The Importance Of Practicing Mindfulness And Compassion Together

Discovering the link between mindfulness and the ability to forgive yourself.

In the  Buddhist tradition, Mindfulness and compassion are considered the two wings of the bird of wisdom, and both are thought to be essential in order to fly, so they are practiced together and mutually reinforcing. 

To practice compassion, mindfulness is necessary, because we have to be able to become aware of our own suffering and that of others, without judgment, attachment or rejection, to feel compassion towards the person who suffers.

But, above all, to carry out compassion practices, minimum levels of attention are required, which are obtained with the practice of mindfulness (García Campayo and Demarzo, 2015). Some of the early compassionate practices, such as compassionate breathing mindfulness and compassionate body scan , seek to develop mindfulness and decrease mind wandering, while being associated with a basic compassionate attitude.

The link between mindfulness and compassion

It is known that the mindfulness practice represented by the two main intervention protocols developed, the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program (Birnie et al, 2010) and the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program (Kuyken et al 2010 ), increase compassion. These programs do not specifically teach compassion, but they do send implicit messages about the importance of being compassionate and kind to yourself and your mental processes when talking about compassion, an element that is central to mindfulness practice.

However, when the two interventions are combined, compassion therapy brings to mindfulness the conjugation with the mental processes that are behind the social commitment to try to make the world better, and the individual commitment to establish bonds of attachment and affection when we’re suffering. Compassion is a broader concept than mindfulness and, in fact, studies point to the possibility that it is a more effective treatment than mindfulness in some specific pathologies, such as  depression (and in disorders related to self-image , guilt and self-criticism), in addition to interventions focused on increasing psychological well-being in healthy subjects.

The differences between the two practices

Focusing on the psychobiology that gives rise to mindfulness and compassion, there are great differences between the two practices. 

While the mental processes most closely linked to mindfulness generate a form of metacognition and regulation of attention related to the activity of the prefrontal midregions and is therefore a recent evolutionary achievement (Siegel 2007), compassion is much more ancient, and goes linked to the mammalian care system. It involves substances such as  oxytocin and other hormones related to the feeling of secure attachment, as well as neural systems and networks linked to love and affiliation (Klimecki et al 2013). The following table summarizes what each of the two therapies contributes.

Table: Specific contributions of mindfulness and compassion therapies

MINDFULNESS COMPASSION
Question to which you answer What is the experience here and now? What do you need now to feel good and reduce suffering?
objective Become aware of the real experience and accept its nature Comfort the subject in the face of suffering, understanding that primary pain is inherent to the human being
Risk of each therapy if not balanced with the other Accept the subject’s discomfort, forgetting their needs, focusing exclusively on the experience. Eventual lack of motivation and ethical and compassionate attitude towards oneself and towards the world Not accepting the experience of primary suffering (which is inevitable and inherent to human nature). Not focusing on the here and now, on the real nature of things, and focusing exclusively on seeking to feel better in the future

In conclusion

The experience of self-pity may seem paradoxical: on the one hand, present suffering is experienced with acceptance, but at the same time it is intended to reduce future suffering.

Both objectives are not incompatible, but complementary: the first (mindfulness acceptance of the experience of suffering) is the recognition of human nature, and the second is the way forward (compassion) before the reality of the first.

Bibliographic references:

  • Birnie K, Speca M, Carlson LE. Exploring self-compassion and empathy in the context of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Stress and Health 2010; 26, 359-371.
  • Kuyken W, Watkins E, Holden E, White K, Taylor RS, Byford S, et al. How does mindfulness-based cognitive therapy work? Behavior Research and Therapy 2010; 48, 1105-1112.
  • Siegel D. The mindful brain. New York: Norton, 2007.

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