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Where does altruism reside? Can it be cultivated? And if so, what kind of training could work to make us more compassionate? In a world with so much violence and suffering these are not trivial questions, and the search for their answers has inspired the creation of a new academic field, one that looks at behavior not so much from the perspective of the dark side of human nature—our proven ability to inflict harm on each other—but from the perspective of our capability for compassion and altruism.

At the University of Wisconsin, as part of his ongoing study of meditation adepts, Richie Davidson has been studying a group of Tibetan monks to see what effects their compassion meditation practice has on their brains, as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta have studied the effects of compassion meditation on the body’s systemic responses to psychosocial stress. Kristin Neff has established the Self-Compassion Research Lab at the University of Texas to investigate both the effects of self-compassion and possible methods for training people, mainly schoolchildren, in self-compassion. Dacher Keltner, author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, researches “pro-social behavior” and directs the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, whose aim is to report on groundbreaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism and share inspiring stories of compassion in action on their website, peacecenter.berkeley.edu/greatergood/.

CCARE (pronounced “see care”) is the capstone in this emerging field. It’s a multidisciplinary effort that brings together the work of psychologists, neuroscientists, physicians, religious scholars, and a variety of other scientists and researchers to study compassion rigorously. According to its founding documents, CCARE is a collaboration between scientists, who use objective measures to study brain and behavior, and practitioners of meditation, who “study the mind using first-person subjective observation, as in the Buddhist and other contemplative traditions.” The center intends to fund not only scientific research “into the neural, mental, and social basis of compassion and altruistic behavior,” but also explorations of “testable cognitive and affective training exercises through which individuals and societies can learn to employ these complex behaviors.”

CCARE emerged following a dialogue in October 2005 at Stanford between scientists and the Dalai Lama that focused on depression, addiction, and other sources of human suffering. One of the attendees, James Doty, a Stanford neurosurgeon, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, was so inspired by the dialogue that he soon proposed—and provided the seed money for—a center to study and promote compassion. When he and others informed the Dalai Lama of the idea, he not only endorsed it, he made the largest personal donation he has ever given to scientific research. Soon, two Silicon Valley philanthropists, Chade-Meng Tan of Google and Wayne Wu, chairman of Accuray, provided substantial funding to help launch the center.

James Doty feels he came by his interest in compassion and altruism as a result of difficulties he faced in his early life. His family lived on public assistance. His father was an alcoholic and his mother disabled. His life, he says, exposed him to “the underbelly of life, to the suffering of people in hospitals, prisons, and on the street, and to the ways that people can treat each other.” It also bred in him an interest in examining “what drivers cause people to act compassionately toward others.”

When Doty became successful and prosperous—not only as a surgeon but as an inventor and entrepreneur—he became an enthusiastic donor. At one point, having amassed a $75-million fortune, Doty decided to go into semi-retirement and do neurosurgery in third world countries for three months of the year. He also made substantial pledges to Stanford and a variety of charities, only to see his fortune evaporate in the dot-com meltdown. To honor his existing commitments, he liquidated his only remaining asset, stock in the medical technology company Accuray, where he had been CEO, in order to fulfill some $25 million in charitable pledges he had made when he was a much wealthier man. He saw to it that a portion of the money was directed to found CCARE.

“Buddhist contemplative practices are quite evolved and there is an extensive technical language, a taxonomy, surrounding them,” Doty says. “Yet I agree with His Holiness that ethics and compassion are universal. They can occur without the foundation of a specific religion, and for them to be embraced by a larger group of people they must not be tied to any faith.” The kinds of practices Doty describes generally fall under what’s known in Tibetan Buddhism as lojong (literally “mind training”) and in Theravada Buddhism as metta (loving-kindness). They employ various kinds of thought exercises to increase openness, empathy, and willingness to help others. In one such practice, known as tonglen (“sending and taking”), you visualize taking in others’ pain with your in-breath and sending out relief with the out-breath. Doty points out that other traditions, including Catholicism, also contain contemplative practices that cultivate the heart.


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