Day Twenty-six

DAY 26: Dr Elise Bialylew interviews Tania Singer

Video Objectives

In this video, you'll learn:

  • How to build your mental fitness and resilience.
  • The power of compassion and the research which supports its benefits.
  • How to avoid burnout when faced with the suffering of others, and the crucial difference between empathy and compassion.  
  • A practice to build resilience and reduce compassion fatigue when experiencing the suffering in the world. 
  • The science of inner work and how it can benefit the world more broadly.
About Dr. Tania Singer

Prefer to listen, rather than watch? Click the play button below.

Want to read the transcript from this interview? Mind Life Project members receive access to interview transcripts and 6 months of mindfulness support, live meditations, and more👇

[accessally_missing_any_tag tag_id='707' comment='MLP 2021'][/accessally_missing_any_tag][accessally_has_any_tag tag_id='707' comment='MLP 2021']Mind Life Project Bonus Content:

Download your Transcript here.[/accessally_has_any_tag]

Your meditation for today

Breath And Compassion Meditation with Elise Bialylew


As we develop the skill of bringing greater compassion to ourselves, we also become more skilled at relating to others with greater compassion and kindness. 

As Eckhart Tolle says:

“If we get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.” 

So mastering the art of self-compassion is also an act of generosity as we become better at bringing that attitude of kindness and caring to others. 

Joseph Goldstein defines compassion as “the strong wish of the mind and heart to alleviate all suffering. It opens our hearts to suffering that is there, and it overcomes our indifference”.

This is something that I often wondered during my medical training and that many people have asked me about: how do we face other people’s suffering without becoming overwhelmed or getting burned out?

It’s a really important question, especially at a time when there is a lot of suffering in the world, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. 

In today's interview with Tania Singer (a world expert in social neuroscience, who has spent decades investigating the neuroscience of compassion) she helped answer that question.

Tania’s work is really significant as it gives us an understanding of how we can meet others’ stress and suffering in a way that actually builds our own resilience rather than burning us out.   

And the key is to practise compassion, rather than just to meet people with empathy.

Tania explains the difference between empathy and compassion like this: empathy is “a sharing of an emotion” - if you’re in pain and I’m empathising, I’m actually feeling your feeling. What’s completely fascinating is that when you are feeling empathy with someone, the  “pain” circuits in your brain are firing. In other words, you literally are feeling their pain through your own pain brain circuits, so staying in empathy for too long can put us at risk of what she calls empathic distress or a type of burnout.

In her study of the brains of monks, she discovered that compassion was a very different entity to empathy. 

She explains:

“We started understanding that empathy and compassion are two totally different responses to the suffering of others. Empathy is really resonating with the suffering and feeling suffering in yourself. Compassion is more like a motivation for the well-being of the other.  It doesn't have to come with a feeling. It’s more a motivation than a feeling. It comes with a feeling of warmth, and love, and the key differentiating factor is that compassion triggers our reward system.” 

So empathy and compassion are two very different experiences - one painful and at risk of burning us out, the other actually evoking our reward centres. 

Tania concluded that empathy is important for that initial ability to resonate with someone's suffering, but then we need to have the ability to switch to compassion and activate the different brain circuit.

Compassion, while benefiting other people, also ensures we can sustain our caring efforts rather than getting burnt out by empathic distress, which is in fact a large reason many health professionals leave their work - so compassion is a very valuable tool to develop. 

As the Dalai Lama says: 

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

And we can build that into our lives through regular meditation practice.

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