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Developing Compassion, Transforming Our Lives and the World

By Koncha PinoÌ’s Pey, Ph.D., Co-Founder of Contemplative Studies, Estudio Contemplativo, Spain, and CEI Board Member

Our world today is filled with insecurity, global competition and volatility. As a species, we seem to have perfected countless ways and means to harm and terrorize one another, ways that reveal our base instincts. In our attempt to find security, we have resorted to military “solutions” to more and more global problems. To defend our financial and social interests, we have reverted to rigid boundaries based on religion, ethnicity, and nationality. Within our societies, communities, and families, we have fallen into divisive extremes of ideology, racial and gender identity, and narrow personal self-interest. In troubled times like these, how can anyone put much faith in humanity’s potential for compassion?

Our Empathic Nature. One marker of our humanity is a natural capacity for empathy and compassion, which is seen as an essential and intrinsic part of our innate goodness. This optimistic perspective suggests that we not only want to be rid of what causes us pain, but through our empathic nature, we also have a natural tendency to care deeply about the suffering of others.

How can we develop a model of compassion that is not limited to kin but oriented toward the larger community? How we can develop a practice of compassion that can be universally understood and applied? How can we develop a relational model of healing individual, family, and society, that can offer a foundation for a much needed secular ethics in the 21st century?

As a contemplative psychologist, I have come to believe that we can make no greater contribution to the world than by training our minds in the meditative practice of compassion. If we seek to transform ourselves, this practice is indispensable; if we seek to transform others and our world, it is even more indispensable.

Unconscious Empathy

Because our first instinctive reaction to seeing distressed facial expressions and body language is to trigger emotional memories that match the distress we see, our first unconscious form of empathy is a sympathetic reflex that dredges up aversive conditioning and traumatic reactivity (Singer & Klimecki, 2014). This explains why being compassionate is often consciously or unconsciously confused with being helplessly caught up in someone else’s unbearable suffering.  Since empathy and compassion sensitize us to suffering, it is no wonder that the idea of cultivating these capacities runs up against fears of empathetic burnout and compassion fatigue. Although these fears have been challenged by recent research, it turns out that they are not without some basis in the neuroscience of social emotions. Since the recent discovery of mirror neurons and their role in the empathy network, we have come to understand the mechanism of the “social contagion” of human emotion (Mardsen, 1998).

Shifting Neuropsychological Processing or Suffering from Reactive to Proactive

However, compassion training helps shift the neuropsychological processing of suffering from the reactive mode of sympathy to a proactive empathy or wise compassion. Tania Singer, Richie Davidson, Joan Hallifax and Mathieu Ricard have laid the groundwork for understanding the power of training the mind and brain to respond to suffering in proactive ways, through cultivating the positive emotions of empathy, compassion, and altruism (Ricard, 2016). Extending their work, a second wave of researchers has replicated their early findings and refined reproducible methods of training compassion (Desbordes et al, 2012; Klimecki et al, 2012; Weng et al, 2013). This groundbreaking research has confirmed our natural ability to cultivate increased comfort and capacity to engage myriad forms of suffering ‘“ psychological, economic, social ‘“ and find effective ways to respond.

Training to Increase Empathy and Compassion

We have only lately become convinced that is possible to train in emotional experience, to increase empathy, altruism, and compassion; and that such training promotes a greater resiliency for individuals that in turn, affects the resilience of larger family and social systems. These growing recognitions reflect decades of research on the neural basis of empathy (Cozolino, 2006). More recently, researchers have shed light on the dramatic transition that occurs in the brain when our response to others’ suffering shifts from reflex empathy or sympathy to compassion (Singer & Klimecki, 2014).

Be Proactive. Basically, primal empathy or sympathy recognizes the suffering of others, while compassion adds a readiness and commitment to alleviate that suffering. This second, proactive response involves the activation of our prefrontal executive regions, the motivational readiness of the anterior cingulate cortex in the limbic system, while also activating the internal reward network that links the limbic striatum to the midbrain (Desbordes et al 2012). Taken together, this mature compassion has two critical parts that involve first experiencing others’ suffering, then responding to it.

When our response to our own or others’ suffering has only the first phase of sensitivity or reactivity, but not the second phase of readiness and willingness to help, it eventually leads to the experience of empathic burnout or compassion fatigue (Ricard, 2016). The natural power of compassion is becoming clear not just in our new understanding of social evolution but also in recent studies of human development, both in childhood and throughout the lifespan. The powerful impact of a secure empathic attachment on the healthy development of the human mind, brain, and body has been explored by researchers in many fields.

Begin with Self-Compassion

An expert meditator can both feel and respond to more suffering than a novice meditator (Lutz et al, 2008; Desbordes et al, 2012). For this reason, when a person first begins to cultivate compassion, it is vital to begin by developing increased self-compassion. It all starts with mastering self-compassion. In later phases, practitioners learn to experience wiser compassion for those we most love, then gradually extending empathy and care to those we typically have neutral feelings for, and finally they move to the most challenging group of people: those with whom we are in conflict.

Barriers. The main emotional obstacles to the practice of compassion are the reactive emotions of fear, anger, greed, envy, pride and shame. Sadly, much of what we think of as the pursuit of happiness in our modern secular culture is driven by and reinforces these emotions. For instance, much of the striving behind our market economy is fueled by shame-based competition, fear-based consumption, and scarcity-based hoarding (Nussbaum & Sen, 1993; Layard, 2009)

Human Connection

One thing is clear from the rapid rise of wealth inequality around the world, no amount of consumer goods or privileges can quench the thirst that comes of feeling alienated and alone. In fact, happiness research has clearly shown that our sense of well-being is only marginally affected by extrinsic factors like wealth or fame. Instead it is predominantly a function of our intrinsic sense of human connection to others and of belonging to social groups–family, society, and community (Ryff, 2014).

Compassion training can help break the futile cycle of stress-emotions, by helping people cultivate perceptions and experiences of being fundamentally connected rather than inherently separate from others.


Cozolino, L. 2006. The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Brain. New York: Norton Press

Desbordes, G., L. Negi, T. Pace, B. A. Wallace et al. 2012. Effects of mindful attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Front Hum Neurosci 6:292.

Layard, Richard. (2009). Now is the time for a less selfish capitalism. Financial Times. March 12, p. 17.

Lutz, A., J. Brefcyznyski-Lewis, T. Johnstone et al. 2008. Voluntary regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of expertise. PLoS One 3: e1897.

Mardsen, P. (1998). Memetics & social contagion: Two sides of the same coin? Journal of Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission 1998 Vol 2.

Nussbaum, M. & Sen., A. (1993). The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon

Ricard, M. (2016). Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. Boston: Back Bay Books.

Ryff C.D. (2014) Psychological well-being revisited: Advances in the science and practice of eudaimonia. Psychotherapy & Psychosomatics, 83:10-28

Singer, T., & Klimecki, O. (2014). Empathy and compassion. Current Biology, 24(18), R875-R878.

Weng, H.Y., A.S. Fox, A.J. Shackman et al. 2013. Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychol Sci 24(7):1171-80.

This article is adapted from a chapter by Dr. Koncha Pinos Pey in Loizzo, J., Neale, M., & Wolf, E. J. (Eds.). (2017). Advances in Contemplative Psychotherapy: Accelerating Healing and Transformation. Taylor & Francis.Loizzo, The social psychology of compassion and altruisim.

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