"The tantric schools of Buddhism believe that the seeds of many different 'selves' are in each of us, and it's what we choose to feed and nurture through commitment and practice that's key to our development. Our Buddha nature is already in us, waiting for the 'mental watering' that will enable it to grow." - Dr. Paul Gilbert in The Compassionate Mind
KB: What are some tools that you can use to develop compassion?
PG: One is where your focus is on your breath. It's called Soothing Breathing Rhythm. You want to be breathing about five breaths per minute. The purpose is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system because it is linked to the affiliative system. But it’s not relaxation. It’s a point of stillness and calmness within. Facial expression, voice tones, all these things are very important.
Then there are imagery techniques. Let me demonstrate why imagery techniques work.
Let's say you're laying in bed at night and you're having some sexual fantasies, you’re going to make yourself quite aroused. You're probably thinking, 'Yes, yes, I’ve been doing that since I was an adolescent.' But the point is that this image you are creating will stimulate a very precise set of cells in your pituitary gland that will release a very precise set of hormones.
In Compassion-Focused Therapy and compassionate imagery work, we’re using the exact same principles. We’re trying to find images that will stimulate very precise brain systems to generate certain feelings and a certain way of seeing and understanding the world.
There is quite a lot research that shows that if you practice compassion for yourself and for others, you can actually change your brain because of neuroplasticity.
We also have the Compassionate Self exercise. This is where you imagine yourself as a compassionate person. You practice what it would feel like. You practice how you would deal with someone who is angry or anxious. You practice paying attention to the people who are kind to you. You do so purely with your imagination. We use a lot of acting techniques actually.
Then we have the Compassionate Other exercise where you practice hearing, seeing, and receiving compassion from someone who really cares for you.
Then there’s compassionate behaviour. Compassionate behaviour doesn’t mean being nice. So if you’re over weight, sitting at home eating loads of chocolate might be nice, but it is not compassionate because it is bad for you. Compassion is about doing things that help you flourish and progress. It’s not just about doing things that feel good.
KB: Do you have any examples of images that your patients have created?
PG: People have all kind of images. Usually the image of the Compassionate Other is human. They're usually wiser than themselves. And they'll usually have a deep understanding of themselves. Sometimes if someone has been abused or neglected, their compassionate image will be an animal.
The other kind of imagery is the kind where the quality of the image is not that important. So patients create images that have a feeling associated with it. The person may not see the individual clearly, they may just have an impression about them where they’re a stronger, older and wiser than themselves.
KB: Could you distinguish between the tools for developing compassion for yourself and the tools for developing compassion for others?
PG: It has to do with focus. So if you’re doing compassion for others, you’re practicing doing one compassionate thing for another person every day. It doesn’t have to be something that you wouldn’t normally do. You’re just looking for opportunities to be helpful. Help a little old lady off the bus. Smile at somebody. Make someone a cup of tea. Your attention is an antenna looking for opportunities to be helpful. This would be an example of Compassion-Focused Attention.
You can also do that exact same thing for yourself. The techniques are very similar. It’s just how you focus them.
"Then you imagine the Buddha harnessing all of the compassionate energy of the Universe and then directing that energy at you."
KB: How did you develop these tools?
PG: Do you know the Buddhist cycle?
PG: It's a technique where you imagine the Buddha in a clear blue sky. Then you imagine the Buddha harnessing all of the compassionate energy of the Universe and then directing that energy at you. So that’s receiving compassion.
The next stage is that you imagine you and the Buddha becoming one and you giving compassion to the whole universe.
But what we’ve done is taken it out of the Buddhist tradition. So you don't give people an image. They invent one.
If you enjoyed this interview, check out the interview with Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics, The Yoga of Eating, The Ascent of Humanity, and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.
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