|Lorne Ladner is clinical
psychologist in private practice in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Dr.
Ladner serves as director of the Guhyasamaja Buddhist Center and is also
the author of a number of books including The Lost Art of Compassion:
Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology.
Western psychology has
tended to focus almost exclusively on pathology. In over a hundred years
of our Western psychological tradition, our greatest thinkers and researchers
have focused on understanding hysteria, obsessions, psychoses, compulsions,
depression, anxiety, impulsive anger, personality disorders, and the like.
On the other hand, very little scientific research or theoretical thought
has gone into understanding positive emotions or the psychology of human
strengths and well-being. Dr. Martin Seligman, a former president of the
American Psychological Association, has written about our neglect of positive
psychology, reflecting that "the exclusive focus on pathology that
has dominated so much of our discipline results in a model of the human
being lacking the positive features that make life worth living."
There seem to be a
variety of reasons for this historical neglect of positive psychology
in the West. Our tradition of psychology has developed within the overall
context of the Western disease model of looking at human beings. From
Freud's time on, doctors have received their pay for helping to relieve
patients' symptoms. And, research money has also tended to be spent on
developing medications and therapies for the treatment of pathological
symptoms. Also, psychologists have tended to be insecure in the scientific
community where the "hard sciences" receive more respect than
psychology does; for example, it's not lost on psychologists that Nobel
prizes are given to physicists and chemists but not to those who study
the psyche. And, studying well-being or positive emotions has often relied
on introspection and self-reports, which can seem less scientifically
significant than things that can be more easily weighed and measured.
Among positive emotions,
compassion has been particularly neglected in our Western tradition of
psychology. Freud once advised psychoanalysts to "model themselves
during the psychoanalytic treatment on the surgeon, who puts aside all
his feelings, even his human sympathy." Heinz Kohut, who is very
well-known for his work on the psychological importance of empathy, warns
psychologists that empathy (which he defines as a tool for understanding
the contents of other people's minds) should not be confused with "such
fuzzily related meanings as kindness, compassion, and sympathy."
From early on, it appears that psychotherapists did not want to be accused
of being compassionate.
have also tended to avoid studying compassion. I recently attended a conference
at which a number of important researchers spoke about the dialogue between
Buddhism and psychology. They noted that the Western psychological tradition
does not yet have any agreed upon definition of compassion. Until psychology
defines an emotion, it is extremely difficult to measure or study it.
And, so although there are numerous psychological tests and measures for
depression, anxiety, and anger, we do not yet have any reliable, accepted
measures for compassion.
From a scientific
perspective, when something is not clearly defined and cannot readily
be weighed or measured, it is almost as though that thing does not exist.
And yet, we can certainly all recognize that love and compassion do indeed
exist and are certainly as real and as important as anger or anxiety!
Over the past few years a number of researchers have begun studying the
positive psychology of compassion. As Buddhism places such a great emphasis
on compassion as a cause of happiness and well-being, much of this growing
interest has been initiated through the dialogue between Buddhism and
Western psychology. In particular, a number of leading researchers have
begun studying compassion as a result of ongoing dialogues with His Holiness
the Dalai Lama.
Davidson has studied the brains of meditators, discovering that meditation
seems to strengthen connections and functioning in those parts of the
brain that calm such feelings as fear or anger. When Dr. Davidson did
a study of the brain waves of an experienced meditator he found the highest
level of activity ever seen in brain areas associated with happiness and
In general, research suggests that meditation supports the development
of positive emotions. And, preliminary research findings seem to suggest
that meditation of loving-kindness and compassion are associated with
feelings of happiness.
From a Buddhist
perspective, this is certainly no surprise. For many centuries now, Buddhist
practitioners in the great monastic universities first of India and then
of Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, and other Buddhist nations have been systematically
studying positive psychology. And, perhaps the most significant and practical
psychological finding from all of those centuries of inner science is
this: the most powerful way of becoming happy is developing compassion.
In the West,
even our tradition of psychology often forgets that happiness is a state
of the mind and so its main cause must also be psychological. Too often,
we imagine that we can find happiness outside of ourselves-in wealth,
success, fame, work, or relationships. The truth is that the extent to
which we are happy depends mainly on our emotions. Even if we together
with someone close to us in a very beautiful setting, if we ourselves
are feeling extremely anxious or angry then we certainly won't be happy.
On the other hand, if we're feeling very strong love or compassion, then
we can be happy even in difficult external circumstances.
In my own clinical
work, I find that people are familiar with how negative emotions can appear
at different levels of intensity and power. Most of us know the differences
between feeling annoyance, anger, rage, and hatred. We know the differences
between feeling concerned, worried, afraid, and terrified. We can also
recognize that the more powerful our negative emotions become, the more
suffering they are likely to cause for ourselves and for others around
Yet, we do not
generally realize that positive emotions also have such gradations. We
do not even have a language to describe such levels of compassion-from
mild feelings of concern for others up to overwhelmingly powerful and
expansive feelings of connection, warmth and caring energy.
We all recognize how powerful feelings of hatred, terror or greed can
be very powerful, leading to terrible results in the external world. However,
we rarely seem to recall how positive emotions can be equally powerful.
In the West, we often associate feelings of love or compassion with weakness;
we too often imagine that one must be angry or arrogant to be strong.
Borrowing from Buddhism's tradition of positive psychology can help us
to remember that compassion can also be powerful.
traditions offer many different methods for cultivating positive emotions.
There are relatively simple methods such as meditation of the four immeasurables
(also referred to as the four BrahmaViharas) - meditating on limitless
love, compassion, equanimity and joy. And, then also there are the more
complex methods unique to Mahayana Buddhism such as the sequence of meditations
called the seven point cause and effect method for generating Bodhichitta,
which involves recognizing all beings as having been one's kind mothers
in previous lives and generating gratitude for their oceans of kindness
until one develops an infinite commitment to repaying their kindness and
sets out for Buddhahood in order to be able to do so. There is also the
remarkable method called equalizing and exchanging self for others, which
includes the well-known meditation on taking other's suffering and its
causes into your own self-cherishing while giving them your happiness
I set out to
write The Lost Art of Compassion in order to provide methods that ordinary
Westerners can use outside of the Buddhist context. From a psychological
perspective, what's important is to become aware of the great value of
compassion for our own and others happiness and then to apply practical
methods in our daily lives for actually increasing our feelings of love
If we spend
time actively cultivating such feelings, then we will quickly begin seeing
how they lead to happiness for ourselves. I just recently read one research
study that found that people who pray for others tend to live longer than
those who do not. The point is that when we develop feelings of love or
compassion, we may not always be able to actually benefit others in a
direct way, but we ourselves do always benefit from such feelings. They
serve as causes for our own happiness.
And, as we give
more and more time to developing such feelings, then we will naturally
begin benefiting others as well. My experience as a psychotherapist has
shown me that, contrary to Freud's assertion, the expression of simple
human compassion is healing in and of itself. By developing deep, powerful
feelings of compassionate connection with others that we can learn to
live meaningful and joyful lives. Only such feelings can help us to learn
experientially how to work for meaningful causes and give of ourselves
without becoming exhausted or burnt out-such feelings of joyful compassion
teach us how taking care of others is actually a supreme method for taking
care of ourselves.