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Resources: The compassionate mind

'Wise and perceptive. [It] teaches self-compassion and the consolations of kindness. I recommend it.'

SALLY BRAMPTON, author of Shoot the Damn Dog


In societies that encourage us to compete with each other, compassion is often seen as a weakness. Striving to get ahead, self-criticism, fear, and hostility towards others seem to come more naturally to us.

The Compassionate Mind explains the evolutionary and social reasons why our brains react so readily to threats - and reveals how our brains are also hardwired to respond to kindness and compassion.

Research has found that developing kindness and compassion for ourselves and others builds our confidence, helps us create meaningful, caring relationships and promotes physical and mental health. Far from fostering emotional weakness, practical exercises focusing on developing compassion have been found to subdue our anger and increase our courage and resilience to depression and anxiety.

'As one of Britain's most insightful psychologists, Gilbert illuminates the power of compassion in our lives.'



'Anyone who struggles with their inner critic should make sure to read this book. Professor Gilbert writes in a masterly fashion about compassionate mind training - an innovative approach which is likely to grow in importance over the next decade as the evidence for its benefit continues to build.' ----David Veale, President British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies

As somebody who suffers from severe depression, I know the depressive s harshest critic is themselves. It is never helpful to be told to pull ourselves together by others but saying it to ourselves leads us in only one direction into a spiralling descent into despair. This wise and perceptive book teaches us self-compassion and the consolations of kindness. I recommend it all the time. --Sally Brampton, Sally Brampton, author of Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression and the Aunt Sally column in The Sunday Times

'Like so frequently in the past, Paul Gilbert has come forth again with a book about the mind, its unused potential, and how to harness that potential to one s and others benefit. The Compassionate Mind is a roadmap to compassion for the self and towards others. It is a book for those curious enough to explore their hidden potential to attain a special kind of humanness and happiness. A 10 on a scale of 1 to 10.' --Michael McGuire, author Darwinian Psychiatry

Important and enjoyable. --The Psychologist

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Introduction Compassion can be defined in many ways, but its essence is a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it. Although humans can engage in intensely cruel and callous behavior (and, looking back at human history, they often have), for more than 3,000 years, compassion has been understood to be one of the most important and distinctive qualities of the human mind. Not only has it been encouraged as a spiritual and moral pursuit in many religions, but compassion has also been seen as a major healing process for our turbulent minds and relationships. Although most religions recognize its power, it was within the Eastern traditions – and especially Mahayana Buddhism, the school of the Dalai Lama – that exercises and mental practices were developed to train the mind in compassion. In these traditions, developing compassion is like playing a musical instrument – it's a skill that can be enhanced with dedicated practice. These traditions also portray the development of compassion as having far-reaching consequences in terms of how the mind organizes itself, how we experience ourselves and the world, and even the ultimate reality of our sense of self. Until relatively recently, the impetus for developing compassion and the way of doing it came primarily from spiritual and religious traditions. What is extremely exciting is that the last 30 years or so has seen the science of psychology and studies of the human brain begin to put compassion, caring, and pro-social behavior centre stage in the development of well-being, mental health and our capacity to foster harmonious relationships with each other and the world we live in. Shortly after the World War II, researchers such as Harry Harlow (1905–81), who worked with monkeys, and the child psychiatrist John Bowlby (1907–90) began to study the impact of the caring relationship that infants had with their mothers. It was found that a mother's love and affection had a huge impact on the emotional development of the infant, child and subsequent adult. In the 1950s and 1960s, John Bowlby outlined the approach to human development that he called 'attachment theory'. This focused on the quality of the attachment relationship in terms of the accessibility and affection of the parent in soothing and regulating the infant's emotions. Indeed, we have probably all seen how young children become distressed if they lose contact with their mothers and how, in the normal course of events, the return of the mother calms the infant down. Bowlby helped us to recognize that, from the day we’re born, our brains are biologically designed to respond to the care and kindness of others. Indeed, his work has stimulated a revolution in our understanding of the importance of affection at many stages of our lives. When we’re distressed, kindness helps; if we’re facing tragedies such as the loss of loved ones, the kindness of others helps; if we’re having to face our own death, then feeling loved and wanted is important to our ability to face it. We now know that close friendships and affectionate relationships play a huge role in our mental health and well-being and influence how our bodies work. For example, people in affectionate relationships show lower levels of stress hormones and higher ones of ‘happy’ hormones than those in relationships characterized by conflict. Research has also shown that the way we relate to ourselves – whether we regard ourselves kindly or critically, in a friendly and affectionate way or hostilely – can have a major influence on our ability to get through life's difficulties and create within ourselves a sense of well-being. All over the world now, researchers in many different fields are beginning to explore the power of kindness and affection and the ways to harness it. This is not a moment too soon, of course. We are confronted with considerable crises linked to a lack of compassion and of care for each other and our environment. We have become trapped by a competitive world that only seeks efficiency and profit maximization. Each of us has a brain that has evolved over millions of years and is very sensitive to the social context in which it lives. So while we can be compassionate, kind and selfless in some (cooperative and supportive) contexts, in others (competitive and threat-focused), we can be ruthless, cruel and very self-absorbed. So from understanding the importance of affection on how our brains and bodies work and how modern culture operates on our psychology and our brains, tuning compassion up or down, we're learning more and more about the importance of deliberately harnessing and focusing compassion. A personal journey My own interest in compassion and the eventual writing of this book grew out of lots of different strands in my life. So let me take you behind the scenes and consider some of them. We can go back 40 years to when I was introduced to Jungian concepts of archetypes while doing my A-levels in the 1960s. These were the days of ‘liberal studies’, and we had a fascinating young teacher who lectured from his just-finished PhD on something like 'A Jungian Analysis of the Novel'. We’d look at the plots and characters of various books in terms of underlying archetypes and the common themes in human history, such as the hero, the villain, the sacrifices of love and loyalty, vengeance from betrayal, the death of the hero and so on – great stuff. Archetypes, which George Lucas used to write his Star Wars movies, speak to the innate aspects of our minds, the source of the repeating desires and relationships that echo down through history – as we will see later in this book. However, although even as a teenager the idea of becoming a psychologist was starting to shimmer in my mind (assuming I couldn’t make it with my rock band), my main studies were in politics and economics and so I pursued those at university. I became very interested in how economic relationships impact on lifestyle and life quality, a theme that Karl Marx addressed. Marx was also a great fan of Darwin – in fact, Darwin was ‘honoured’ to received a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital in 1873 and wrote to him that '… we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge and that this is in the long run sure to add to the happiness of mankind.' Darwin wasn't alone in seeing the German's importance. According to Marx's biographer Francis Wheen, on 17 March 1883, 'As Marx’s coffin was being lowered into the earth of Highgate cemetery, Engels declared: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in human nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.” The link between our evolved psychology and the economic systems in which we live in the creation of misery or happiness has never been well articulated. Unfortunately this evolutionary approach was to falter following the over-medicalizing and pathologizing of human misery – something that it has constantly tried to pull back from. As you will see, this link – between our evolved minds and our social conditions in the creation of compassion or cruelty, happiness or unhappiness – permeates this book. Suffice it to say that, at this youthful time of my life, economic justice and equality were very much the concerns of myself and my friends. But my dream to become a psychologist had grown even stronger and so, lucky for me, I had the chance to retrain in psychology at Sussex University in 1973–75. Unfortunately I failed my neurophysiology paper and had to study for another year. This rather fitted with my style as a dyslexic, academic limbo dancer – just getting through. So I worked as a night psychiatric nurse, met my wife and got to play lots of cricket. Failures often have a bright side. I'm still happily married and play some cricket and my time on a psychiatric unit taught me a lot.

About the Author

Professor Paul Gilbert is the author of the bestselling Overcoming Depression and was previously Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Derby and Head of Specialty, Adult Mental Health for the Southern Derbyshire Mental Health Trust. He is currently based at the Mental Health Research Unit, Kingsway Hospital, Derby.


Compassion and particularly compassion towards oneself can have a significant impact on our wellbeing and mental health. Developing our sense of compassion can affect many areas of our lives, in particular our relationships with other people. In this book, Professor Paul Gilbert explores how our minds have developed to survive in dangerous and threatening environments by becoming sensitive and quick to react to perceived threats. This can sometimes lead to problems in how we respond to life's challenges and scientific evidence has demonstrated that compassion towards oneself and others can lead to an increased sense of happiness and wellbeing - particularly valuable when we are feeling stressed.Based on evolutionary research and scientific studies of how the brain processes emotional information, this compassionate approach offers an appealing alternative to the traditional western view of compassion, which sometimes sees it as a sign of weakness and can encourage self-criticism and a hard-nosed drive to achieve. Praise for Paul Gilbert: 'Gilbert is Britain's most sensible and insightful self-help psychologist' - Oliver James.

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