In the Buddhist tradition, Mindfulness and compassion are considered to be the two wings of the bird of wisdom , and it is thought that both are essential for flight, so they are practiced together and reinforce each other.

To practice compassion, mindfulness is necessary, because we must be able to become aware of our own and others’ suffering, without judgment, attachment or rejection, in order to feel compassion for the person who is suffering.

Above all, however, compassionate practices require minimum levels of care that are obtained through the practice of mindfulness (García Campayo and Demarzo, 2015). Some of the first practices of compassion, such as mindfulness in compassionate breathing and compassionate body scan , aim to develop mindfulness and reduce wandering of the mind, while associated with a basic compassionate attitude.

The link between mindfulness and compassion

The practice of mindfulness represented by the two main intervention protocols developed, the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program (Birnie et al, 2010) and the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program (Kuyken et al 2010), are known to increase compassion. These programs do not specifically teach compassion, but they send implicit messages about the importance of being compassionate and kind to oneself and one’s mental processes when talking about the compassionate attitude, which is central to the practice of mindfulness.

However, when the two interventions are associated, compassion therapy brings to mindfulness the combination of the mental processes that are behind the social commitment to try to make the world a better place, and the individual commitment to establish bonds of attachment and affection when we are suffering. Compassion is a broader concept than mindfulness and, in fact, studies point to the possibility that it is a more effective treatment than mindfulness in some specific pathologies, such as depression (and in disorders related to self-image, guilt and self-criticism), as well as in interventions focused on increasing psychological well-being in healthy subjects.

The differences between the two practices

Focusing on the psychobiology that gives rise to mindfulness and compassion, there are major differences between the two practices.

While the mental processes more linked to mindfulness generate a form of metacognition and regulation of attention related to the activity of the prefrontal middles regions and is therefore a recent evolutionary achievement (Siegel 2007), compassion is much more ancestral, and is linked to the mammalian care system. It involves substances such as oxytocin and other hormones related to secure attachment, and also neuronal systems and networks linked to love and affiliation (Klimecki et al 2013). The following table summarizes what each of the two therapies provides.

Table: Specific contributions of mindfulness and compassion therapies

MINDFULNESS COMPASSION Question answered What is the experience here and now? What do you need now to feel good and decrease suffering?ObjectiveTo become aware of the real experience and to accept its natureTo comfort the subject in the face of suffering, understanding that primary pain is consubstantial to the human beingRisk of each therapy if it is not balanced with the otherTo accept the discomfort of the subject, forgetting his needs, focusing exclusively on the experienceEventual absence of motivation and ethical and compassionate attitude towards oneself and the worldTo not accept the experience of primary suffering (which is inevitable and consubstantial to human nature) Not focusing on the here and now, on the real nature of things, and focusing exclusively on seeking to feel better in the future

By way of conclusion

The experience of self-pity may seem paradoxical: on the one hand one experiences present suffering with acceptance, but at the same time one tries to diminish future suffering .

The two objectives are not incompatible, but complementary: the first (mindfulness acceptance of the experience of suffering) is the recognition of human nature, and the second is the way forward (compassion) in the face of the reality of the first.

Bibliographic references:

  • Birnie K, Speca M, Carlson LE. Exploring self-compassion and empathy in the context of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Stress and Health 2010; 26, 359-371.
  • García Campayo J, Demarzo M. Mindfulness manual. Curiosity and acceptance. Barcelona: Siglantana, 2015.
  • Klimecki OM, Leiberg S, Lamm C, Singer T. Functional neural plasticity and associated changes in positive affect after compassion training. Cereb Cortex 2013; 23:1552-61.
  • Kuyken W, Watkins E, Holden E, White K, Taylor RS, Byford S, et al. How does mindfulness-based cognitive therapy work? Behavior Research and Therapy 2010; 48, 1105-1112.
  • Siegel D. The mindful brain. New York: Norton, 2007.