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Transcript: Live chat with Charles Raison on Compassion Training as a Path to Genuine Happiness

Charles Raison, of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, will answer readers' questions as a follow up to his Wednesday, Oct. 23, lecture.

  • Welcome to our live chat with Dr. Charles Raison. If you attended his lecture Wednesday evening, I'm sure you have questions or comments about compassion training. We'll be getting underway in a moment, but you may submit questions at any time.
  • Do you have a 'how to' guide, video or book for those who want to practice compassionate training?
  • This is a great question and unfortunately the answer is no at this time. The version of compassion meditation that we have been studying, CBCT, is just now beginning to spread into a bit more general use. We have focused all our resources up to this point on studying it scientifically to see if it works and how it works and how it might be improved. Having said this, however, there are some great books from within the Buddhist tradition that describe the basic practices that are incorporated into CBCT., A good place to start woutd be "When Things Fall Apart" by Pema Chodron.
  • Thank you for the chat Dr. Raison!!

    In the world I am seeing, there is very little
    compassion. The people that are seeking a more
    compassionate world will read books, attend lectures
    such as those that you give or attempt to do positive
    things in their own lives to improve the world. However,
    they seem to be the exception.

    I feel that by nature humans are materialistic and hierarchical, much like their
    primate predecessors and that compassion is something rare. But in your view
    is compassion a natural human trait that is just not nurtured very much in this
    hyper-competitive and combative world we live in ?
  • Yes your last sentence captures my view. Of course the world is a hard place and always has been. What has surprised me over the last few years is not that people and other animals are often cruel but they are kinder more often than I would have guessed. There are recent studies showing that even rats feel compassion for their fellows and will share things with one in need, for example. I often see us humans as suspended somewhere half-way between chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest primate relatives. Chimps tend to have violent, hierarchical, male dominated societies whereas bonobos tend to have much more peaceful, egalitarian, female dominated social groupings. We see both trends so clearly in us. So I think compassion is a capacity that humans have to varying degrees, and much like language, is something that can benefit from training and practice.
  • Great talk! It inspired a lot of discussion around me. As a former teacher and caregiver to a cancer patient, I can see the possibilities CBCT presents, and I think it may be an opportunity for me to be of service. How can I get more information about it? What would be involved in being trained in using CBCT?
  • Thanks for the kind words. We are actively working out how best to get CBCT really up and running in Tucson. A major challenge has been the fact that my colleague Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi is committed to really making sure that CBCT teachers are profoundly trained. Because of this, teacher training takes most people just over a year and requires a fairlly substantial time commitment. I will say that the people who have done it have almost universally found it an incredibly powerful experience. But it means that getting a critical mass of qualified teachers on the ground here in Tucson has taken some time and is an ongoing process. So we do not at this time have a set pathway for people to become CBCT teachers here in Tucson although we hope to have this mapped out and in place by the first quarter of 2014. Meantime, the best overall place to stay in touch regarding CBCT news, events and developments is at the website www.compassionAZ.com. We also have a listserv cbct@list.arizona.edu. If you send an email to this listserv we will put you on our mailing list. We are hoping to bring Geshe Lobsang to Tucson in late winter/spring to do a 3 day introduction workshop on CBCT.
  • If one is happy can they become happier with these lectures. Or will one realize they were not happy as they thought they were?
  • I think the former rather than the latter. These talks will help happy people understand why they are happy and I think suggest ways that they might be able to optimize their happiness. I've heard practice sessions for all the talks more or less and they are all inspiring in my opinion.
  • Are you familiar with a book called "Self Compassion" by Dr. Kirsten Neff?
  • Yes I know the book but haven't read it. I know Kristen and her scientific work. It is very solid and I think very helpful. As I mentioned in my talk self-compassion seems to be something that we in the west are especially in need of, and we need it in its simplest sense as being kinder toward ourselves, more forgiving and more curious about how we might be able to improve ourselves without bringing ourselves down in the process. Kristen's work speaks to this and shows that developing this type of self-compassion has measurable and important effects on enhancing well-being.
  • Is cognitively-based compassion training something that can help with those troubled relationships that can make people ill? I'm referring to what some people call toxic relationships, in which one feels he or she can no longer continue a friendship. Good friends are hard enough to come by. Would CBCT help?
  • We need questions! Doesn't anyone want to know more?
  • Yes perhaps. I say this both because the practice is designed to help people get a bit more equanimity in their relationships but also from my experience in studying foster adolescents. It turns out that a major challenge in helping foster kids is their ongoing and often unrelenting emotional attachment to parents who are typically either abusive or neglectful or both. One of the things that captured the imagination of the head of foster care in Georgia was the part of CBCT that helps people lessen their irrational attachments to people and things that they over-value. I find that this type of over-valuing is frequently at the center of toxic relationships--something is being held onto that would be better let go or at least tuned down.,
  • Setting training aside, I've often felt that simple compassionate acts can boost one's happiness. At the very least volunteering at a soup kitchen would tend to make one appreciate what he already has. What do you think?
  • Yes this is absolutely true. There is no doubt from the scientific literature that doing good deeds to others makes people--on the whole--feel better than doing good things for themselves. This touches upon what I referred to as the paradox deep in the heart of happiness: the most efficient way to secure happiness for oneself is to work for the happiness of others. And pragmatically helping others is the most powerful way to do this of course.
  • Will there be information about future lectures? Are they available on th web!
  • I'm not sure if you mean the Downtown Lecture series on Happiness that I spoke at this wednesday or future talks related to CBCT. Let me try to address both. The Happiness Lecture series will continue for the next 3 wednesday nights. Next week Esther Sternberg will talk about place and well-being (she is an internationally recognized expert); the week after Dave Raichlen will talk about exercise and happiness (he is a world-expert on the role of running in the evolution of the human brain) and the week after that Daniel Russell, philosopher extraordinaire will talk about "Happiness--a feeling or a future". The website for these lectures is www.downtownlectures.arizona.edu. These have all been filling up fast so make sure to make arrangements to get tickets early. The talks are free to the public.

  • Sorry I hit the post button too soon. OK the second topic is whether there will be future CBCT lectures. We are working on this now. we hope to have Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi come to Tucson in early 2014 to do a weekend workshop on CBCT (he created it) and also to give a public lecture. You can follow these developments at www.compassionAZ.com and/or send an email to cbct.list@arizona.edu
  • could you further address the line between being too hard on others or being too easy.
  • The happiness lectures are also streamed live by Arizona Public Media
  • In relation to being hard or easy on others that is rough. Many people tell me I am too easy on others, so I have that bias and don't personally like confrontations or conflict. Often this has worked well for me, but where I've failed in my life it is often for the same reason. Several times recently I've watched one close associate or other be much harder on people in a situation of conflict. I figured they'd blow the whole thing out of the water, but several times their hardline approach resulted in them achieving outcomes that would never have happened to me. So it is really complicated. The problem is that like everything that matters most in life the question of how easy or hard to be on others is largely context dependent. There is no simple "one size fits all" answer. The perfect line is the one that produces the most beneficial outcome, but of course because we never get to see alternative histories we don't know whether being harder or softer on someone in any given situation might have produced even better results. One thing I think we can say--and this connects to the toxic relationship question--is that if we see that how we are behaving is producing consistently bad results we should ask ourselves whether we might do better by changing our approach with the person. In the Buddhist tradition there is a clear recognition of the need to sometimes oppose others in the sharpest terms. The trick is to do this without being overwhelmed by negative/conflictual/hostile emotions. That is the really hard part. Many people like me who shy away from conflict by nature do so because we can't stand feeling those really hot horrible feelings.
  • I was at the lecture on Wednesday, and have a follow-up question about a study of foster children and two types of meditation, mindfulness and compassion. Can you describe how you would define the differences in practice between mindfulness and compassion?
  • Sure, but first the comparison of compassion vs. mindfulness was not done in foster kids, but at a private school in Atlanta. We did do a study in foster kids but it was simpler, only comparing compassion training, or CBCT, with what is called a "wait list control". Your question deserves a longer answer than I'll be able to give here. But basically, compassion meditation is what is known as an analytic practice in Tibetan Buddhism. Whereas mindfulness involves becoming more and more non-judgmentally aware of ones thoughts and feelings as well as the larger environment, compassion training actually involves meditating on very value laden propositions. For instance, whereas mindfulness encourages recognizing one's thoughts as thoughts and letting them go neither attaching to or rejecting them, compassion training would start with meditating on a proposition such as "Why is it that I view some people as friends and others as enemies? Are these people really so different from each other". Compassion training, at least in the CBCT version, also utilzes visualization exercises to attempt to help one generate deep feelings of empathy toward others. This attempt to generate emotions is quite common in some tantra meditation techniques but is not part of mindfulness. Having said all this, CBCT starts with training in mindfulness because the ability to be more aware of one's thoughts without being swept away by them, and the ability to enhance one's ability to concentrate thought, are both essential pre-requrisites for successfully engaging in CBCT.
  • What is the optimum time a person should devote each day to compassionate meditation?
  • Hi mom. Glad you were able to get the technology running. We encourage people to practice about 20-30 minutes a day, but in our studies we've seen that even if people do this 3-4 days a week they seem to get a benefit.
  • Who defines happiness? Is happiness the same today as it was 100 years ago? Is happiness cultural? Seems like it is a personal decision.
    by Tt edited by Johanna Eubank, StarNet... 10/25/2013 7:45:05 PM
  • Yes I agree that happiness is ultimately personal in the sense that it is registered within the consciousnesses of individuals. You are happy if you think you are happy, just as you are in pain if you feel pain. One of the great problems I've seen people struggle with is being bound to what they think happiness should be or what they should be doing to achieve it. Many of us have had the experience of passing up real internally felt happiness to chase something that we saw as an ideal but that at the end of the day didn't bring the happiness we sought. I don't think we know if happiness is the same today as it was 100 years ago because we can't bring anybody back to life from that period to really let them experience life now and weigh in on the issue. But my sense from reading anthropology and history is that the basics of happiness have been pretty similar and pretty stable for at least the few thousand years and I suspect for many thousands before that. Yes happiness is cultural in the sense that some cultures/societies produce far higher rates of self reported happiness than do others. In general, the countries of northern Europe (and Iceland) have the highest levels of happiness (with Costa Rica being a big recent winner) and the countries in Africa having the lowest levels. The USA usually comes in somewhere between the 20th and 30th happiest country which is pretty sad given all the material blessings we enjoy.
  • Not sure how to frame my question. We have an adopted son who went through physical and mental trauma as well as neglect before he turned 3, when we got him through foster care. He is now sitting in a maximum security prison for a long time. I know he wants to turn his mindset around but he has so many obstacles facing him, including very low frustration tolerance and very diffuse learning disabilities (he has fetal alcohol effect for one). Is cbct at all appropriate for him? If so, how can he access this training through reading or otherwise? Thanks.
  • I am so sorry to hear of your situation and that of your son. Unfortunately, it is not all that uncommon and it is always a great heartbreak. I wouldn't recommend CBCT in this case, only because it is so new and we don't know anything about it in the prison context. On the other hand there is a very powerful and often remarkablly successful program of mindfulness meditation that is going on in prison. Let me recommend you check out the "Dhamma Brothers" website at www.dhammabrothers.com for more information. I hope this helps and that your son finds a way to turn his mind and life around.
  • there is so much information that has to be glossed over in the Downtown Lectures. What are a few Lay-mans books that you could recommend for further reading on the subject matters that you spoke on.
  • yes this is true you'd be amazed how quickly 45 minutes passes up on that stage and how little one can say about complex subjects. Let me just focus on books relevant to my talk. There are a number of excellent books about meditation--I'm most acquainted with those from the Buddhist tradition but there is excellent work on Christian contemplation, too. In terms of mindfulness practices let me recommend "Full Catastrophe Living" by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the "Attention Revolution" by B. Alan Wallace (our collaborator!) and "The Mindful Way through Depression" by Zindal Segal (a great book even if not depressed). "Thoughts Without a Thinker" by Mark Epstein is also good. For books related to compassion practices I'd recommend "Self Compassion" by Kristin Neff, "Love Your Enemies" or "Real Happiness" by Sharon Salzberg, "When Things Fall Apart" by Pema Chodron and "The Four Immeasurables" by B. Alan Wallace. There are lots of other good books but this would be a start
  • Well it's 1 p.m. and time for me to go back to my day job. It's been a lot of fun chatting, thanks for all the great questions and here's to the hope that we are successful in bringing CBCT to Arizona.
  • That's all the time we have. Thank you all for joining in the online chat. Learn more about upcoming lectures at downtownlectures.arizona.edu. We'll have another online chat at noon a week from today with Esther Sternberg as a follow-up to her Wednesday lecture "How Our Surroundings Influence Our Happiness and Health."
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