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When he first floated his idea, Doty encountered resistance from many faculty members, who feared a religious agenda might be masquerading as science, but he now feels that CCARE’s commitment to rigor and secularism has been amply demonstrated and most of the resistance has fallen away.

Doty and his colleagues look to the exercise movement as a model. Google’s Meng points to the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory, started in 1927. “Their pioneering work in creating the field of exercise physiology,” he says, “changed the world.” It has led, he notes, to a world where gyms are filled with people whose doctors have suggested exercises scientifically proven to improve health.

“If we could come up with a set of mental practices and show that these improve personal and communal well-being,” Doty says, “it could become the basis for a huge pro-social movement.” Doty postulates that many prisoners end up in a penitentiary because of an insufficiently nurturing environment in their early lives. He argues that teaching compassion practices to prisoners would reduce recidivism by getting to the core of their criminality. He and others have also been looking at large corporations in Silicon Valley that have self-insured health plans. “One of the prime expenditures,” he says, “is for mind–body disconnect issues, including depression, anxiety, stress, back pain, and neck pain. Many of these can be traced to a lack of caring—of self-compassion—and they spur a lack of caring and attention to the needs of others, such as children, family, colleagues, and community. If we demonstrate the cost of a lack of compassion, organizations will pay attention. Further than that, wouldn’t it be helpful to know why some children become bullies; whether parents can be taught to be more compassionate; how clergy, chaplains, and others in helping professions could use exercises to overcome compassion fatigue; whether everyday people can attain levels of compassion observed mainly in monks?”

If CCARE is to succeed in bridging—and even transcending—the divide between Eastern spiritual practice and Western science and scholarship, it needs people with a firm grasp of both. So one of the first people recruited to be part of the CCARE team was Thubten Jinpa, who, among his many other roles and accomplishments, is the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator. In addition to his Tibetan monastic scholarly training, Jinpa holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a doctorate in religious studies, both from Cambridge University. He moves easily from Buddhist perspectives to Western perspectives and back again, with no sense of holding one or the other viewpoint as dominant. “Western science and Buddhism both have meticulous understandings of the human mind, but so far Western investigations of the mind have focused mainly on pathologies,” Jinpa told me. “There has been little focus on the more constructive and positive qualities of the human mind, and very little research into how people can be trained to cultivate those.”

Jinpa feels that the imprimatur of a university as respected for rigor and innovation as Stanford is helping to legitimize an area of research that would have been stigmatized even a decade ago. Studying the effects of mindfulness has become almost mainstream, but compassion has been regarded as too fuzzy. The Dalai Lama’s universal appeal and his engagement in the Mind and Life dialogues have helped bring many skeptical scientists and scholars around to thinking that compassion and altruism are not only worthy but vital areas of study. In offering his donation to CCARE, Jinpa says, “His Holiness asked for only two things: make sure the science is impeccable, and make sure all the work is universal and secular.”

Jinpa developed the compassion-cultivation training protocol—essentially an eight-week course—that is being used and tested in a pilot program at Google and in other contexts. It is one of the core tools that will likely emerge from CCARE’s work and speaks to the “education” aspect of the center’s mandate. The course is taught only by instructors who combine academic understanding and “intimate familiarity with the contemplative practices associated with cultivating compassion.” As currently structured, the course consists of a two-hour session once a week that includes lecture and discussion; guided group meditation; interactive exercises; and what Jinpa refers to as activities to “moisten” the heart, such as poetry or reflecting on inspiring stories. The course takes a stepwise approach to developing compassion, beginning with settling and focusing the mind, and proceeding through cultivating feelings for loved ones, oneself, others, and, ultimately, all beings. Daily practice suggestions and encouragement are offered throughout, and the final week is dedicated to preparing participants to undertake a daily compassion practice. It is striking how masterfully this curriculum presents traditional Buddhist practices in a completely secular way and integrates them with contemporary Western approaches.

Birgit Koopman-Holm, a doctoral candidate who came to Stanford from Germany to study with prominent psychologist Jeanne Tsai, has used Jinpa’s protocol in a CCARE study Tsai is leading that compares the effects of mindfulness meditation with compassion meditation. Koopman-Holm said that preliminary study results indicate that while mindfulness practice does not seem to perceptibly increase compassionate behavior, practices specifically intended to cultivate compassion do so. “We operationalized compassion,” she says, “by first having subjects read a letter from a prisoner serving a life sentence and comment on it.” The letter presented a detailed mix of positive accounts (he was painting and learning to enjoy music) and negative accounts (he talked about his anger and regret). Once the participants had been queried, they were told the study was effectively over, but if they wished to write the prisoner, they could do so. “With their permission, we reviewed these letters, and coded them as to their length, expressions of encouragement, empathetic statements, and various other variables. More of the people who were randomly assigned to the compassion class wrote letters, and they were longer and displayed more acceptance, encouragement, and empathy.”


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