Five years ago, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford had a revolutionary idea: open a center dedicated to compassion right in the middle of the university. Today, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) flourishes within this citadel of academia. Here, it quietly pursues its mission of supporting and conducting rigorous scientific studies of compassion and altruism, developing ways to cultivate compassion and promote altruism within individuals and throughout society.
Thupten Jinpa was enlisted as a visiting research scholar at CCARE, during which time he developed a course of study called the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). An eight-week program modeled after Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (founded at the University of Massachusetts by renowned meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn), CCT teaches Buddhist meditation practices in a completely secular way. Instead of focusing on mindfulness, though, this training emphasizes practices of the heart.
Beginning by developing a foundation of breath awareness, the program systematically teaches students to cultivate the qualities of kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna). Each series of the program begins by sending kindness to people such as grandparents, friends and children—those individuals toward whom it is easy to access tenderness. From there, participants progress to thinking of people about whom they are ambivalent or who cause them downright frustration: the barista at the local café, the bagger at the grocery store, the ex-husband’s new wife. The CCT strives to help individuals imagine each of these people happy and flourishing. But the program also encourages participants to remember or imagine times when they themselves have been hurt, shamed, ill or suffering in some way. By working through such progressions, participants can learn to strengthen the muscle of the heart. Such strengthening can engender a fearlessness that allows them not only to send others wishes of love, and compassion, but to also breathe others suffering into their own hearts and to breathe out relief and ease.
To date, the program has been piloted at Stanford, Google, the Cancer Support Community and in a few series open to the general public in the San Francisco Bay Area. As one of the senior teachers, I have witnessed many transformations. A recent training I led with cancer patients and their loved ones generated a number of moving stories. The following are just two of the narratives of heart that emerged from the eight-week program:
A cancer patient in active treatment has been living with, and caring for, her ninety-five-year-old mother. Having developed her own capacity for tenderness and generosity, the daughter made a radical decision. At our closing circle she shared with tears that she and her mom had invited her suicidal and recently homeless nephew, a war veteran, to come live with them. She said, “Before this course, I might have tried to help him, but my heart wouldn’t have been open enough to take him into my home.” Through this extraordinary act of compassion, both she and her mother learned that, in spite of the limitations imposed by age and illness, they could find happiness by helping another person.
A retired professor of environmental science took the course in order to support his wife, a cancer patient. He told us, “I spent a lot of time talking with my students about the ‘problem’ of poverty, but I just didn’t feel the suffering.” About to cry, he said, “If I had taken this course earlier, I think I would have been a better teacher. Poverty isn’t just a term you can pass over and move on. I’m now able to draw it in and feel the pain. This has been a big aha.”