In A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, Dr. Thupten Jinpa offers a practical guide to creating change through Buddhist-inspired compassion practices. Dr. Jinpa is a former Buddhist monk, who left the monastic life to pursue higher education, completing a Ph.D. in religious studies at Cambridge University. He has been the principal English language translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama for a many years. While he weaves in his own experiences to reinforce various concepts relevant to compassion, this is not a book about his own story. Rather, the major focus is the elements Compassion Cultivation Training, a standardized secular compassion training program that he was involved in developing at Stanford University.
While the author’s approach is steeped in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, he makes it very accessible for non-spiritual audiences. He provides clear explanations of relevant terminology, and incorporates a variety of concepts and research findings from the field of psychology, often pointing out the parallels to classical Buddhist thought. Some ideas will be familiar to those who have done cognitive behavioural therapy work, such as distinguishing between observations and evaluations, and recognizing that thoughts are not who we are.
Dr. Jinpa describes three elements of compassion: perceiving another’s suffering or need, emotionally connecting with the suffering/need, and wishing to see that situation may relieved. Empathy involves the first two of these elements, and is a complex phenomenon in the brain that appears to involve the limbic system, attachment system, and pain matrix. Dr. Jinpa explains that “compassion acknowledges the fundamental truth of our human condition that not all pain can be fixed… In many situations, it’s not fixing that is needed; rather, it’s our empathic response, our acceptance, understanding, and solidarity.”
The importance of self-compassion is emphasized throughout the book. A free online self-compassion test is mentioned, which can be found at https://centerformsc.org/learn-msc/take-the-self-compassion-test/. The test breaks down scores on scales of self-kindness, self-judgment, common humanity, isolation, mindfulness, and over-identification. I completed the test, and scored particularly low in the areas of common humanity, isolation, and over-identification. This helps point me in the direction of the type of work that I need to focus on.
Dr. Jinpa explains that while the practice of self-compassion and the capacity to self-soothe and regulate emotions is heavily influenced by experiences and attachment early in life, the capacity for compassion is innate and therefore growth and change are possible. Self-compassion work includes cultivating both compassion (a wish to be free from suffering) and loving-kindness (a wish for happiness) towards ourselves, with a goal to cultivate the capacity to genuinely accept and care for ourselves and a profound appreciation of our natural and legitimate aspiration to kindness. The book offers specific, uncomplicated exercises to build skills in these areas.
Self-hatred is something that many of us living with mental illness have experienced at some point or another, and Dr. Jinpa offers an interesting view on this. He states that self-hatred comes from actually caring a great deal, but being unable to accept/forgive imperfect selves. As a result, people hide behind the “layers of armor we put on when we feel like we’re under attack”. When approaching self-forgiveness, Dr. Jinpa suggests that it is important to acknowledge the legitimacy of unmet needs that prompted the behaviour in question, which I found very powerful.
The Tibetan practice of “tonglen” (literally “giving and receiving”) is offered as an active compassion meditation. It involves breathing in another’s suffering (while visualizing dark clouds or smoke) and breathing out happiness and good fortune (visualizing white clouds and light). Rather than drawing us into another’s pain, this voluntary taking on of another’s suffering is presented as an empowered state of mind that allows us to get out of ourselves and our own pain. Thus it differs from the empathetic taking on of another’s suffering, which is liable to cause what’s often referred to as “compassion fatigue”. Working in a helping profession myself, I found this to be an interesting differentiation.
Compassion training has been shown to improve psychological well-being in a number of different ways. It is correlated with decreased suppression of emotions and increased resilience. It teaches us to become less self-preoccupied and see ourselves in the context of our relationship with others rather than in isolation. It also increases self-acceptance, social connectedness, and a sense of purpose in life. The exercises in the book provide a useful roadmap, and I’m looking forward to adding a compassion practice into my holistic wellness plan.
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