Understanding compassion meditation; lifelong health and happiness

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

What is tonglen meditation?

Tonglen meditation is a compassion mind-training practice., but the method and purpose are frequently misunderstood in the West.

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Tonglen brings happiness and health anywhere and everywhere

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.

Is nondual meditation good for your health?

Despite the health potential of nondual meditation, this is the area of contemplative science that we know the least about.

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The inseparability of self and other; nondual

What is nondual meditation?

Although explanations of nondual meditation are often complex, the broad concept is accessible to all of us because we think in the dual and nondual all the time. The human brain has structures that emphasise both the relationship and separation of people and concepts.  So, for example, when you decide to recycle your bottles, you may be thinking about just yourself, or your family, the community or perhaps even the whole world. The focus only on yourself is an example of dualistic thought, but to consider the needs of others and the environment is nondual thinking.  Humans fluctuate between the dual and nondual all of the time; we all carry the potential for greater or lesser nondual thinking. Some forms of meditation can teach us to recognise nondual thoughts and use nonduality systematically. We call the ability to recognise the difference between our dual and nondual thoughts nondual awareness (NDA). Although many meditators claim to have NDA, it is relatively rare and can be simple to spot in a meditation teacher when you know what to look for. With training, NDA gives way to the nondual view (NDV), a more permanent condition where nondual cognitive processes become established as mental states.

Is nonduality good for health?

NDA and the NDV are under-researched in the West, but extensive work has been done in Buddhist spiritual traditions to study, document and explain nondual cognitive processes. However, science indicates abnormal levels of dualistic thinking are likely to be linked to many health problems. Put simply, if your only concern is for yourself and your short term needs, this can give rise to several physical and mental health problems. It will impact how you relate to people and society more generally. We associate NDA with a balanced outlook on life, where the wellbeing of self and others are equally important. Some anecdotal evidence supports the theory that nondual meditators live longer, happier lives.

How does it work?

From a scientific perspective, we know that there are brain networks that regulate our interaction with others. It seems highly likely that we humans have developed to care both for ourselves and those around us. Society would not function without significant levels of cooperation between individuals. The phenomenon of super-rich individuals uncaring for the needs of those around them is, in terms of human evolution, a relatively recent phenomenon. Attending to those brain networks that allow us to care for ourselves and others may represent the ‘natural state’ of being human, and one where we can be happiest and healthiest.

How to find out more

This explanation is only the briefest introduction and hasn’t dealt with key concepts such as integrating the dual and nondual and the correlations between brain networks. Modern psychological research barely recognises NDA and although all Buddhist meditation is either implicitly or explicitly nondual, we have few scientific studies on which to consider these states. Many spiritual texts (perhaps thousands), particularly in the Mahayana, Dzogchen and Mahamudra schools of Buddhism, offer explanations about NDA. But most traditional roads to NDA begin with compassion training.  

Trump, Biden and meditation: staring the nondual in the face

Politicis is in crisis, polarisation is leading to harmful unproductive divisions. Nonduality is the only solution

Trump and Biden cannot both be always right or wrong, so what’s happening?

By the time you read this, the US 2020 election will probably be over, but it is only after the crisis, the battle, where taking stock can begin. In most of the polls I saw, support for Biden and Trump was almost wholly polarised. In America as elsewhere, we face a political landscape where as much as 90% of the voting population holds opposite views on the same subjects. This reality, of course, defies all reason; polarised sectarian views can never represent the full potential of any situation. I guess most people realise this already. The reality of this level of partisan discipline is that at times, people are advocating policies which are against their own best interests. Such behaviour can only be fully understood from the perspective of human consciousness. External conditions, extraordinary people and times, cannot be entirely blamed for the way we create reality. It is at the intersection of the external world, and our consciousness that meditation technologies are of most use, both from curative and heuristic perspectives.

Let’s be clear; the object of this short article isn’t to promote any particular political position. I, of course, have my views about politics but that’s not an issue here. If we can agree that it is irrational to support a course of action that leads to harm for ourself and others, then the concepts of duality and nonduality may be useful to you. If you devolve your thinking, your rights, your self-determination to a politician (of any persuasion) you might want to look away now. The simplest way of understanding the extreme polarisation present in much of world politics is duality.

In terms of human consciousness, we constantly fluctuate between dual and nondual states. From our perspective, this presents as a completely normal and natural state. However, many philosophical and spiritual traditions have understood that the tendency towards dualism correlates with several problems, including mental conditions of unhappiness and suffering. There is a deal of neuropsychological evidence that supports this basic premise, particularly in terms of intrinsic-extrinsic network correlation. But there is a much simpler way of understanding the increasing duality present in public life; the metaphor of gods and demons. The idea that one politician is the complete problem or solution to complex issues is naive in the extreme.

Although I concede that some public figures appear to act out of self-interest and pursue agendas very different from mine, how can I imagine that they are always wrong and I (or my politician of choice) is always right? The polarisation that is influencing many people is ultimately self-generated. External conditions matter in the creation of duality, if you surround yourself with concepts of ‘enemy’ ‘evil’ ‘threat’ and ‘harm’, dualistic brain networks are likely to be more active. Alternatively, if you protect yourself from such extremes, maintain objectivity, your ability to make real choices is much greater. I’m not suggesting compromise or capitulation to the aggression of others. Instead, the best option is to keep the freedom to choose the most appropriate response in every situation.

Many of the most reliable traditional meditation methods target harmful dualistic mental processes. A desire to reduce tendencies to hate and division is not an attempt to create an impossible utopia; it is a concrete movement towards reducing suffering and harm—both for ourselves and others. I’ll repeat again; this is not a manifesto for inactivity and compromise, quite the opposite. Nondual training, in its fullest sense, leads to the abandonment of refuge in concepts such as political parties and institutions, concepts we know are flawed. What remains is reason and the ability to distinguish what is meaningful to us beyond simple partisan mantras.

Harm does exist; governments produce damaging polices. The lessons of nondual meditation are that until we address our own harmful and damaging tendencies, we may struggle to do more than simply react by entering the downward spiral of polarisation.

As always email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below. For a simple introduction to the nondual, try the nondual podcast.

Something all meditators need to consider, are you an island?

One of the most important concepts lost in the medicalisation of spiritual meditation is the balance between the needs of self and other. A key factor largely ignored by psychology.

What is meditation
What is meditation, and why are you doing it?

The use of meditation and mindfulness is now so widespread that generalised descriptions or advice are only relatively useful. At this moment in history, we have large numbers of people meditating in secular and religious contexts. And while there may be broad conceptual differences between scientific and spiritual forms, they also have several things in common. Most importantly, all meditation practised regularly is brain training; it is likely to lead to alteration in your brain function and structure. So all meditators should think about the method they practice and how they expect to change.

One of the most meaningful ways of evaluating the kind of meditation you undertake (and how it is likely to influence your brain and behaviour) is the thorny issue of duality. In general most spiritual forms of meditation are either nondual or at the very least not dualistic (If you are unfamiliar with the terms dual – nondual concerning meditation visit the short introduction at the Science of Meditation website). Breaking it down, the vital point to think about is, does your meditation practice draw you to thinking more about yourself, others or a combination of the two?

crowd reflection color toy
duality, self  or other

There is plenty of evidence that suggests using meditation to benefit yourself, and others offers significant health and wellbeing benefits. However, there is a growing trend to use meditation and mindfulness to focus on one’s own needs and concerns. The point of this short article isn’t to discuss the evidence for or against self-interest meditation. Instead, it is to highlight this simple division, common to almost all forms of meditation, dual or nondual.

The self – other duality discussed here is very common in meditation, but it is one of many ways that duality expresses itself in our lives. Its use will typically increase the focus on oneself (even in a nonjudgemental sense). Conversely, a nondual practice will engage the brain networks that maintain the awareness of our connection to and relationships with others. So next time you sit down to meditate you may wish to ask yourself (or your meditation teacher) what kind of meditation is this?

As always email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.