Does Mindfulness Make You More Compassionate? (Greater Good)

Mindfulness is more than just moment-to-moment awareness, says Shauna Shapiro. It is a kind, curious awareness that helps us relate to ourselves and others with compassion.


I attended my first meditation retreat in Thailand 17 years ago. When I arrived, I didn’t know very much about mindfulness and I certainly didn’t speak any Thai.

At the monastery, I vaguely understood the teachings of the beautiful Thai monk who instructed me to pay attention to the breath coming in and out of my nostrils. It sounded easy enough. So I sat down and attempted to pay attention, 16 hours a day, and very quickly I had my first big realization: I was not in control of my mind.

I was humbled and somewhat distraught by how much my mind wandered. I would attend to one breath, two breaths, maybe three—and then my mind was gone, lost in thoughts, leaving my body sitting there, an empty shell. Frustrated and impatient, I began to wonder, “Why can’t I do this? Everyone else looks like they’re sitting so peacefully. What’s wrong with me?”

On the fourth day, I met with a monk from London, who asked how I was doing. It was the first time I had spoken in four days, and out of my mouth came a deluge of the anxieties I had been carrying around with me. “I’m a terrible meditator. I can’t do it. I am trying so hard, and every time I try harder, I get even more tangled up. Meditation must be for other, more spiritual, calmer kinds of people. I don’t think this is not the right path for me.”

He looked at me with compassion and a humorous twinkle in his eye. “Oh dear, you’re not practicing mindfulness,” he told me. “You are practicing impatience, judgment, frustration, and striving.” Then he said five words that profoundly affected my life: “What you practice becomes stronger.” This wisdom has now been well documented by the science of neuroplasticity, which shows that our repeated experiences shape our brains.

The monk explained to me that mindfulness is not just about paying attention, but also about how you pay attention. He described a compassionate, kind attention, where instead of becoming frustrated when my mind wandered, I could actually become curious about my mind meandering about, holding this experience in compassionate awareness. Instead of being angry at my mind, or impatient with myself, I could inquire gently and benevolently into what it felt like to be frustrated or impatient.

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Article Copyright © 2013 U.C. Berkeley


Register now to join Shauna Shapiro, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and others for Greater Good’s conference, “Practicing Mindfulness and Compassion,” on March 8, 2013. Live Webcast available!

Watch Jon Kabat-Zinn talk about mindfulness and compassion.

Learn more about mindfulness and the science behind it.

How mindful are you? Take our quiz!

Stopping Teacher Burnout (Greater Good)

The SMART-in-Education program helps teachers cope with rising academic demands and falling budgets.


Joan, a Bay Area elementary school teacher, was struggling with managing her fourth grade classroom, especially a student who wouldn’t stop speaking out of turn or bullying other students. She held it together during the day and then came home and yelled at her own kids. She came to doubt her ability to meet the ever-increasing demands placed on her by the double-whammy of budget cuts and rising academic mandates.

Seeking help, she signed up for the eight-week SMART-in-Education program, which I launched in 2008 to help teachers relax and manage their stress. There she discovered that she was not alone. In fact, she was facing the same kind of stress that leads nearly half of teachers to quit within their first five years on the job.

The SMART-in-Education program takes place over nine evenings and two Saturdays. It is based primarily on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, an evidence-based practice that emphasizes the cultivation of mindfulness, the moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.

But SMART (which stands for Stress Management and Resilience Training) has added several components to the basic MBSR curriculum, in order to respond to the special demands put on teachers. Participants spend time exploring the inner geography of emotions, especially fear and anger. Using mindfulness tools such as meditation and body awareness, they develop the capacity to recognize, tolerate, and even transform challenging emotions into insight, self-acceptance, and vitality.

Participants also spend a great deal of time developing skills like kindnesscompassion, and forgiveness, through exercises and discussions tied into their actual experience in the classroom.

For example, when practicing with kindness and compassion, the teachers spend one week bringing to mind a challenging student and taking a few minutes in their home practice to silently send him or her wishes of kindness and well-being, such as “May Sam be happy, and feel loved,” or “May Sofi find peace in her heart, and develop her gifts.” Another week, they are invited to bring to mind a student they tend to overlook, who is neither delightful nor frustrating.

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Copyright © 2012 Greater Good Magazine


Want to learn more about mindfulness in education? On February 4-5, 2012, the University of California, San Diego, Center for Mindfulness will host a conference, Bridging the Hearts & Minds of Youth: Mindfulness in Clinical Practice, Education and Research.