Definitions and caveats



In recent years there has been a huge increase in academic research on mindfulness with hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific journal papers now being published every year. In addition developments in neuroscience and psychology are illuminating the mechanisms of mindfulness. At its source mindfulness means paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of an observer. This innate human ability is the essence of composure and the source of high performance. Mindfulness has been identified as having a number of components including: awareness, presence, alignment and non-judgement.

One definition of mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. — Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn

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Empathy is an essential competency in social relations and in recent times there has been considerable research on empathy within a range of disciplines including neuroscience, biology, economics, evolutionary biology, psychology and civic engagement. Cultural historian Roman Krznaric, refers to empathy as an ‘essential, transforming quality we must develop for the 21st century’. He contends that we should move beyond empathy in individual exchanges towards a collective empathy and the role that plays in tackling the confronting problems of our age. Empathy has been viewed as having a number of components, including:

1. Emotional sharing – i.e. a capacity to share another’s emotions, and is the simplest form of empathy;

2. Empathic concern – i.e. the motivation to care for another’s welfare, and involves the neural circuitry to respond to infants to keep the species alive;

3. Perspective taking – i.e. the ability the consciously put oneself into the mind of another, and is linked to cognitive and social reasoning.

One definition of empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives and using that understanding to guide your actions. — Dr Roman Krznaric



In recent years there has been a global focus on compassion with the development of the Charter for Compassion which has been supported by countries around the world. There has also been significant recent research into the neural correlates of compassion, effects of compassion on brain and behaviour and courses developed to cultivate compassion, including by the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University and the Compassionate Mind Foundation at the University of Derby. Professor Paul Gilbert, Director, Compassionate Mind Foundation who has undertaken significant inquiry on compassion, writes that compassion is strongly correlated with well-being and improved psychological functioning. He considers that both the recognition of our interdependence and the increase in scientific data demonstrating the significant benefits of empathic and integrated behaviour are important components in progressing societal well-being. Professor Gilbert has a number of components of compassion, including:

  • Care for well-being
  • Sensitivity
  • Sympathy
  • Distress tolerance
  • Empathy
  • Non-judgement

One definition of compassion is being sensitive to the suffering of others with a deep commitment to try and prevent or relieve it. — Professor Paul Gilbert

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Advances in the science of the brain, mind and consciousness are providing an improved understanding of the way in which our minds, thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviours all impact each other. Research shows that when applied with the motivation of compassion, mindfulness and empathy provide positive outcomes.

But we also know that individually mindfulness and empathy in particular, do not necessarily provide a direct path to moral choices. In fact, mindful attentiveness can sometimes be a source of dishonest action by favouring self-interest. In addition, adopting the perspective of someone from another social group is cognitively demanding. We also need to be aware of the downside in personal development, for example deep empathy with others can activate a high level of attentiveness to potential dangers which can be emotionally tiring.

Incorporating the learning from neuroscience and emotional regulation will assist in addressing the potential negatives of how we can apply mindfulness, empathy and compassion to ourselves and others. This is why the presence of mindfulness, the perspective taking of empathy, and the sensitivity motivation of compassion are all important in overcoming the shortfalls that each on their own can deliver.

If we can manage this integration then mindfulness, empathy and compassion all have a role to play in developing new and more ethical approaches to leadership and decision making in government, business, education, health, and community sectors.

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