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‘At the heart of finding the patience and presence to be compassionate with others lies the ability to feel true compassion for oneself. Use of the rational mind may help us to recognize, in theory at least, that all humans have the inbuilt potential for compassion, but engagement of more than the rational mind is needed if that is to be realized. In Buddhist traditions, the purpose of the practice of meditation is to bring forth the recognition of our innate compassion and wisdom. This is the direct experience of our compassionate nature, present in all of us as a potential and realized to a greater or lesser extent.


The human mind is constantly distracted and agitated by the thoughts and emotions that pass through it with sometimes overwhelming speed and intensity. We are all familiar with the way that even relatively tranquil states of mind can very quickly be disturbed by complex associations and memories, along with doubts of self-worth, all of them often deeply rooted in personal history and re-activated by immediate experience.


The meditation known as calm abiding is an effective method of allaying such turbulent emotions by holding one’s focus on a particular object and bringing the attention back to that focus when it strays. The selected object may be internal – the breathing process or a visualized image – or external in the form, for example, of a conveniently placed piece of wood or stone. The effectiveness of the method relies on the use of the two related faculties of mindfulness and awareness.


Mindfulness allows us to remember to remain focused on the object of meditation. Thus, when focusing on the movement of the breath in and out of the body, one can remain mindful by counting the number of breaths up to seven, for example, or on to twenty-one or more depending on how skilful we are at focusing and remembering to keep count.


Awareness is the faculty which determines whether our minds are suffering from the two major obstacles to sustained meditation. The first obstacle is that of dullness – the tendency of the mind to become heavy and drowsy, even to fall asleep when, for example, counting the numbers of breath cycles. The remedy for this is to sit upright and tighten one’s awareness by refocusing. The second obstacle to meditation is that of mental agitation when our thoughts accelerate and disturb our tranquillity. With mindfulness in place, we use our awareness to determine whether the mind has lost focus and begun to rush. The remedy is to relax one’s posture a little and thus also relax the mind.


Inevitably, our minds wander as our mindfulness and the meditation. One learns in this way to let go of the torrents of thought that disturb our peace and thus gradually train the mind to replace the monkey-like habits of mental distraction with that of sustained focus. The essential quality of this focus is a balanced awareness which is neither too heavy nor too active. In this way, it becomes increasingly possible to keep awareness sharp and bright while remaining mentally relaxed.


A routine practice of meditation which starts with short bursts that last for just a few minutes, either daily or a number of times each day, reduces the chance of becoming overwhelmed by the demands of the process or disappointed if progress feels slow. The aim is to let the mind relax in a focused way that allows some breathing space from the rough and tumble of daily existence. A relaxed mind gives a sense of inner peace which will permit us to cope more calmly with the challenges of living a compassionate life.’


This is a short extract on Mindfulness for Compassion from Dr Julian Abel & Lindsay Clarke’s The Compassion Project