Editor's note: The following was adapted from The ACT Practitioner's Guide to the Science of Compassion, by Dennis Tirch, PhD, Benjamin Schoendorff, MA, MSc, and Laura Silberstein, PsyD.
Western science continues to advance our understanding of compassion and the central role it can play in human psychological growth, adaptive behavioral functioning, psychological flexibility, and wellness. Aside from the scientific method, there is a wellspring of wisdom in the thousands of years of prescientific research conducted by contemplative traditions.
In Buddhist psychology, several different aspects of compassion are discussed, and each reflects a nuance of the experience of compassion. For example, the concept of metta represents loving-kindness and a desire for all beings to be happy and at peace.
Another Buddhist aspect of compassion, bodhicitta, is very significant to an acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) formulation of compassion, as it provides an illustration of how an individual’s sense of self might be intimately involved in the experience of compassion. Bodhicitta represents an altruistic aspiration for the end of suffering for all beings. It is said to arise among advanced meditators after they have recognized and encountered a sense of self that acknowledges and experiences the interconnectedness of all things.
If we were to view the prescientific concept of bodhicitta in the way we would view a scientific hypothesis, we might posit that ongoing mindfulness practice leads to a shift in the sense of self such that all of our thoughts and feelings become weightless. This shift in sense of self also allows for recognition of the interconnectedness of all things and all beings, with all conceptual divisions and separations being merely verbal constructions and acts of relating symbolic events in the mind.
In this way, the arising of bodhicitta may involve letting go of evaluative self-concepts, which, by definition, place us in a position of opposition to others. Indeed, even the concept of a self may be viewed as an ongoing process of relating moment-to-moment experiences to one another, creating a conceptual process of experiencing reality that is actually based upon formlessness and sunyata, or emptiness.
This shift of perspective is suspected to evoke a desire to alleviate all suffering in all beings. Therefore, in Buddhist psychology, compassion arises from a fundamental shift in perspective, away from a content-based sense of self and toward an experience of self as a stream of bare attention.
By shifting the focus away from a content-based self and adopting a psychologically flexible perspective, the ongoing pursuit of high self-esteem (and its attendant downsides in terms of narcissism and damaging social comparisons) can be avoided. This may help explain why the practice of self-compassion leads to more beneficial outcomes than the cultivation of self-esteem (Neff, 2009).
Psychological flexibility obliterates the need to judge or evaluate a content-based self as good or bad, given that the self is seen as an experiential process rather than a fixed entity. Likewise it is possible that this may facilitate a reduction in shaming and blaming self-talk and an increase in the ability to be kind to oneself in contexts of suffering.
Psychological flexibility also allows individuals to commit to courses of action that align with their core values, perhaps helping to explain why self-compassion is linked to greater motivation. As was the case with exploring contemporary theories of compassion in applied psychology, exploring the relationship between psychological flexibility and Buddhist psychology’s conceptualization of compassion also reveals a window of opportunity to further a science well-suited to addressing the problem of human suffering.
According to the authors of The ACT Practitioner’s Guide to the Science of Compassion, one characteristic common to clients who have effected deep and lasting change in their behavior is a sense of having made peace with the parts of their experience and past that they had been warring against or fearful of. Their problems have in no way been magically solved, and they will assuredly know suffering again. Yet the approach to one’s entire self, with a new sense of kindness and reconciliation, allows for a sense of peace to grow.
Sometimes clients even wonder about the diagnostic labels that have been applied to them, as they have come to see more broadly that suffering is an integral part of the human experience—one that informs what is centrally important to us and can be held with the same kindness and willingness as our deepest values. What, then, would be the sense in trying to not have suffering, to dismiss it, avoid it, or somehow invalidate it?
When therapy works at a deep level, it brings clients to a place of profound reconciliation. In that place, the past has not been erased, nor has pain disappeared, yet clients’ resonance and relationship with the self are transformed. Of course, personal flaws, pain from past history, judgments of the evaluative mind, and scary emotions do not disappear, though they often become less intense. They still play out on the stage of private personal experience; however, instead of igniting an inner war, they can now lead to a kind inclination of the heart and a softness born of taking the full measure of the struggle and its costs. Clients can develop a new sense that they are able to speak to themselves in the way they need to be spoken to in order to provide the support that will allow them to move toward what is important in this difficult and beautiful life.
Neff, K. D., & Vonk, R. (2009). Self-compassion versus global self-esteem: Two different ways of relating to oneself. Journal of Personality 77, 23–50.