Practicing compassion can help us navigate an unpredictable world by teaching us to understand the perspectives of others — built on experiences and memories different than our own — and to manage our responses to the people and world around us.
At the University of Arizona Center for Compassion Studies, faculty integrate elements of mindfulness, compassion and empathy training into two classes offered by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences: Self-Care in the Helping Professions and The Mindful Semester.
Leslie Langbert, the center’s executive director, also teaches Cognitively Based Compassion Training in classes open to the community.
“Developing practices that renew, sustain and deepen our capacities to love and extend care are essential for us all,” says Langbert. “I have found that sharing these practices is powerful regardless of background and spiritual orientation.”
Mindfulness tools and compassion practices have been especially helpful for university students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was powerful to hear from students about how tools had helped them navigate their emotional experience during COVID-19,” Langbert says. “There is an incredible range of emotion that we might feel within a day during this time. Tools help us be with the emotion without judging.”
Langbert shares more about practicing compassion and mindfulness in this Q&A.
Q: What does compassion practice involve?
A: There are basic building blocks that help us be compassionate beyond the people we care about. The key pieces are empathy — the ability to understand another person’s experience — and recognizing our common humanity, that the feelings and the needs we have as humans are the same.
Q: What does it mean to understand our common humanity?
A: We begin to understand our interconnectedness. Every human is impacted by COVID-19, showing us we are deeply interconnected and interdependent. Being able to see our common humanity can allow for gratitude for those around us.
Q: How can gratitude change the way we see the world?
A: We’re in a time when we collectively have an appreciation for grocery store employees, for example, let alone health care workers. Without this support, society would not hold up. Think of the number of people involved in enjoying morning coffee and so many other things. We are held by such a deep web of care, but we are often blind to it because we aren’t socialized to see it. We are socialized to be in competition, and we haven’t had a way to see ‘my well-being is inextricably connected to yours.’ Now we have a deeper appreciation for this.
Q: Why is compassion something to practice?
A: Media, education — many things shape our view of the world. We take in and filter information. We can be compassionate with our in-group and those we identify with. But, through our humanity, we create blocks. The mind creates divisions, and we see others as not deserving. Compassion training helps us uncover the blocks. When we begin to practice compassion consistently — with a deep concern and wishing well to others — we find our capacity for compassion grows stronger.
Q: How does practicing compassion reduce stress?
A: We benefit because we feel better. If we are not on high alert, we are more relaxed. Participants in the compassion training program who practiced more frequently were found to have greater measures of stress reduction. When they encountered a stress experience, it took less time to return to prestress levels. This toning of our capacity to be with our experience helps us develop resilience.
Q: Where does mindfulness come in?
A: Learning how to bring our attention to the present moment brings awareness to what is happening right now without judgment, without pushing it away. Our minds are good at thinking about the past — like during COVID-19, [thinking back] to simpler, more pleasurable times. Then, into the future, to what is next: How will we emerge in a different way?
Q: Why is staying present helpful?
A: It gives us the space to look at what is. We can be with our own experience and move into self-compassion. It’s easy when life is going well, and not so easy when we experience a loss, of a job or a loved one. But if we can be with those experiences and observe how we react in times of fear, anger or loss, patterns show up.
Q: How can noticing patterns help us practice compassion?
A: We notice clearly what those patterns are and can gradually change them — cultivate a response versus reaction. We often make decisions from reactivity, which creates harm for ourselves and others. It helps us when we see others are vulnerable to fear, anger and emotions that are uncomfortable. Rather than retaliate against injurious behavior, we can respond in a way that doesn’t inflict more harm — and we don’t turn away, but acknowledge ‘This isn’t OK.’