Meditation for emotional balance

By Matthieu Ricard on October 21, 2021


This post is an excerpt from Matthieu Ricard's new book, Carnets d’un moine errant [Diaries of Wandering Monk].

The crucial difference between empathy and compassion

Of the various research projects I have been involved in, the one led by Tania Singer is among those that have opened me the most to new perspectives on mental states. It showed a clear distinction between empathy and altruistic love and compassion. Emotional empathy is what allows a person to tune into someone else's emotional state : if the person in front of you is happy, you soon start to smile ; if they suffer, you feel and share their pain.

Empathy is turned inward, to the self. It is the effect the emotions of others have on you. If you are a person with empathy and likely to tune into other people's suffering day after day through your work, the cumulative impact of negative emotions will eventually lead to emotional fatigue, a burnout. This can be the case of those who are in daily contact with the homeless, migrant people or a loved-one facing difficulties. To deal with this emotional distress, it is generally recommended to maintain some distance, as a way to protect ourselves. But we know that distancing from others isn't an ideal solution : it can lead to a certain coldness.

Tania Singer's experiments showed, in broad terms, that while empathy distress may lead to burnout, altruistic love and compassion, on the other hand, can replenish our ability to take care of others with serenity, kindness and courage. These emotional states don't actually result in « compassionate fatigue », as it is sometimes referred to in medical circles, but rather in « empathy fatigue ». A study in the United-States has indeed shown that 60% of care personnel suffer or have suffered from burnout, and that one third is affected to the point of having to take a break from their work. In Singapore's hospitals, despite being very-well equipped, the rate is 80%.

I started working with Tania in 2007, in Maastricht, at Rainer Goebel's lab ; he had developed a new TR-fMRI technology (functional magnetic resonance imaging) that allows to track changes in cerebral activity in real time, and not afterwards as was usually the case. Tania asked me to generate a strong feeling of empathy by visualizing people affected by painful suffering. I alternated about twenty times between moments when I put myself in a state of emotional empathy and resting moments that where emotionally neutral. In previous studies, the experiment consisted in asking the subjects to watch a person sitting next to the scanner receive painful electrical shocks to the hand. Tania had found that part of the brain network associated with pain was activated, although the subjects were merely observing someone suffer : by witnessing pain, they experienced it themselves1 .

[…] By nature, love and compassion cause neither fatigue nor wear but instead help overcome them and repair emotional wounds. They can serve as antidotes to the emotional exhaustion of a burnout. The complete data analysis confirmed that the cerebral networks activated by meditation on compassion were different from those linked to empathy that Tania had been studying for years. More specifically, during meditation on compassion, the network linked to negative emotions and distress remained inactive, while various cerebral areas associated with positive emotions and maternal love were activated 2.

These three emotional dimensions – altruistic love, empathy (emotional resonance with the suffering of others or their cognitive awareness) and compassion – are naturally linked. Within altruistic love, emotional empathy – the ability to feel what others feel – manifests itself when we are confronted with suffering. It then generates compassion – the desire to alleviate the pain and its causes. So when altruistic love passes through the prism of empathy, it becomes compassion. Empathy on its own, without the support of altruism and compassion, is like an electrical pump lacking oil : it ends up burning.

The ReSource project

After this three-dimensional study, Tania Singer and her colleagues conducted a longitudinal one (observing the evolution of subjects over time) called ReSource and aimed at training a group of novice volunteers in various emotional and cognitive capacities over the course of a year. First, Tania Singer and her team split the hundred or so subjects into two groups. One meditated on love and compassion while the other concentrated only on empathy.

After one week of guided meditations on altruistic love and compassion, the subjects perceived more positively and kindly the short videos showing people suffering. « Positively » does not mean than the observers considered the suffering to be acceptable, but rather that they reacted to it with constructive mental states such as courage or the desire to ease the pain instead of « negative » mental states leading to distress, discouragement and avoidance3. In contrast, when the subjects spent the week only cultivating empathy by tuning into other people's suffering, they kept on associating empathy to negative values and demonstrated a heightened perception of pain, sometimes to the point of being unable to control their emotions and their tears.

[…] Aware of these potentially disruptive effects, Tania Singer and her colleague Olga Klimecki added to the second group a daily one-hour training on altruistic love after the week dedicated to empathy. As was then observed, this addition counterbalanced the negative effects of empathy training : negative emotions fell back to their initial states and positive emotions increased.

[…] After this preliminary study, Tania and her team followed a group of 190 volunteers who undertook either three months of meditation on mindfulness, three months of meditation on taking into account the perspective of others (putting oneself mentally in their place) or three months of meditation on altruistic love, forty minutes daily. This long-term study, the most complete to date, showed that each type of meditation induced specific structural changes in different areas of the brain. And while meditation on mindfulness increases attention, only meditation on altruistic love leads to an increase in pro-social behaviors.

In January 2021, Karuna-Shechen, the organization founded by Matthieu Ricard, launched its first program in France called Resilience. It offers a series of workshops for social workers from the Samu Social de Paris aiming at reinforcing their resilience and preventing emotional distress, which is frequent among such busy and difficult jobs. Learn more here.

1 More specifically, two brain regions, the anterior insula and the cingulate cortex, are strongly activated during this empathetic reaction, and this activity is correlated with a negative emotional experience of pain. For a synthesis of the thirty-two studies on empathy towards pain, see Lamm, C., Decety, J., & Singer, T. (2011), « Meta-Analytic Evidence for Common and Distinct Neural Networks Associated With Directly Experienced Pain and Empathy for Pain », in Neuroimage, 54(3), p. 2492-2502.

2 The increase of a positive reaction using compassion is associated with the activation of a cerebral network which includes the median frontal orbital cortex, the ventral striatum, the ventral tegmental area, the cerebral trunk core, the nucleus accumbens, the medial insula, the pallidum and the putamen ; these brain regions have previously been associated with love (particularly maternal love) and to feelings of kinship and gratification. In the case of empathy, the areas activated are the anterior insula and the medial cingulate cortex. Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2012), « Functional Neural Plasticity and Associated Changes in Positive Affect After Compassion Training », Cerebral Cortex, 23(7), p. 1552-1561; Klimecki, O., Ricard, M., & Singer, T. (2013), op. cit. Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Ricard, M., & Singer, T. (2013), « Differential Pattern of Functional Brain Plasticity after Compassion and Empathy Training », Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. For a neural distinction between compassion and empathy fatigue, see Klimecki, O., & Singer, T. (2011), « Empathic Distress Fatigue Rather Than Compassion Fatigue? Integrating Findings From Empathy Research in Psychology and Social Neuroscience, in Oakley, B., Knafo, A., Madhavan, G., & Wilson, D. S. (2011), Pathological altruism, Oxford University Press, p. 368-383.

3 Klimecki, O. M., et al. (2012), op. cit.