What is compassion and how can we cultivate it?

What is compassion and how can we cultivate it?

A Masterclass at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre explores Buddhist and psychological perspectives.

A young bonobo in Africa is disciplined by an elder and shrieks in distress. Another young one rushes in and throws his arms around his distraught companion, hugging him tightly. It’s hard to interpret this action as anything other than compassionate behaviour. Frans De Waal (2010) describes it as “consolation.”

Indeed, current research suggests that the human capacity for compassion is a biologically based characteristic that we share with other members of the animal kingdom (Gilbert, 2005). An evolutionary perspective argues that communities whose members take care of each other are more likely to survive and thrive (Germer & Siegel, 2012). These contemporary scientific views are complemented by the tenets of most of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, which have long held compassion to be an essential virtue (Armstrong, 2011).

Despite its central importance to health and wellbeing for individuals and societies, compassion is difficult to define. Most dictionaries say that compassion has two elements. The first is usually described as a feeling, such as sympathy, sorrow, sadness, distress, pity, or concern for another’s suffering or misfortune; the second is a desire to alleviate the suffering. A difficulty with these definitions is the implication that we must feel a certain way in order to be compassionate. Believing this can be quite problematic. If we don’t feel kindly or sympathetic when faced with pain and suffering, we may assume that we’re lacking in compassion. This can lead to unhelpful self-criticism, rumination, and avoidance or turning away from situations in which help is needed.

Both Buddhist and psychological perspectives take a more nuanced view of the nature of compassion. In arecent masterclass at the OMC, Christina Feldman and Willem Kuyken defined compassion as the capacity to meet pain with kindness, empathy, equanimity, and patience (Feldman & Kuyken, 2011). They noted that compassion is not an emotional state; rather it’s a deeply held intention to ease suffering. We don’t have to feel a particular way to act compassionately. This understanding of compassion helps us let go of the tendency to criticize ourselves for having normal human reactions to pain and distress. It’s understandable to feel anger, fear, or aversion when we encounter suffering. Judgmental thoughts may arise. We may feel a strong desire to turn away, despite genuine aspirations to be compassionate.

Because of these normative obstacles to compassionate behaviour, it’s helpful to define compassion not as a fixed trait but as a set of skills that can be cultivated. The practice of mindfulness is an effective way to cultivate compassion skills. Mindfulness develops the ability to recognize distress in ourselves and others and to bring discerning awareness to reactive habits, such as criticism and denial. It encourages acceptance of the reality of pain and distress, letting go of judgments, and emotional balance in the face of suffering. This facilitates clear seeing of what is needed, whether it’s active problem-solving or empathic presence in a situation that can’t be changed.

Buddhist teachings have been a source of such wisdom for centuries. More recently, psychology and related fields are bringing a scientific approach to important questions about compassion. Some research aims to clarify the essential elements of compassion and how to measure them. Another interesting question is therelationship between compassion for others and self-compassion. Buddhist perspectives suggest that they are not fundamentally different, yet contemporary studies sometimes find nonsignificant correlations (Neff & Pommier, 2013). It appears that Westerners can be compassionate to others while withholding compassion from themselves, at least according to their self-descriptions. We also don’t yet know the most effective ways to teach compassion for self and others, especially in vulnerable populations, such as those with a history of depression or trauma.

The extent of suffering in the world can feel overwhelming. While the capacity for compassion appears to be a fundamental part of human nature, so is the tendency to avoid pain and distress. The current confluence of ancient Buddhist wisdom and contemporary scientific methods is yielding deeper insights into how to understand this paradox. Through the continued study and practice of mindfulness, perhaps we can learn more effective ways to cultivate the deep compassion to which we aspire.

Ruth Baer

Ruth is Professor of Psychology at the University of Kentucky and is spending a sabbatical year at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. She has published numerous papers and books on mindfulness.


Declaration of interest statement

Professor Baer has no interests to declare.


Armstrong, K. (2011). Twelve steps to a compassionate life. London: Random House.

De Waal., F. (2010). The age of empathy. Nature’s lessons for a kinder society.  Broadway books.

Feldman, C. & Kuyken, W. (2011). Compassion in the landscape of suffering. Contemporary Buddhism, 12, 143-155.

Germer, C. K. & Siegel, R. D. (2012). Wisdom and compassion in psychotherapy: Deepening mindfulness in clinical practice. NY: Guilford Press.

Gilbert, P. (2005). Compassion and cruelty: A biopsychosocial approach. In P. Gilbert (Ed.), Compassion: conceptualizations, research, and use in psychotherapy (pp. 9-74). London: Routledge.

Neff, K. D. & Pommier, E. (2013). The relationship between self-compassion and other-focused concern among college undergraduates, community adults, and practicing meditators. Self and Identity, 12, 160-176.

Oxford Mindfulness Centre

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC) is an internationally recognised centre of excellence at the University of Oxford, and has been at the forefront of research and development in the field of mindfulness. The OMC works to advance the understanding of evidence-based mindfulness through research, publication, training and dissemination. Our world leading research investigates the mechanisms, efficacy, effectiveness, costeffectiveness and implementation of mindfulness. We offer a wide range of training, education, and clinical services, all taught by leading experts and teachers in the field, who are training the next generation of MBCT researchers, teachers and trainers. We actively engage in collaborative partnership to shape the field and influence policy nationally and internationally. Through the charitable work of the OMC, we are improving the accessibility of MBCT for those most in need.