The State of Compassion Research

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Sona Dimidjian, PhD

The State of Compassion Research

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What You'll Learn

  • Explore how compassion research began, where it is today, and where it is headed to support the increased adoption of compassion practices into diverse sectors of modern society

  • Consider how research can be more inclusive and effective by engaging collaboratively with the communities it is trying to serve from the initial phases of study development through completion

  • Explore how training the mind, opening the heart, and acting with skillfulness are all interconnected in the cultivation of compassion

About Sona Dimidjian, PhD

Sona Dimidjian, Ph.D. is Director of the Renée Crown Wellness Institute and Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her current research projects focus on preventing depression and supporting wellness among new and expectant mothers, promoting healthy body image and leadership among young women, and enhancing mindfulness and compassion among youth, families and educators. She also has a longstanding interest in expanding access, scaling, and sustaining effective programs, using both digital technology and community-based partnerships. Dr. Dimidjian received her BA in psychology from the University of Chicago and her PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Washington.

About Richard Davidson, PhD

Richie Davidson’s research is broadly focused on the neural bases of emotion and emotional style and methods to promote human flourishing including meditation and related contemplative practices. He has published over 465 articles, numerous chapters and reviews, and edited 14 books. He is the author (with Sharon Begley) of The Emotional Life of Your Brain, published in 2012, and co-author with Daniel Goleman Altered Traits, published in 2017. He was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2017 and appointed to the Governing Board of UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) in 2018.

To learn more about Dr. Davidson's work you can visit Center for Healthy Minds.

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  1. Ruth Goldston May 4, 2021 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    I am troubled by the ongoing characterization of some emotions as “destructive.” Why this terminology? Anger can be adaptive, as can sadness and fear, and I believe that each emotion has important information for us to understand. What is meant, I think, is that some negative emotions can lead to regrettable behavior (as can some of the so-called “positive” ones). Learning more about the kind of message each emotion imparts needs to be part of emotion education. Too often, I find, teachings and practices that are meant to help manage difficult emotions focus on emptying emotions of their unique meanings, or simply not paying attention to them. I had a very difficult time picking up the book, “Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them?” (I did read it from cover to cover, albeit with many argumentative comments scrawled into the margins). Why can’t the title be “Difficult Emotions: How to Work with Them, Learn from Them, and Avoid Regrettable Behavior?” Please, please, consider changing this wording in the field. I’m having a hard time listening to Davidson and Dimidijian because I’m hearing so much about the so-called “destructive emotions” without comment or mitigation.

    • Hans Sleeboom May 5, 2021 at 3:33 pm - Reply

      @Ruth Goldston. I think you have a very good point. I hope the author of the book on Destructive Emotions, Daniel Goleman, takes notice of your comment. On day one Michelle Shiota, as a member of the panel on Understanding Our Emotions and Our Potential for Goodness, made some some very useful remarks that support your criticism on the use of the term destructive emotions. (btw the origin of the term destructive emotions is the buddhist term kleshas, but you will know)

    • Rolf from Germany May 5, 2021 at 4:29 pm - Reply

      @Ruth & Hans: I am glad the both of you did raise this point, because throughout this summit I got more and more irritable and after an introspection came to the conclusion that my entire spiritual practice of the last decades was based on an awakening from my ignorance and naivety, which in turn continues to create ‘dis-appointments’ resulting in frustrations and anger.

      However, for the sake of being ‘a nice compassionate person’ I did subdue my anger (in the mainstream way with alcohol) which in my eyes only seems to have suppressed the issues on top of having damaged my health.

      Now that I get out of it and stopped my compensatory behaviours, the postponed issues pop up again, so to currently ask me for compassion is the worst thing someone could do to me.

      I am glad to have found this one speech with the option to simply let ones character trades be as they are:

      My second favourite speech so far is this one, because it merely talks about research-findings without pushing the agenda of compassion onto us, and I could relate to her findings that people who are exposed too long to suffering without the means to change it, do tend to become numb towards it – this is my experience as a poor person who feels impotent in the light of the huge problems in the world.

      • Rolf from Germany May 5, 2021 at 11:33 pm - Reply

        Actually – on the next day, when revisiting this talk I have to take back saying that I did find this talk the second most inspiring, because I do disagree with two things Ms Dimidjian said:

        1. Putting people under a placebo group suggesting that they got Oxytocin in my eyes already is dubious, because it creates a tribal state of mind in which mothers suddenly become selfishly interested in only their family, which does give rise to xenophobia. Here is one article which also deals with religion:
        2. Even neglecting that point, she did not even tell us the results of that test, other than saying “there were some effects”. So what I actually disliked was that this talk was about scientific explorations of that matter and then we were not told anything specific.

        Sorry, but it seems to me that compassion is cherished in this seminar as the political correct thing to do, but as an unreflected standalone it seems as the Bhagavad Ghita said to be prone to be wasted, because one should only give with wisdom, because giving out of ignorance is wasted.

    • ivan May 6, 2021 at 10:47 am - Reply

      Completely agrees with you, very well describes the role of emotion and its appointment, but weighing the process of awareness of the role of emotions leads us to a much higher understanding of reality, and as you think in Tuxtam, emotions are more balanced, or more subcommunicating our consciousness,

  2. Sandra Coffman May 4, 2021 at 9:11 pm - Reply

    Heartfelt thanks to Davidson and Dimidjian for this deep exploration of current and future research on compassion and it’s applications in various settings. I appreciate the open-hearted and careful exploration of the practice and evaluation of compassion, specifically in education and mental health. Sona’s acknowledgement of the limitations of what is now known reflects her stance as a careful scientist deeply based in practice, as well as her commitment to social justice. I found this inspiring and provocative. Many thanks.

  3. Ben van Eyle May 4, 2021 at 10:03 pm - Reply

    Thank you both for this rich and informative session. It is very heart warming to know that such people as yourselves are diligently working in meaningful ways to greatly enhance and spread well being among the communities of the world. May you get all the funding and support that you need

  4. Pradhan May 5, 2021 at 12:41 am - Reply

    Listening to Sona warn us about the intentions of mindfulness/compassion research and its relevance to every-day lives, I am reminded about how the current medical/doctor orthodoxy refuses to study seriously the role of food/nutrition/fasting to deal on health & disease. And, so likewise, the medical community (so heavily influenced by the materialistic/objectivity as the only reality and hence pharmacological and molecular approach is the way to look at health, including the assumption/belief that the brain produces mind/consciousness).

  5. Helen Kutz May 5, 2021 at 10:52 am - Reply

    Packed with thought provoking ideas and concepts!!! I have listened to this session several times now. Thank you.

  6. Muriel Soriano May 5, 2021 at 2:22 pm - Reply

    Thank you Sonia for the work you are doing! sooooo important!

  7. Lucia Cañizares May 5, 2021 at 10:15 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the honesty attitude to recognize compassion status been in early stage of research. This opinion was also express by Paul Ekman in a conversation to his daughter Eve, in first day. Find and validate different practices in compassion will benefit a better world, no doubt on this.

  8. Rolf May 5, 2021 at 11:38 pm - Reply

    I am saddened that many of my comments simply disappear in this chat system. I just wrote for a third timea long elaborate criticism of the entire webinar in vain.

    • Linda May 6, 2021 at 8:14 am - Reply

      I saw all of your comments, Rolf

  9. Anjali May 6, 2021 at 3:27 am - Reply

    Thank you Sona Dimidjian in making me understand how compassion research goes about.
    Love and regards from India

  10. Margareta May 6, 2021 at 9:27 am - Reply

    Ruth Goldston, Hans Sleeboom and Rolf, I am a bit confused over your comments. Having listened to all talks of 1, 2 and 3, feeling so grateful for all the contents, the seriousness, love, good intensions, compassion … with respect for your right to express your opinion, I was surprised that you react so strongly on the word Destructive, in this seminar. English is not my language, so I had to look up the word in two dictionaries to see if there is more to this word than I knew of. “Oxford dictionary: destructive – Destroying, tending to destroy, deadly to, merely negative, refuting … Collins dictionary: Something that is destructive causes or is capable of causing great damage, harm or injury …”. And I have not seen or heard anyone in the talks saying that for instance anger IS a destructive feeling, but in my opinion, anger can develop into being destructive, and so can other feelings too. And I believe that’s what is meant when using the word here. So, I suppose it is all about what meaning you put into the word. And the description in the dictionary points to a feeling that can become very dangerous, and not healthy at all. So, to find ways on how to meet destructive thoughts and behaviours seems to me a good thing. And my experience of all the talks is that this good intension is the base for the whole seminar.

  11. Maria Theresa May 6, 2021 at 9:57 am - Reply

    I am an educator; I fully acknowledge the impact of compassion fatigue. The impact on the nervous system from overload of sensory input is tremendous (well documents by Tish Jennings et al). Add the suffering of others and the fatigue factor increases exponentially. Then add health and safety protocols during a pandemic and increased workload and curriculum demands leaves educators in great need of support. Responding with compassionate action is a baseline response in classrooms and with students and colleagues. I wonder about work around this lens.

  12. Dr. Jaya Mohan May 6, 2021 at 10:41 am - Reply

    Thank you for this deliberation on research in the field of compassion. Hope these findings get translated into practices for the global community and more and more people benefit from it.

  13. Janice A Cook May 6, 2021 at 10:51 am - Reply

    Thank you first for all of your comments and lived experience from where they emerge.

    I am wondering if any of you are aware of research done on the heart itself within the inquiry of emotions, trauma, kleishas and practice, other than the Heartmath Institute, Research seems to be focused on the brain. And we, as practitioners both personally and professionally, use the term “opening the heart” on a regular basis, like we know what we are talking about! And then the research seems to continue to go towards the brain.

    I have recently gone through open heart surgery for a valve replacement and repair for the second time in my life. I had focused my healing within the last 11 years, since the first surgery,by deep engagement in compassion practices, and somatic exploration. I also engaged in teaching them within several social justice contexts, as I applied my practice to painful learning of my own arrogance, evangelism, and ignorance as a white privileged woman. Guilt, shame, insufficiency in the face of the complexity of systemic violence, poverty and oppression have been my ” terrible monsters ” and teachers at the heart of this journey.
    This second time around , three months ago, I am amazed by the lack of research on the heart itself. Mention the vagal complex to top notch cardiac surgeons, electrophysiologists, and cardiologists and they are unaware of the neuro-relational biological world. Mention trauma research on the surgery itself, and thy defer to the rehab nurses, all of whom are just doing their best in the covid environment, and may I speculate are pretty exhausted.
    In going to the neurological community, as in this conference, I was so hoping to find this research. but other than Resmaa Menakem’s mention of the vagus as the “soul nerve” on the first day, there has been little mention of the heart itself.
    So, do any of you know of researchers or practitioners, who are doing research on the biological activity we can all feel when the heart opens? Thank you!

  14. Haley K May 6, 2021 at 3:39 pm - Reply

    What was one of the ways or methods that works toward more compassion? I didn’t catch what actually works best in her studying of research? What is it in the compassion practice?

  15. Ingrid Otepka May 6, 2021 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for this open-hearted conversation

  16. Andres Akamine May 7, 2021 at 3:32 pm - Reply

    Thank you! I am Andres from Lima, Peru. I have enjoyed listening to the diverse and rich research and teaching of many professionals about meditation by being aware of who we are. You all have reminded me about how much I miss meditating on a regular basis and the benefits that have brought to us in the past. I had integrated it into my life without practicing it, and I see its limitations. Thank you for inviting me to continue practicing. I guess one comment that made this real to me was an example Sona made about her research, where she created an experiment with 3 groups of people, one with a meditation exercise, one with a placebo that was said to provide love and compassion, and the third one with images that showed love and compassion. Certainly, a great way to measure the benefits of practicing meditation.

  17. Natasha Nichols May 9, 2021 at 4:13 am - Reply

    Hi from Sweden…. Love this initiative and all the talks I had the time to listen to 😍❤️🙏
    Please make more talks for free in the future, and I love to share your insights about emotionsawareness and a happy humanity 😃🤗🙏
    Natasha 😊

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