Written by Margaret Cullen.
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.
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