In Episode 5, we look at the subtle yet profound differences between empathy and compassion, and ways to cultivate compassion in the present moment with a loving-kindness meditation.

Your empathy networks reside across several neural networks in the brain, and new discoveries suggest important nuances that can lead you in different behavioral directions. Empathy allows you to resonate with the feelings of others. When you have an empathic response to someone’s suffering, you experience one of two reactions:

  • One, Empathic distress. One reaction is to get so upset that you lose yourself in the painful situation. Neuroscientists are discovering that empathic distress triggers brain networks associated with responses to physical pain.  We turn away from others, avoid, or numb ourselves. This is how, over time, caregivers and helping professionals burnout.
  • Two, Empathic concern or compassion. The second response is a desire to help. You respond to an upsetting person or situation with positive emotions such as warmth, connection, and caring. You are more likely to approach others with concern and be more prosocial. 

The artful goal is to intentionally move from a state of empathic distress to a state of compassion. This takes some emotional muscle. Social neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki point out that there are  several factors affecting our empathic responses, including gender, group membership, familial conditioning, and perceived fairness of another person or situation. We will practice this with a loving-kindness meditation.

Today’s Skill

So what is a loving kindness meditation? A loving-kindness meditation cultivates compassion from the inside out.  It is like a blessing or prayer.

Rather than focusing on pain or suffering or the relational difficulty, the practice begins with opening up to feelings of love, affection, and friendliness toward something or someone.  It has a pattern with phrases that I will repeat several times, like doing some rounds.  The phrases speak to the basic needs of all humans.

However, you can customize your own phrase, as this will be the most authentic and meaningful to you. At first it may seem scripted, but studies show over time that people respond and soften and the word becomes integrated.

The phrases you will hear in this episode include:

May you feel safe and protected.

May you be peaceful.  

May you live in ease and kindness.  

May you find joy and purpose.

A loving-kindness meditation can become a daily prayer, a moment of appreciation for another person, or a personal practice to train your compassion muscle. It can also change your brain in sweet and subtle ways.

Perhaps the beauty of this practice is that it cultivates feelings of warmth and tenderness without going anywhere or doing anything, instantaneously evoking your awareness of being part of one big human family.  

Today’s Reflection

Offering loving-kindness toward those I love, those who challenge me, to strangers, and all of humanity opens my heart even in the face of difficulties. 

Interested in The Little Deck of Kindfulness?  Order while supplies last (in continental US for shipping).