The health benefits of practicing mindfulness are now widely recognized. Research has shown that mindfulness can help reduce stress, improve mood, increase immune function, and decrease chronic pain, leading many hospitals around the country to offer classes in mindfulness to their patients.

2013, Constable & Robinson (Kindle edition)

Less well publicized are the ways that mindfulness can help improve social relationships and nurture compassion toward oneself and others. Paul Gilbert, head of the Mental Health Research Unit at the University of Derby and appointed Order of the British Empire, aims to correct that disparity with his new book, Mindful Compassion. Drawing from his research and clinical experience, Gilbert gives us a thorough understanding of how we can cultivate mindful compassion in ourselves in order to better understand our emotions and make the world a more compassionate place.

Compassion is defined as being open and sensitive to the suffering of others and having a deep commitment to relieve that suffering. This involves two skill sets: being able to engage with rather than turn away from suffering, and the willingness and ability to respond. Mindfulness can help with both, because it increases our ability to focus on the present and handle painful events in our lives, and it also helps us understand our deep connections to one another.

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“Developing sensitivity of attention [mindfulness] means that we are in touch with the moment-by-moment flow of our experience and we are less likely to turn a blind eye or use denial or justification to avoid engaging with things we find painful,” writes Gilbert.

Mindfulness can also help us increase our bonds to one another by opening the door to our compassionate natures. We are designed through evolution to care for one another, writes Gilbert, so much so that our brains have developed complicated systems that allow us to feel what other people are feeling and to receive chemical rewards in our systems when we act with kindness toward others. These systems encourage us to form and sustain positive human relationships without which we would suffer physically as well as psychologically.

Yet, our brains are complex, and may not always automatically move toward compassionate action, especially when we are under threat or feel driven to meet survival needs. We need to consciously train our minds in order to effectively keep the door to compassion open and benefit from our connections with others.

“Compassion involves the active stimulation of positive emotional systems and training in qualities such as kindness, strength, and courage,” writes Gilbert. “These in turn depend in part on stimulating our soothing/affiliation system and becoming mindful—noticing, allowing and accepting the experiences of kindness and empathic validation that come to us from other people—and developing self-kindness.”

Much of Gilbert’s book is devoted to the brain science and psychology behind mindful compassion; but throughout the book he also suggests practices that readers can use to increase their compassion quotient. For example, he explains how to use rhythmic breathing to calm the body and mind, how to recognize emotional reactions without becoming attached to them, and how to consciously wish other people well. These and many of the other exercises in the book come straight out of the mindfulness tradition, which helps form the basis for his renowned compassion-focused therapy model.

But compassion training requires motivation as well as skill, and therein lies the first roadblock to compassion training—you must be willing to put in the time and energy to train. So if you are willing to start, pick up Gilbert’s book and learn from the master. You will be rewarded not only with detailed information, but with Gilbert’s witty and charming writing style too.

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