Common humanity is a recognition that we share a desire for peace, represented by a calm river

All that we share

By | Compassion, Lifelong learning


Common humanity is a powerful element of compassion that involves recognizing the fundamental desire to be free of suffering that all humans share. One of the great things about working with a bunch of compassion educators is getting to check out and share inspiring resources for our Compassion Cultivation Training classes. One of my mentor/colleagues at Compassion Institute shared this video from TV2 Denmark with her class today as a way to depict common humanity. A few seconds into watching, the tears started.
It’s amazing how a short little video can deliver such a huge compassion boost! ⠀⠀
And experiencing compassion can be simple like that…⠀⠀
What happens when we take a second to really look at the other humans around us – in the store, in a yoga class – with kind curiosity? What’s under the surface?⠀⠀
We share so much.⠀


Forest trees to symbolize the journey toward compassion

An alternative to breathing out the bad stuff

By | Compassion, Spirituality

Tonglen is one of my favorite compassion practices. I started practicing it in 2005 and have been teaching it as part of CCT since 2013. 

Tonglen is quite radical and counterintuitive at the beginning, and it feels amazing! Here’s an example of what I mean when I say it’s counterintuitive: I love attending group fitness classes, specifically Barre3, yoga, and CrossFit. At the end of many Barre3 and yoga classes, the teacher will suggest everyone ‘breathe out stress’ or ‘breathe out something you don’t want.’ 

Have you experienced this? While the motivation behind it is understandable, I often imagine everyone is breathing a cloud of smog into the room. It’s like being asked to litter sludge into the space around us. Where does it go? Who has to deal with it now that I’ve breathed out my stress and the things I don’t want?

In Tonglen, we learn to breathe in negativity, stress and pain and transform them into compassion and strength that we send out to others. It sounds dangerous, but with good instruction and training it’s incredibly powerful.

Tonglen is an ancient practice for reducing the tendency to self protect, scramble after comforting experiences and avoid negativity. It reinforces the desire to be a force for good in the world and boosts our courage, power, resilience and resourcefulness.

The two wheels on the compassion bicycle

By | Compassion

When I ventured into academic study of compassion (after practicing compassion meditation for several years), I was confused and frankly disturbed by the term ‘self-compassion.’ 

Practicing compassion for others felt really good to me. It shifted focus away from me and my problems. It clicked things into perspective and helped me tap into deeper meaning. It was energizing and inspiring. I was feeling the benefits and that was plenty; I didn’t see the need to add in a ‘self’ component.

At the time conversations with my partner James were incredibly clarifying. Those early conversations continue to inform how I experience and describe compassion practice. His take on the self component of compassion is key:

From the perspective of consciousness (or awareness), the self – the collection of thoughts, memories and ideas about who ‘I’ am – is the primary other. 

With this in mind, consider the definition of compassion — compassion is an awareness of others’ suffering coupled with a willingness to help ease their suffering. Compassion is sometimes offered to the primary other, sometimes to other others. 

Compassion is a bike with two wheels

Here’s another way to think about it. Compassion is like a bike with two wheels – self and other. You need both the self wheel and the other wheel to be well functioning, filled up with air and in alignment in order to move down the road. It’s best not to separate them. 

Over-emphasizing the self component of compassion invites the potential for narcissistic self-focus. Over-emphasizing compassion for others invites the potential for co-dependent other-focus and ‘helpism.’ Usually we’re out of balance in focus on self or focus on others. This can definitely be rebalanced with practice.

For whom suffering arises (self or other) is not really that important. What’s important is the willingness to help ease it. 

The two wheels of the bike can also be imagined as giving and receiving. Eventually — just as the distinction between ‘my’ suffering and ‘your’ suffering becomes less relevant — the distinction between giving and receiving also becomes less relevant.

Compassion encourages us to ‘give the gift of receiving’ and ‘receive the gift of giving.’

Enjoy the ride! 

Image of a stream to show the flow of compassion

The role of the teacher in compassion training

By | Compassion, Lifelong learning

One of the responses to the last blog post was from a dear fellow CCT teacher. She asked what I think about the role of the teacher, if compassion can’t be taught. It’s such a great question!

Here’s an analogy:

We can’t teach water how to flow, but we can create a pathway, a channel for it to flow.

Compassion is like water: It flows naturally when unobstructed. 

A good teacher can point out what gets in the way of the current of compassion, revealing her own experience of resistance, barriers and objections. That’s what I aim to do. I introduce a perspective, tools, exercises and practices. I share my experience of creating the conditions for compassion to flow, and what I’ve noticed as a result. 

In compassion education we gather to explore this phenomena called compassion. The role of the compassion teacher is a role I play for discrete periods of time. In the role, I facilitate a conversation where compassion can reveal itself through stories and examples. I remind us of what we already know, what we want to live. At other times, you may remind me.  

The real learning in compassion education is in noticing (without judgement) what gets in the way (negativity, judgement, self centeredness), and training the mind and heart to open pathways for compassion to be more and more our default, go-to response.

When we strip away our stress, busy-ness, self doubt and distraction, compassion is there. When we commit time to really listening to another, or reflecting on what life might be like for them, compassion is there.

We invite compassion in and then we notice what happens when it takes its natural course.

Do you feel less isolated when you’re struggling? Do situations that used to bother you bother you less?

trees in snow and fog to inspire peace and calm

What does it mean to teach and learn compassion?

By | Compassion, Lifelong learning, Spirituality

Compassion can’t be taught.

It can be experienced, enjoyed, offered, noticed, studied, shared, remembered, cultivated and practiced.

Compassion can’t be taught because it is what we are. It arises naturally when we’re fully present with another.

Compassion is the awareness of another’s suffering coupled with a willingness to do something to relieve the suffering.

Compassion can’t be planned in advance. Attempting to plan out what I would do in x, y, z situation to enact compassion is a form of suffering. It’s a form of suffering because it takes me out of the moment, which is the only place where compassion can happen.

Compassion is a principle I can commit myself to, allowing it to have its way with me. It can look like saying no, staying still, not doing. It can look like saying yes, moving toward and helping.

Compassion isn’t defined by ‘doing’ at all. It’s better understood as a stance, a motivator and an attitude. I can reflect on compassion, choose it, make myself available to it, get out of the way and allow it to happen. Ideas about what compassion should look like, or how compassionate people do things, are not helpful. Comparing myself to others I see as “more compassionate” doesn’t help.

Learning compassion can be thought of as a process of remembering, practicing, living and being in alignment with our true nature, which is compassionate.

Cover of the newly published book The Power of Compassion, my colleagues and I wrote Chapter Seven

The Power of Compassion – Chapter 7 on Compassion Cultivation Training

By | Compassion, Lifelong learning

So fun to get a sneak peak today at our chapter on Compassion Cultivation Training just published in The Power of Compassion! My colleagues and I wrote Chapter 7 as a review of the CCT program research and implications for health care providers. It was an honor to be published in this book. And isn’t the cover stunning!?

About the book:

“…compassion is indeed based out of a position of power; a personal resource and strength to sustain people in complex and difficult times in their lives but also a concept which is meaningful at an organisational level and to society at large. Compassion has a growing scientific basis, notably within psychology and neuroscience but its application is increasingly evident across a range of health and social care systems.

This book brings together the wisdom of compassionate science through the exposition of work by international experts on the development of evidence in the field of compassion research and training.”

Click here to read Chapter 7 of The Power of Compassion: Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) Program Description, Research, and Potential Benefit for Health Care and Palliative Care Professionals. Sansó (Ed.) 2019

And here’s an excerpt from the section on Qualitative Research on the Effects of CCT:

“First person reports on the impact of the CCT program. In Waibel’s 2015 qualitative study of CCT, in describing the overall impact of compassion cultivation, participants in interviews noted increased feelings of connection with others, and described compassion as the ability to stay present —physically, emotionally, and mentally — when others are suffering (See Table 2).

One study participant expressed this saying, “In general I’m more often totally present with sombody.” Another participant described compassion as the courage to acknowledge and stay present with suffering:

Part of compassion is being willing to lean in to suffering, so that through the practice you actually cultivate courage. It’s your ability to stay with suffering, and your capacity to be able to do that expands.

Others described the impact of CCT in their lives with comments such as, “I’m not taking all this stuff as seriously as I used to and not getting all stressed out like I used to,” “I’m way less reactive,” “I’m a more calm person,” “there’s less internal distress,” and “gratitude has gone up on the scale tremendously — I feel it more when I do feel it. And I more frequently feel it because of the class.” Another participant explained, “It’s not like it’s a complete 180 for me, but it’s such a contrast to how I grew up and the learned instinct of self-protection.”

The offering of compassion to oneself is especially important for building “immunity” against burnout in fields where caregivers and healthcare providers are continuously confronted with suffering (Burack, Irby, Carline, Root, & Larsen, 1999). One participant, a healthcare provider at an organization where CCT is offered routinely, explained she and her coworkers who have taken CCT are “able to perceive each other as calmer and we’re really able to much more effectively problem solve. We’re also more effective in coming to solutions.”

The perceived benefits of CCT described by Waibel (2015) include examples of interactions with classmates, family members, friends, and strangers that can act as a mirror to let the individual know whether or not the compassionate response is happening. Participants described learning that is open, ambiguous, incomplete, changing, and lived in interactions. Learning is also expressed in comments about shifting from thinking to being, or from thinking to inquiry. In this view, knowledge is not a thing to be attained, but a flexibility: the ability to shift perspectives and points of view in moments of reactivity or difficulty. Findings reveal that in CCT, knowledge emerges in thought and action and is grounded in bodily experience and relationship.”

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