What we in the West are only now beginning to grasp, Buddhists have known for 2,500 years. Psychological research is increasingly focusing on the role of compassion - a key virtue in Mahayana Buddhism - in treating a whole range of mental health problems, but especially depression, social anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and issues related to harsh self-criticism or deep-rooted feelings of shame. This new approach is called compassion-focused therapy (CFT) and was developed by Paul Gilbert, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Derby.
If you want to know more Professor Gilbert's book, The Compassionate Mind, is a good place to start. And the Compassionate Mind Foundation runs workshops and talks. I increasingly use CFT techniques with clients and find them really helpful, especially for people who have recurrent bouts of depression, are overly self-critical or have low self-esteem.
I also have a strong interest in Buddhist psychology, which is a wonderfully rich and wise approach to healing the human mind. At the heart of the Buddha's teachings were two concepts: mindfulness (which I covered in my last post) and compassion, for oneself and all other living beings. Both concepts are causing much excitement in Western psychology right now, because the wonders of neuroscience allow us to see how the brain is shaped and changed over time by meditative practices.
Mindfulness meditation helps us gain control of our unruly mind (what Buddhists call the 'monkey mind', because it leaps about all over the place), disempowering the negative thoughts that are the root of our unhappiness. And loving-kindness meditation generates a number of healing qualities, including compassion. MRI scans show that generating compassionate feelings towards ourselves and others 'lights up' a part of the brain associated with soothing, calmness, safeness and contentment - all of which counteract feelings of anger, upset and anxiety.
Try this short exercise (adapted from The Compassionate Mind) to increase your own sense of calm and wellbeing:
•First, choose a time when you won't be disturbed. Sit cross-legged on the floor or on a chair, with a posture that is upright but relaxed.
•Close your eyes and focus on your breathing, perhaps at the point of your nostrils where the breath enters and leaves your body. Feel your breathing naturally become deeper and slower.
•Think of a time when someone was caring, kind and warm towards you. Imagine a specific event and focus on the details of what happened. Don't pick something that was very distressing for you, because then your attention will be focused on the distress.
•Instead, focus on the person's kind facial expression, his/her voice tone and general manner. Focus on as much detail as you can: what feelings were directed towards you? Could you sense them coming from the kind person? Can you sense your own feelings about receiving this kindness in your body?
•Explore, as much as you can, the feelings of kindness and compassion flowing into yourself. Take as long as you need.
When you've finished, you might want to make a note of your thoughts and feelings so you won't lose them over time.
Finally, remember that - especially if you are feeling low or struggle to be kind to yourself - it may be hard at first to feel positive emotions when you try exercises like this. But we now know that simply trying to be kind to yourself (or other people) stimulates the part of the brain that generates feelings of peacefulness and contentment. So do keep going, even if it's tricky at first.
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