Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
5 Nov

Compassion Meditation

2982647864 2328e3d668When it comes to meditation, most of us probably think about inward focus, personal relaxation response, a deep concentration that allows for release and inner calm. And, certainly, meditation can offer that as well as an impressive host of physical benefits we’ve discussed in previous posts. (All part of the Primal Blueprint focus on comprehensive wellness…)

But what about a meditation that, while generated internally, is directed outward to others? Isn’t that what we’re oftentimes trying to shed when we mercifully delve into meditative focus: the kids’ report cards, the boss’s performance meetings, a partner’s illness, parents’ financial difficulties, this weekend’s volunteer responsibilities. That inner journey, a few moments of “emptying” release, can do wonders for many of us who feel pulled in a hundred directions some days, but so can a form of meditation, researchers say, that encourages us to seek inward peace by simply focusing on feeling for others.

Compassion meditation, as it’s known, doesn’t call us to dwell on the mundane details of interactions or organize looming lists of social and familial responsibilities. Instead, it cultivates our empathy for those around us (those who we know intimately and, in its more advanced practice, even complete strangers). It feeds and hones a kindness of spirit, so to speak. And, as a recent study found, this altruistic contemplation offers physical benefits as well. Researchers with Emory University found that “engagement in compassion meditation may reduce stress-induced immune and behavioral responses,” specifically “reductions in inflammation and emotional distress” associated with administered stressors.

The study used 61 young adults, half of which participated in a six-week program of compassion meditation training and half of which met for regular health instruction and discussion meetings. Both groups were given assignments (meditation or health related projects) to work on between group sessions. Researchers at the end of the six weeks conducted psychosocial stress tests on all the subjects and measured individual responses of “the body’s inflammatory and neuroendocrine systems” to the stressors. Although no significant differences were found in the general comparison of the two groups, the researchers did discover distinctions among the meditation group subjects. Those who practiced compassion meditation the most showed, in response to the administrated stressors, less distress and lower plasma concentrations of interleukin 6 (IL-6), an immune system indicator that has been linked with cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer.

As we’ve discussed before, chronic and/or severe stress can cause serious health damage and undo the “good” of a solid diet and exercise program. True wellness can’t come without focusing on the inside as well as the outside. To take it a step further, this study suggests that we can all benefit from bringing concentration to the well-being of others in addition to that of ourselves.

What are your thoughts? What do you think is behind the apparent power of compassion meditation? Can empathy fuel personal health? Thanks for reading.

h.koppdelaney Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

How to Break Bad Habits

Relaxation Response

How Stress Can Make You Fat

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. I’m not as familiar with outwardly directed compassion meditation, but just the other day I read about a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin who focuses on the benefits of self-compassion. Here’s a link in case you’re interested in the article:
    http://www.utexas.edu/features/2008/11/03/self_compassion/

    Liz wrote on November 5th, 2008
  2. Thanks for the link, Liz!

    Mark Sisson wrote on November 5th, 2008
  3. Without straying too far away from the physical benefits, I can’t help but notice that compassion meditation sounds similar to prayer.

    Alma wrote on November 5th, 2008
  4. I haven’t heard of this before but I love the idea! I have never been able to get into inward-focused mediation. I spend a lot of time thinking about and analyzing my own actions (formally in therapy and informally in my own head and with friends), yet I find meditation difficult.

    While I’ve never prayed in my life, I have experienced a few moments of “expansive compassion” (for lack of a better term) in my life, where I do feel love and compassion for the complete strangers around me, and it was a powerful powerful feeling. Something that NO DOUBT has positive physiological effects. I would love to try this … obviously sounds right up my alley.

    Gazelle wrote on November 5th, 2008
  5. I think everyone would benefit to practice compassion meditation. It brings peace to yourself and others. It’s amazing how showing kindness, understanding and a heaping heart ful of compassion can help heal someone’s broken heart of grief. As for self, it’s always better to be compassionate on yourself rather than to be hard on yourself, we live and learn and go on.

    Donna wrote on November 5th, 2008
  6. what a beautiful topic today! one of my favorite parts of the primal blueprint is its focus on well-rounded health/wellness. thanks so much mark!

    Holly wrote on November 5th, 2008
  7. I love this idea. I’m so trying it!

    charlotte wrote on November 5th, 2008
  8. Liz,
    Thanks for sharing that link, what a great article, really enjoyed reading it.

    Donna wrote on November 5th, 2008
  9. I think that this is something Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in EAT, PRAY, LOVE, when she directs her meditation at her nephew, I think it was. For a long time, six hours or so, she meditated to him, and then found that the insomnia he had struggled with abated that very night. I may be mixing up the story, but I know at yoga I’ve been trying to do that sort of thing…direct my energy to someone who might need it. I see warming their heart with my energy (that sounds so dorky).

    Kristen wrote on November 5th, 2008
  10. This is a great exercise in trying to understand how others view their world and experiences in their own right. It’s almost like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes in order to fully understand how they are feeling. Once we can understand how someone else processes a situation and the resulting feelings and emotions that ensue, we can begin to become much more understanding, and thus serene.

    Great post!

    All the Best,

    Andrew R

    Andrew R wrote on November 5th, 2008
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