M3S3 Social Awareness, Mindfulness, and Research

Module 3 Session 3

Social Awareness, Mindfulness, and Research

January 22, 2019

Last session we looked at what it takes to make space for social awareness through mindfulness, when it comes to your students. We read “The Guest House”, and meditated on the openness and spaciousness needed to accept others, and which is needed even more deeply for us to help students accept EACH OTHER. We talked about the relationship between mindfulness and social awareness, whether one necessarily leads to the other (or not!) and we will continue that thread in our discussion today. We talked about the phrase “holding space” and issues of cultural responsiveness. We practiced a tonglen meditation, transforming the suffering of others by bringing it in to the spaciousness of our own hearts, and sending it back out as positive energy. We “cleansed” any remaining darkness with a few releasing breaths at the end of the session :)

Today we looked a bit further at social awareness and specifically the development of empathy (taking perspective) and compassion (doing something about it) ---how researchers are studying it, how they are thinking about it, and what their research suggests we do.


Early MBSR research in 1998 showed the program increased empathy in medical students (8 week prgm). But HOW? Shapiro suggests these three ways:

the parable of The Good Samaritan

the parable of The Good Samaritan

  1. Mindfulness is not just about paying attention but HOW you pay attention. What you practice becomes stronger. Compassionate, kind, curious attention is key.

    • Metaphor---mindfulness is a big cooking pot. I put all of my experiences in. The pot is always kind but the stuff isn’t. I cook all the pain, the confusion, the sadness, the joy, steadily, consistently, holding it in the kind compassionate pot of mindfulness. By relating to my experiences and emotions this way, i’m better able to digest and receive nourishment from all of them.

  2. Seeing our interconnectedness more clearly

  3. Mindfulness guards against the feelings of stress and busyness that make us focus more on ourselves and less on others.

    • We discussed the classic good Samaritan study from the 1970s---those who were late to seminary, to preach about The Good Samaritan Bible story, didn’t stop to help someone in need!


So, how do you cultivate compassion? Longitudinal research from 1979 to 2009 suggests that self-reported concern for the welfare of others has been dropping since the early 1990s. Desteno at Northeastern University studied whether meditation can foster compassion. 39 novice meditators were recruited and randomly assigned to either an 8 week meditation course or a waitlist. After 8 weeks they went back to lab to supposedly measure attention and memory. But the real study was in the waiting room, when another person entered with crutches, wincing in pain. There was no chair for her. The meditators had a much higher rate of spontaneously offering their seat (10 of 20) compared to 3 of 19 nonmeditators. Then they repeated the study with an app. Randomly assigned 56 people to complete three weeks of training with the app or 3 weeks of a web based brain training program. When they were given the same situation in the waiting room, the results were similar. 14% of nonmeditators helped while 37% of meditators helped.

Compassion fatigue is a big issue...distress is contagious and it can be uncomfortable to see others in distress! Matthieu Ricard and neuroscientist Tania Singer showed meditation training reduces activation of the brain networks associated with simulating distress, and instead activated feelings of social affiliation. A neuroanatomical basis for something many practitioners have observed...a LACK of compassion fatigue among meditators. Meditation allows practitioners to move from distress to compassionate action. It keeps us from being paralyzed!

Finally, we moved to an activity on the dry erase board, brainstorming ways that teachers co-regulate with their students’ to guide their development and how that differs from the more common concept of self-regulation. The idea of “co-regulation” seems intuitive to many of us when it comes to soothing infants. If we touch babies in a calm and loving way, it makes sense that we can calm them, and help them learn to access that state more easily without us. Co-regulation is a process throughout the lifespan, and relevant to teachers as much as their primary caregivers. Here was our attempt at co-creating the co-regulation chart :)


And here is the original chart, from the website of Susan Kaiser Greenland, a mindfulness teacher and researchers.

music and empathy.JPG

Finally, we discussed how literary fiction can help elicit empathy. Similarly, we touched on interesting research about music and empathy: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201806/empathic-people-use-social-brain-circuitry-process-music

When we think of research-based ways to elicit social awareness, particularly the prosocial feelings we want to engender, like empathy and compassion, there is a great deal of research that can guide us and it is my hypothesis that mindfulness-based approach can make each of these practices more potent and more authentic.

Thanks for all you do with your students!