once the results are obtained you may wish to seek, more complex methods to develop further. Always use reliable methods and the guidance of an accomplished teacher.
Early benefits that my students or I have experienced as a result of this practice are:
Significantly reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure and a general feeling of increased well being.
Lower levels of stress and anxiety
Boosted energy levels, movement away from passive activities and lifestyle.
Perception of positive relationships and interconnectivity with others
Increased self-efficacy, less uncertainty in professional and personal matters
Improved concentration and focus
A stronger sense of happiness and a more fulfilling experience of life
The key to compassionate meditation is to remember mind training is all about your mind. How you sit and breathe, where you meditation and who with are all secondary. The practice is about creating new and improve compassionate function and structure in your brain; you can’t fake it. A good teacher and/or method are essential. As always email us if you have any concerns. You are welcome to post your thoughts and experiences below.
There is growing interest in compassion based meditation and mind training, but what is it and does it work?
From the perspective of cognitive psychology, the term compassion is poorly defined and chronically under-researched. So at the outset, a priority is to explain what is meant by ‘compassion’. For many years I have been using a popular definition linked to Buddhist meditation from the Tibetan traditions:
Compassion: may all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering
This explanation fits my understanding, my meditation goals and is consistent with what I have learned for the cognitive and neuropsychological evidence. A second clarification; I only practice the nondual forms of compassion meditation. There are other (dualistic) approaches that may be more appropriate or desirable for beginners. In this narrow context, and thinking in relative terms, nondual compassion is the wish that all (self and other) don’t suffer. The majority of medicalised meditation methods are dual, primarily focussed on self or other. I have extensive experience of compassion for other practice, with a reliable method and teacher they can be very beneficial. Meditation based on compassion only for self (self-compassion) is an approach I don’t have direct experience with, and it’s not something I would personally recommend.
In common with many meditation systems studied by psychology (including mindfulness), the scientific evidence for compassion meditation is mixed. However, this weakness reflects theoretical and methodological limitations in the way we understand meditation rather than the utility of compassion-based mind training. A recent strategic review of the evidence found that compassion meditation increased feelings of compassion, self-compassion, mindfulness and well-being. It also reduced the sense of depression, anxiety and psychological distress.1
From a personal perspective, I have experienced (and expect to see in my students) several changes related to regular (nondual) compassionate practice.
Lower levels of stress and anxiety often reflected in physiological changes such as lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure and a general feeling of increased well being
Increased energy levels and a greater sense of one’s potential
Awareness of positive relationships and interconnectivity with others
Improved sleep patterns (not necessarily longer but definitely better)
A greater sense of self-efficacy in professional and personal matters
Better levels of concentration and focus
Increased tolerance towards and concern for others
A greater sense of proportion, unimportant matters tend not to increase stress and anxiety
A stronger sense of happiness and a more fulfilling experience of life
The key to compassionate meditation is to remember mind training is all about your mind. How you sit and breathe, where you meditation and who with are all secondary. The practice aims to create new and improve compassionate function and structures in your brain; you can’t fake it. A good teacher and/or method are essential.
As always email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.
Kirby, J. N., Tellegen, C. L., & Steindl, S. R. (2017). A meta-analysis of compassion-based interventions: Current state of knowledge and future directions. Behavior Therapy, 48(6), 778-792.
Meditation expert recommends compassion meditation as a way to tackle Coronavirus linked fear and anxiety. Use compassion to support wellbeing during social-isolation.
Follow this link if you’re looking for the online compassion meditation or other relevant resources. However, read on for more information about why compassion is essential at this difficult time.
Humans have all the necessary tools to overcome challenges, that’s self-evident from looking at our history. Not that we should underestimate the threat from Coronavirus, we must take appropriate precautions. But excessive stress and anxiety will not help us deal with difficult situations. In fact, fear is likely to undermine our ability to make good choices and may weaken our mental and physical health.
A growing body of scientific evidence supports claims that pro-social behaviours such as kindness and compassion are linked to reduced suffering. Compassion is an enduring quality present in almost all societies. Traditional meditation practices, particularly in Buddhism, are built on the foundations of kindness and compassion. This suggests that one of the worst things we can do in a time of threat is to turn inwards, to ignore the needs of others, the bigger picture.
As support for people self-isolating or anxious about the current situation, I’ve recorded a simple compassion meditation. It’s one I teach regularly and is based on a well known, traditional practice. It has been secularised so is suitable for almost everyone. It contains two of the cognitive elements central to successful meditation methods, compassion and a non-dual view. Put simply, it increases compassionate feelings for self and others.
We will be posting more free resources during these difficult times, contribute your comments below or send any questions to us here. Feel free to share our resources with anyone who is likely to benefit from them. People who feel alone, vulnerable or are self-isolating may find this kind of meditation particularly beneficial.
Its seems increasingly likely that compassion meditation influences brain functions and structures able to increase happiness.
We live in materialistic times, many people find it hard to understand the enduring nature of compassion and kindness. Last January I saw a woman buy a young homeless guy a cup of coffee. I didn’t know either of these people although this happened close to my home. A passer-by, about the same age as the homeless man, cat-called ‘loser’ from the other side of the street. The homeless man responded with a few expletives, but the passer-by was quick to point out ‘not you, her’. It was the act of compassion that had provoked the insult!
It raised the question in my mind, why are humans compassionate, why do so many of us care about strangers, even if there is no profit to us? I don’t mean my own feelings, I worked out the benefits of compassion to me years ago. Although we all can have a bad day, at some point almost everyone feels compassion for another. People in diverse cultures from all periods of history have been shown to value altruism, it’s a universal human characteristic. The answer has to be that our brains are hard-wired towards helping others. If compassion is an enduring quality, present in different societies we can assume we’ve evolved like this.
As humans, we can train our minds to increase or decrease our underlying mental states. Altruism and selfishness are not constants, if you watch any film or browse a website you can observe these emotions rise and fall in response to what you see. The whole social media culture of ‘liking’ and ‘not-liking’ feeds into these mental traits. The point of compassion meditation is to train those networks linked to the way we see ourselves and others. These practices have been associated with increased happiness for thousands of years. And the scientific evidence is now starting to show us why.
New psychological and neuroscience studies have found that altruism (selfless acts) are strongly correlated to reduced experience of suffering, even in cancer patients. Leading economist Richard Layard also claims, based on decades of research, that it is altruism that underpins our happiness. Although he also points out that not all forms of mindfulness or meditation may actually generate altruism. The bottom line is that considering the needs of others alongside your own, seems to make people happier. One note of caution, you can’t trick your brain. Our happiness originates in brain networks, you need to actually generate compassionate thoughts and feelings.
“If I could only do one thing to support my mental and physical health it would be compassion training. That training underpins and enriches every part of my life. It supports my relationships, my diet, my freetime my work. In the past selfishness reduced me to an army of one, competing against everyone else on earth. Compassion extended my circle of friends to include every living creature.”
Sustained fear and anxiety is the enemy. Use meditation to cope with Coronavirus
From time to time, we are faced with challenges and threats. These can become significant problems to deal with if we get them out of proportion. However, when the danger is global, like climate change or the Covid-19, virus it’s hard to maintain an even keel. Everywhere you look, you will find references to the danger from Coronavirus, even here in Britain where there are (at the time of writing) a relatively small number of cases. The first point to make is that when we are frightened, we make bad decisions, our perspectives become distorted. I don’t suggest that blind optimism is the answer to fear, just pretending that bad things don’t happen. But thousands of years of human experience have shown that brain training systems such as meditation offer great practical help in times of crisis.
My experience as a meditation teacher and scientist converge when it comes to fear. The evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience is that sustained periods of fear or stress harm the brain and the body. When we worry or experience stress, our body produces chemicals such as cortisol that help us deal with a short term crisis. When fear or anxiety is prolonged, the effect of these chemicals becomes harmful. There is a considerable body of evidence that supports this basic idea. So when we enter a period of ‘global panic’, how can we establish an appropriate response?
I (and many of the people I taught) came to meditation because of problems with fear and stress. Over the years, I have experienced and seen how compassion-based meditation balances our perception of self and other (intrinsic and extrinsic neural networks)—allowing us to respond to real-life problems in a balanced and sustainable way. Threats to our health are always going to be present; they become more significant as we get older. But building compassion for ourselves and others is one of the most reliable methods for keeping things in perspective. Compassion meditation isn’t merely wishing away stress, it’s a tool to reconfigure our way of understanding the world. So that fear is kept proportionate to risk.
“The most useful health practice I have experienced over my lifetime is the compassionate view. That when I encounter any situation likely to provoke fear, I make the silent wish that no being may suffer; me, you, everybody. It has protected me from anxiety and stress for decades.”
Brain Renewal Meditation – Compassion based mindfulness designed to improve wellbeing and maintain cognitive function for all ages.
Meditate in Canterbury
Classes are currently being run through Teams and Zoom, email us for more details.
Is it suitable for non meditators?
Many people attending are likely to be new to meditation or have limited experience.
Will I be able to do it?
Almost everyone can do it, it is a form of mind training so it may require some concentration but it is appropriate for adults of all ages.
Is the teacher qualified or experienced?
Our teachers tend to be among the most qualified and experienced of any meditation teachers. The Canterbury class is run by a trained cognitive psychologist/neuroscientist with extensive experience of traditional and contemporary meditation systems.
Are discounts available for advanced bookings?
Yes as we teach relatively small groups we cut down on a lot of admin time if people book several weeks at a time. We pass these savings on to our meditators. Significant discounts are available for bookings of 3 weeks, 5 weeks or 10 weeks. Contact us for more details: firstname.lastname@example.org
I can’t get to a class but I want to practice
We also run online meditation classes and 1 to 1 sessions, get in touch for more details.
Are there minimum age requirements to enter the event?
This is an adult meditation class so it is open to everyone over the age of 18.
What are my transport/parking options for getting to and from the event?
There is very limited parking at the venue, a range of public car parks are within walking distance. Canterbury can be accessed through a range of public transport options.
What can I bring into the event?
Just yourself, no special clothing or equipment is necessary
What’s the refund policy?
Cancel within 24 hours for a full refund
Do I have to bring my printed ticket to the event?
That’s up to you
Is my registration fee or ticket transferrable?
Yes anyone over the age of 18 can use the ticket
Is it ok if the name on my ticket or registration doesn’t match the person who attends?
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The basic cost of a lesson is £10, buying your ticket through Eventbright or using the PayPal service attracts a small surcharge.
You can always pay at the venue before the class begins.
We offer discounts for advanced bookings of 3, 5 and 10 classes.
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Online training and 1 to 1 instruction is available, confirm the availability of the teacher before booking.