Putting yourself first implies disregarding others and only looking after number one. But a new book suggests that need not be the case at all. In The Science of Meditation, authors Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson find compelling evidence that we can train our minds to feel compassion for others. They suggest that to do so, we need to feel compassion for ourselves first.
Goleman, a former New York Times science journalist, and Davidson, a professor in psychology and psychiatry, are interested in how meditation can alter the brain. One aspect of this involves compassion and how when triggered in the brain, it can manifest in three ways: cognitive (understanding how someone else is feeling), emotional (feeling what they are going through) or concern (caring enough to do something about a situation). Goleman and Davidson believe that adding a specific compassion meditation to the mix can move us along that spectrum, from understanding to caring sufficiently to take action.
“May I be safe, may I be healthy, may my life unfold with ease.”
What’s significant from a self-care perspective is the kind of meditation used to create this shift. Sharon Salzberg is one of the leading lights of compassion meditation, a form that involves silently repeating to yourself phrases like “may I be safe, may I be healthy, may my life unfold with ease.” In this type of widely used compassion meditation, you wish these things first for yourself, then for your nearest and dearest, moving on to those you have no particular view on and finally, to those you have beef with or have done you harm.
A study at the Max Planck Institute in Germany helps illustrate the authors’ point about the potential benefits of self-care style meditation. Researchers showed volunteers graphic videos of human suffering. The first group watched without any meditation beforehand and became upset. They got it, but their reaction was to retreat from it. A second group were instructed to empathise, which activated different circuits in the brain. They felt the suffering, though they did nothing about it.
“The Dalai Lama suggests we need a new word for ‘compassion’ that includes empathy towards ourselves.”
A final group were instructed in compassion meditation and after watching the videos, felt love for those suffering that was akin to a parent loving a child. Love that would, in the real world, spark action. “Such positive regard for a victim of suffering means we can confront and deal with their difficulty,” says Goleman in The Science of Meditation. “This allows us to move along that spectrum from noticing what’s going on, to the payoff: actually helping them.”
By taking a break from the world, we can better deal with it and potentially affect change. This idea of self-care as the foundation of care for all is not entirely new. The French philosopher Michael Foucault advocated self-care, citing the Ancient Greek philosophy that the only route to taking positive action in the world was to understand your own actions fully. The Dalai Lama, astonished by the idea that Westerners might hate themselves, suggests we need a new word for “compassion” that includes empathy towards ourselves in the equation.
The Science of Meditation, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson is out on Penguin
Main image: China. Henan Province. 2004. Shaolin Kung Fu Student. Steve McCurry