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 completed a Ph.D. in religious studies at Cambridge University.
He has been the principal English language translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama for many years. While he weaves in his own experiences to reinforce various concepts relevant to compassion, this isn’t a book about his own story. Rather, A Fearless Heart focuses on the elements of Compassion Cultivation Training, a secular compassion training program that he helped to develop at Stanford University.
While the author’s approach is steeped in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the book is also 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’ve 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
- wishing to see that situation may be relieved
Empathy, which involves the first two of these elements, is a complex phenomenon in the brain. It 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 is available from the Center for Mindful Compassion. The test breaks down scores on scales of self-kindness, self-judgment, common humanity, isolation, mindfulness, and over-identification. When I completed the test, I 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 the practice of self-compassion and the capacity to self-soothe and regulate emotions is heavily influenced by experiences and attachment early in life. However, 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. The goal is to cultivate the capacity to genuinely accept and care for ourselves, as well as a profound appreciation of our natural aspiration to kindness. A Fearless Heart 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 armour we put on when we feel like we’re under attack.” When approaching self-forgiveness, Dr. Jinpa suggests that it’s important to acknowledge the legitimacy of unmet needs that prompted the behaviour in question. I found this very powerful.
The Tibetan practice of “tonglen” (literally “giving and receiving”) is a type of 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 empathetically 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’s not liable to cause what’s often referred to as “compassion fatigue.” Working in a helping profession myself, I thought this was an interesting differentiation.
Compassion training has been shown to improve psychological well-being in a number of different ways. It’s correlated with decreased emotional suppression 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.
A Fearless Heart is available on Amazon (affiliate link).