The Power of Mindful Compassion: What It Is, Why It Can Influence Mental Health, and How to Begin Cultivating It In Four Steps

by: Kamala Pilgrim, Ph.D.,C. Psych (Interim Autonomous Practice)

Mindful compassion is a concept that has garnered increasing attention in the scientific community especially over the last two decades. It is taken from the Eastern spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism and in recent years, research demonstrating the benefits of the practice for mental health have fuelled efforts to discover the mechanisms through which it exerts positive outcomes.

The practice can be broken down into two integral components: Mindfulness and compassion.

Mindfulness is defined as an openness to and acceptance of all that is occurring in the present moment, without judgment or over-identification with our experience including our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, urges, and actions (Gilbert & Choden, 2014; Kabatt-Zinn, 2012; Neff, 2011).

Compassion has been described as the ability to adopt a supportive attitude toward ourselves. It also involves taking courageous, wise, and healthy action to promote care for ourselves and/or of others.

Why mindfulness and compassion combined are important?

The practice of mindfulness stabilizes the mind so that we can step back and bring awareness to patterns that are not serving us well. Compassion fosters the kindness and understanding needed to sustain and commit to really seeing what is happening and to take committed action (Gilbert & Choden, 2014).

Through the practice of mindful compassion we strive to recognize our common humanity by accepting that we all make mistakes, stumble, fall, get up again, and sometimes triumph; we start to see that we are all average in many ways and unique in others (Neff, 2011). We stop dwelling on labelling ourselves as sometimes bad and on other occasions, good; we make efforts to embrace the full range of what it means to be a human and approach ourselves as we would a close friend, child, or other family member we love. 

This attitude is not carried out in a “fluffy” or self-indulgent way; rather when we observe our thoughts, emotions, behaviours, motivations, and intentions in a caring framework, we paradoxically become more open to doing something differently; we become willing to make necessary changes because we clearly see how we may be perpetuating our own pain and/or that of others.

Mindful compassion does not make us a pushover either; in fact, fully observing what is happening in our lives aids us in understanding how the behaviours of others may be impacting us in harmful ways and can help us in making the decisions necessary to foster growth and healing for ourselves, and perhaps for the other as well. There are times when mindful compassion can help you respond quickly and efficiently to ensure your safety as you develop a deeper ability to observe everything going on in the environment for what it is and not for what you may want it to be. 

By considering everything we observe in ourselves as different aspects of what it means to be a human being we can become less self-critical with time. We can understand that there are basic needs that underlie our initial or habitual reactions and we can strive to take action to attain what we’re really looking for at our core.

To summarize, I like to envision mindful compassion in the following way, based on Buddhist and Hindu perspectives:

The mind is like the seed of a lotus flower buried deep in the shallow, warm, and still waters of a pond.

Our basic emotions such as, rage, lust, despair, and fear, as well as our drives for freedom, dominance, protection, belonging, and connection, are akin to the mud that covers the seed of the mind. 

Compassion is the sunlight the seed absorbs; the resulting roots are the elements of mindfulness that create a firm foundation of non-judgemental awareness, settling deep into the earth so that the stem can navigate up and through the dark environment to the surface where the lotus of greater wisdom and clarity can manifest.

Here are four ways you can begin to shine the warm, rejuvenating sunlight of mindful compassion in your own life:

1. Discover patterns

Start to bring some gentle awareness to the automatic thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, urges, and behaviours you have in response to various situations such as:

  • When you look in the mirror?
  • When you experience a setback?
  • When you say something you didn’t mean?
  • When you make a mistake?
  • When you argue with someone close to you?

Simply practice noticing without judging. 

2. Practice expansion and self-soothing speech 

When you observe a painful thought or feeling, practice pausing before reacting as you normally might. Notice where you experience any disturbing emotions in your body. If you are anxious or afraid you may notice a tightness in your chest and/or butterflies in your stomach. When you are angry you may feel your jaw clenching. Breathe into and around the region(s) to give the feeling more space. As you do this, say something nurturing to yourself such as:

  • “I know this is hard for you right now.”
  • “This feeling is distressing but it will pass in time; may I give myself the understanding I need right now, may I take good care of myself in this moment.”

3. Understand your needs

Sometimes we assume that our knee jerk reactions are true reflections of what we actually require.  Mindful compassion can help you pause with these initial experiences long enough to discover what underlies them. For example:

  • Arriving home from work you may suddenly feel overwhelmed with a feeling of sadness and anger when you see the kitchen sink filled up with the morning’s breakfast dishes. You may notice yourself begin to criticize yourself or others for not cleaning up immediately after eating. If you practice taking a moment to pause before reacting, to observe these feelings from a non-judgemental, loving and supportive frame of mind and heart space, you may discover that you are actually exhausted and just need to take a few minutes to relax on your own before interacting with others or starting in on your evening routine.

Though you won’t always be able to get exactly what you need in the timing or in the form you would like, you can still respond to yourself kindly, see if you can take small steps toward providing yourself with what you really need, and/or consider asking someone to help you. Sometimes just taking these few brief moments to recognize and validate your feelings is enough. 

4. Set aside time for a loving kindness meditation

Find a few minutes in your daily schedule to try the following:

  • Sit in a comfortable, but alert position
  • Close your eyes
  • Notice the rise and fall of your belly, diaphragm, and chest as you breathe in and out naturally several times without trying to control your respiration in any way
  • Visualize someone you love, respect, and care for
  • Imagine sending them your love and appreciation
  • Next, see yourself in your minds’ eye and practice surrounding yourself with the same feelings

This is by no means an exhaustive list about how to foster mindful compassion; There are many contextual factors, including our societal and cultural perspectives and early life experiences which strongly shape our sense of self, our perceptions of others, our views of and how we operate within the world, which each in turn affect our capacities for mindful compassion and our mental health and well-being overall. 

Mental health professionals at CFIR can help you learn about and practice mindful compassion. Please don’t hesitate to contact us to inquire more and to begin or continue on your journey toward making yourself and your mental health a priority. 

For more information please see the following sources:

Gilbert, P. & Choden. (2014). Mindful Compassion: How the science of compassion can help you understand your emotions, live in the present, and connect deeply with others. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2012). Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the present moment – and your life. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow.