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Does Being Compassionate Make You Happier, Healthier, Smarter?

A growing body of research says it does, and a new class in cultivating compassion being offered for the first time in New York City at the Tibet House promises to bring you practices and techniques you can use to help others and, in so doing, help yourself.

At a recent orientation class, Compassion Cultivation Training certified teacher Elizabeth Pyjov jumped right into the experiential aspect of the training, starting a group of about 70 attendees off with a series of stretches and a centering meditation. “You’re more likely to be compassionate toward people with whom you share behavior,” she noted.

In another exercise, participants were asked to imagine a time they felt compassion from or toward someone, reflect on that experience and share the feelings that arose. The responses included heartwarming, gratitude, generosity, happiness, closeness and love.

The training is an initiative of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), and will be offered starting March 16th at Tibet House. Through a combination of discussions, readings, exercises and meditations, the class is designed to increase compassion both for oneself and for others, resulting in less stress and anxiety, better mental and physical health, increased feelings of connection, and improved wellbeing.

But does it work? CCARE’s research has shown that our “compassion instinct” is trainable; the Dalai Lama was so committed to the potential of this research that he made a large financial contribution to it. Other research shows that being compassionate also increases our confidence, resilience and longevity.

Pyjov recently finished studying the neuroscience, philosophy and pedagogy of compassion at CCARE, and says she feels “called” to bring the program to the city.

“There are so many people in the same place who need to coexist -- so many talented people who are also really stressed,” says the recent Harvard University graduate. “I can relate to that sense of suffering that exists in a very competitive, high-stress environment. I can really understand that kind of anxiety.” She said she chose Tibet House because of its affiliation with the Dalai Lama. She is also offering the training to a variety of doctors and staff at Columbia Medical School as part of their continuing education program, and is seeking more venues at which to offer the course.

Compassion, which literally means “suffering with,” is defined in the training as the combination of awareness that suffering exists, the ability to feel the suffering, and the motivation and willingness to take action to relieve it. This applies both to our own suffering and to that of others. It differs from empathy, says Pyjov, in that it is not “emotional contagion,” but comes from a place of calm. “It’s not just about the external circumstances we find ourselves in, it’s also the individual inner experience of suffering -- and the layer behind that state, the beliefs and attitudes that give rise to our suffering,” she says. Thus meditation is a large component of the training and practice.

Part of Stanford Medical School, CCARE was founded in 2008 to conduct “rigorous scientific studies of compassion and altruistic behavior.” While the research and teachings are secular, those familiar with Buddhist meditation will find the course’s offerings of mindfulness and compassion meditation similar to metta, or lovingkindness meditation.

The research has found that, like other forms of meditation, compassion has actual measurable effects on the brain. For example, the same part of the brain that may be triggered by the pleasure of eating a slice of chocolate cake is also is also triggered by compassionate feelings and actions. Compassion also influences our brains to respond differently to stress, decreasing the likelihood that we will react impulsively in a stressful situation.

Pyjov is excited about expanding the scope of the training. A native of Russia who emigrated to California whenshe was a child, her undergraduate degree is in romance languages and literature. She says she is fascinated by how many references there are to compassion in literature and other historical works, and cited several relevant quotes, such as “Compassion is the chief law of human existence” (Dostoevsky) and “The highest realms of thought are impossible to reach without an understanding of compassion” (Socrates). Pyjov founded and serves as editor in chief of Compassion Journal, an online publication featuring science, literature, book reviews, and individual stories of compassion and a “self-compassionate lifestyle.” “It’s something you read to be inspired,” she says.

The eight-week, 16-hour Compassion Cultivation Training begins on March 16th.

For more information, click here.

For more information about CCARE and compassion research, click here.

--Karen Schwartz, for more information about Karen, click here.

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