Aly Waibel is a student of compassion, seeking it for herself and others. That’s why she and nearly 70 other people recently partook in a three-day cognitively-based compassion training in Tucson.
“I am really excited about compassion because it is sort of fundamental to all ethical systems and to all religious systems, and it just seems as a very generic process that I think we all share,” Waibel said.
The group was under the direction of Geshe Lobsang, a former Tibetan Buddhist monk and the founder of CBCT.
“Compassion, I think, is really when you think of (people) as social animals as we are, (and) that (compassion) is a glue for society to kind of come together, and when the society is in the harmonious, and kind of positive state, that is why individuals and the members of the society flourish well-being, health, and happiness,” Lobsang said.
CBCT is a secular technique that draws from lojong, a mind training practice in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Launched in 2005 by the Emory-Tibet Partnership at Emory University, research on compassion training was designed to test whether it could be used to help college students fight depression and stress.
The data confirmed that the practice of such training could improve emotional and physical responses to stress.
“We started wondering what if we discovered somewhere, what if we develop some way to retrain how people look at their social surrounding,” said Charles Raison, a University of Arizona psychiatrist and a partner in the training. “So instead of seeing the world as a domain of threat and competition, they might see it as an area for caring and cooperation.”
Raison studies an application of compassion training to inflammatory changes.
Compassion and Health
“Over the last 20 years, there has been more and more evidence that the immune system is almost a second brain, and what the immune system does in your body is able to send signals up to your brain to change how you think, change how you feel, change how you act,” he said. “We began to realize that just as inflammation can make people feel depressed and isolated, and people with a lot of stress, people who felt isolated, upset, angry, they get these increased inflammation, which then (is going to cause )them (a) heart attack, strokes, cancer and dementia.”
Leslie Langbert, who was present at the training, works closely with Raison on the compassion research.
She said compassion is a natural human feeling, as well as something that one can improve over time.
“Cognitively-Based Compassion Training really begins on this predicate that compassion in inborn. It is a biological trade that we have for folks that are closest to us,” Langbert said. “It doesn’t come as naturally with people we don’t know, strangers or perhaps people who have challenged us or even harmed us in some way.”
The training in Tucson brought together people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives: students, teachers, and practitioners of meditation. Some, such as Gina Cestaro, came with a specific goal in mind.
“I am here for two reasons, personal and professional," Cestaro said. "I have been interested in mindfulness training for a long time, and tried to develop my own practice, and was partially successful but I really wanted actual training in it for my own practice at home, but also I am interested professionally. I am switching careers from being a full time studio art teacher to getting a degree in expressive arts therapy."
Lobsang said key elements of the training include regulating emotions and developing awareness of one’s own thoughts and underlying assumptions.
Waibel said she has been interested in compassion training for a long time. She said, through such trainings, she wants to become more compassionate toward herself and others.
“All of the meditation, especially compassion training, is the matter of opening the heart, and...being able to connect to people in more present way. It is less about what I am thinking about them, and more about just connecting in the heart,” Waibel said.
There is no single answer to what compassion is, and whether it lines up more with sympathy or empathy, Raison said.
The fact is that compassion is not only about feeling it, but also about practicing it.
And that is the message of this compassion training.
“More than ever, we need to find a way to expand our emotional horizons..." Raison said. "So you look at the world, you look at the places that were held together by strong central dictators....And the problem for the modern world to survive is we have to begin to find new ways to pull together.”