The Dalai Lama's Advice on Depression
Inner peace is a gift -- nurtured through meditation, empathy, and compassion.
Learning to Be Compassionate
A secularized version of the practice called compassion training is a
step-by-step method for developing compassion. It is being used in Emory's
research studies to examine the health benefits of meditation and compassion,
says Geshe Lobsang.
At its essence, compassion requires that we develop a sense of connectedness
to others, which will give us empathy for them, he explains. "If we are
genuinely able to feel empathy for others, then compassion is the natural
In compassion training, students focus on developing that sense of deep
connection with all beings, he says. "We develop a way of seeing how others are
kind to us, even if it's unintentional kindness. Whether they intended to be
kind to us or not, we can choose to perceive it as kindness."
Compassion Training Transforms the Mind
Using MRI brain scans, scientists have begun tracking the effects of
"We are finding that we can transform the brain by changing the mind," says
Richard J. Davidson, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience
and the Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the
University of Wisconsin at Madison. The brain region related to compassion, the
insula, "is quite special," he explains. "It is the only brain area that
monitors the body and provides the brain with information on what is going on
in the body. It sends signals to the body that might change during emotional
Compassion training can generate a state in which loving and compassion
envelops the whole brain, he says. When people meditate on compassion, the
signals to the insula and other brain regions involved in empathy and
understanding are changed. The change is more dramatic among advanced
practitioners, compared with novice practitioners, he adds.
His studies have shown that with even a little compassion training, people
can reap a physical benefit.
Volunteers who received compassion training online -- and practiced it for
30 minutes a day for two weeks -- showed significantly greater propensity to
want to help people who were suffering. They also reported a higher level of
well-being, confidence, and positive feelings. MRI brain scans of these
volunteers showed greater activation in the insula, Davidson reports.
Raison has studied the effects of compassion training in Emory freshmen --
examining the body's stress response system, specifically inflammation that
links stress with depression. These same inflammatory processes are risk
factors for other diseases including heart
disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease.
In one of his studies, freshmen who got six weeks of compassion training had
less physiological stress response in a test -- heart rates, blood pressure,
stress hormone levels, and other stress-related markers -- compared with
students who participated in a discussion group instead.
Not only that, students in the "compassion group" who actually
practiced the meditation -- rather than just taking the training classes
-- fared the best in the stress
test. They had the least stress reaction, he reports.
"They came in the door a little different than the other kids who didn't
practice it," Raison says. "These types of meditations help people reduce their
reaction to stress."