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The Role of Compassion in Higher Education

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 2537 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt (1990) stated, “Academic politics [are] much more vicious than real politics.”  Perhaps this sentiment results from our belief that there is nothing more valuable to a society than education? The value a society places on education, access for all people, as well as the responsibly to educate its’ citizens can assist in discovering solutions to societal problems and promote advances for humanity.  It is true that politics appear to be quite vicious in academia, and there is nothing like a struggle over scarce resources to bring out the viciousness in even the most endearing person. Neustadt’s statement and the ever-growing attention on scarcity have led us to question the role of compassion in higher education.

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Merriam Webster (2013) defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Thupten Jinpa, the current principal English translator to the Dalai Lama, offers that compassion is a mental state that is endowed with a sense of concern that focuses on the well being and alleviation of suffering of another. Additionally, compassion may not even be an emotion rather a complex, multi-faceted process that subsumes many other emotions such as empathy (Jinpa, 2012).  To further illustrate what compassion may be, Porges (2012), director of the Brain-Body Center in the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, contends that it may be a manifestation of our biological need to engage and bond with others, which is a fundamental component of our biological quest for safety in proximity of another.

While there currently is no complete consensus as to what compassion is, there is consistency among the ways it is defined, indicating compassion (a) acknowledges another’s emotional pain, joy and/or suffering, (b) seeks to alleviate the pain and or suffering or genuinely share in the other’s joy, and (c) expresses a sincere desire and/or action to alleviate the other’s pain, suffering or join in the expression of joy.  Within this consensus, one can see that compassion, when expressed within higher education, may reduce occurrences of vicious politicism while still welcoming disagreement.  Imagine a workplace where emotional pain and frustration are acknowledged as funding gets cut.  While we may join with others in celebrating a victory for their getting a larger proportion of a re-allocation for the implementation of their creative idea, we also provide space for those who are grieving the loss of resources, capacity to support students, and perhaps even faculty and administrative lines.  While it is not always feasible to alleviate people’s pain by offering them replacement resources, perhaps we could provide them with another opportunity that could reinvigorate their morale and sense of belonging or reinforce their value. 

Fowler and Christakis (2010) suggest that engaging in cooperative behaviors like compassion can transform culture and its held values through a cascading effect. Following this logic, higher education’s culture is malleable and has the potential to change at all levels (from department to field of study) via contagious acts of compassion. If we agreed to this notion, how might we prepare our leaders for such expressions of compassion?

Cultivating Compassion through Cognitive Regulation

Current data suggest that by engaging in compassionate behavior, individuals are likely to display neurological, physiological, and behavioral changes in their daily life that enhance overall well-being1 (Hozel et al., 2011; Tang & Posen, 2013).  Thus, one approach is to literally engage in cognitive regulation training that mirrors the neurological, physiological, and potentially behavioral changes seen when one practices compassion.

Cognitive regulation as defined by Goldin (2011, personal communication) allows one to describe the sensations one is feeling as one becomes aware of unwelcomed emotions.  As such, a person becomes aware of the unwelcomed emotion, practices inquiry into it, and then chooses how to act upon that emotion.  In essence, in cognitive regulation training, participants are coached to determine fact from interpretation and to acknowledge what is true for the participant may not be true for others or to the situation that elicited the emotion.  As such, the participant can be with the unwelcomed senses without casting blame for those sensations on another.  Cognitive regulation is recognizable by decreased stress, increased focus, and overall well-being. Further, since cognitive regulation uses language-based reasoning strategies, it can translate into building relationships with others through compassion for oneself and others. Compassion, therefore, can be trained through cognitive regulation.

 A question that likely arises following this explanation is, how does this all really work? Cognitive regulation seeks to increase the space between an action and reaction. This space is invaluable because it provides an opportunity for practicing inquiry into what is felt rather than ignoring it, assessing the situation to determine what promotes peace, and aligning ourselves with an “appropriate” chosen response rather than a non-chosen reaction. Viktor Frankl (1997) has written about this “space” between action and reaction in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. This is perhaps where such executive functions like creative problem solving, critical thinking, and ethical decision making could be operationalized, but we really don’t know that yet.  Recent literature has suggested being mindful may heighten an individual’s cognitive flexibility and other executive functions (Teper & Inzlichy, 2013). What seems apparent are the benefits of capitalizing on creating such space and then using that space to choose a compassionate response, for instance, rather than reacting from a place of fear or inadequacy.

Take for example a situation where someone in your office received a promotion for which you applied.  At first, you might be upset with that person and/or the person responsible for filling that position. However, if you have been engaged in cognitive regulation training, you might have increased the space between action and reaction. Now, having created more space, you can engage in inquiry and choose compassionate behavior. Perhaps for example, your practice of inquiry reveals that the other individual was more qualified.  Or perhaps in the space of inquiry you recognize the benefits of not having received the promotion.  And thus, the ability to genuinely support your colleague in his/her joy for having received the promotion is actually plausible.

A researched approach to facilitating compassion via cognitive regulation is through focused breathing. Data from a longitudinal study linking cognitive regulation to focused breathing suggest that individuals can further regulate their attention and emotion by simply engaging in a daily focused breathing practice (Lutz & Slagter, 2008). Siegel (2008) further states that individuals who engage in daily mindfulness-based focused breathing actually see an increase in their overall well-being.  Siegel emphasizes that these practices are open to all human beings, saying, “mindfulness has never met a cognition it didn’t like” (p. 186). Siegel assures that compassion via mindfulness-based focused breathing is something in which we can all engage and benefit. Further, this training tool is absolutely free, requires no technology, and very little physical space to teach as well.

Integrative Inquiry

Another approach that Marilee Bresciani (2012) designed and piloted at San Diego State University is a course called Integrative Inquiry (INIQ; see sidebar). The curriculum contains a wide array of exercises that help cultivate attention, emotion, and cognitive regulation. Some activities include intention setting, focused movement, focused breathing, journaling, selected readings and reflection, self-inquiry and referral, and authenticity exercises.  Participants of the course are coached to practice non-judgment through intense inquiry exercises when they may see, feel, and think certain things that are in conflict with others.  This practice is key to cultivating cognitive regulation, which encourages the ability to practice compassion toward oneself and others.

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 Cultivating compassion within higher education may not require a formalized program such as the INIQ, however, steps toward expanding the practice of compassion are imperative and can be as simple as encouraging focused breathing techniques. Regardless, we believe that the practice of compassion needs to be strengthened within higher education and as educators the opportunity to champion this seemingly insurmountable task resides within the individual. Engaging in cognitive regulation techniques can promote compassion within ourselves and ultimately with one another, including our students, supervisors, friends, family, and even strangers.  The act of separating fact from interpretation through inquiry into the present moment has tremendous potential that should not be overlooked.

Through attention, emotion, and cognitive regulation training for higher education faculty, administrators, and students, there is a possibility for conversations that are less vicious, and more compassionate and focused. Further, we may experience increased energy that can be used to turn our attention toward designing creative solutions for today’s problems and contributing to innovative expressions for the future. As educators, it would behoove us to promote a compassionate culture within higher education—one that no longer mirrors Richard Neustadt’s (1990) sentiment that academic politics are more vicious than government politics.

Sidebar (The following section should be a sidebar to the article):

Integrative Inquiry (INIQ)

Chade Meng-Tan, the creator of Google University’s emotional intelligence and stress reduction program, made his training modules available to all in his book entitled, Search Inside Yourself.  It is Meng’s desire that all leaders, whether in private corporations or in higher education, investigate the training and the apparent benefits of cognitive regulation training.  Encouraged by these endeavors, Marilee Bresciani designed and piloted a modified version of Google University’s curriculum in 2012 at San Diego State University; the course is called Integrative Inquiry (INIQ). Adding self-authorship training informed by Emily Marx (2012) and other inquiry tools designed by Baron Baptiste (2013) and Deepak Chopra (2007) to already proven researched cognitive regulation training techniques, this program includes both face-to-face and on-line versions. Participants of both pilot modules described the program as life-changing and commented on how they were able to listen attentively to ideas that contradicted theirs while regulating their own emotions. They also noted that the training encouraged creative thinking and problem solving not only for themselves at work but also among their interactions with their family members and friends. They self-reported increased engagement in the practice of compassion toward themselves and others. Integrative Inquiry (INIQ) is currently being taught in both face-to-face and online settings by individuals who were trained by the Rushing to Yoga Foundation, the organization responsible for its creation.


  • Baptiste, B. (2013). Being of Power: The 9 Practices to Ignite an Empowered Life. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc.
  • Bresciani, M. J. (2012). Integrative Inquiry Course. www.integrativeinquiry.org.
  • Chopra, D., Hay, S., Newton-John, O., Frank, R., Chopra, M., & Chopra, G. (2007). The seven spiritual laws of success. Shemaroo Entertainment.
  • Compassion [Def. 1]. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster Online. In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved June 23, 2013, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compassion.
  • Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2010). Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(12), 5334-5338.
  • Frankl, V. E. (1997). Man’s search for meaning. Pocket Books.
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  • Neustadt, R. E. (1991). Presidential power and the modern presidents: The politics of leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan. Free Press.
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  • Siegel, D. J. (2008). The mindful brain. Sounds True.
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  • Teper, R., & Inzlicht, M. (2013). Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: the importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 8(1), 85-92.


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