Developing Measures of Compassion, Empathy, Care, and Kindness

As contemplative approaches are being applied in educational settings with increasing frequency, early studies using self-report and academic outcomes suggest that these programs hold promise for the well-being of both teachers and students. However, the field currently lacks empirically rigorous measures to evaluate important real-world behavior and psychological change due to the cultivation of compassion, empathy, care, and kindness. For example, do teachers who are trained in compassion and care actually change their behavior when interacting with students? Similarly, do students who have been exposed to contemplative interventions begin to treat their peers with more kindness and compassion? Scientific research on these outcomes (beyond self-report) will be essential in understanding the broad and lasting impact of compassion-oriented educational programs.

In response to this need for innovative, mixed-methods, and pragmatic tools to measure these important human capacities, Mind and Life launched a new funding initiative in 2015. The Measures of Compassion, Empathy, Care, and Kindness award program had two main goals: 1) to promote the development of rigorous, novel, behavioral and interpersonal measurement tools to assess the dimensions of compassion, empathy, care, and kindness in K-12 educational settings, and 2) to establish a network of research sites interested in developing and cross-validating such novel measurement strategies.

We are pleased to announce our two winners of this award program, Lisa Flook and Rob Roeser. Their projects will develop targeted observational and mixed-method measures to assess key outcomes such as teacher care, and daily life experiences and interactions (for more information, see below). In addition to evaluating teachers and students from their local populations, these researchers will be able to work together to cross-validate their new measures across a broader, combined sample. At the end of the development phase, measures will be made available to the larger research community, to enable a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of compassion-related outcomes.

Congratulations to our winners! We look forward to the results of these exciting projects.


Lisa FlookLisa Flook, PhD

Associate Scientist
Center for Investigating Healthy Minds
Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging & Behavior
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Novel tools to assess the impact of contemplative practice in education

Mindfulness and compassion-based trainings that are offered under the rubric of contemplative education have the potential for wide-ranging effects, both individual and interpersonal. The current proposal seeks to utilize novel measures to investigate the effects of contemplative training in school settings for teachers and students. Measures administered in the laboratory under tightly controlled conditions do not necessarily reflect real-world behavior. Therefore, in order to understand and explore the complexity and nuance of the impact of practices, we focus on methods that are capable of capturing naturalistic experiences and interactions in the daily environment. Methods include daily diary reports, speech sampling, activity/sleep tracker (Fitbit) data and global self-report measures for up to 1 week before and after the intervention period. We will examine these measures in conjunction with students’ school records (grades, attendance) and student self-reports related to academics, relationships, and mood along with teacher self-reports of stress, well-being, and mindfulness.

We will target 5th & 6th grade students along with teachers from elementary and middle school. In Year 1 we will collect data from 40 students and 20 teachers over a one week period. In Year 2 we will collect data from 150-200 students and 40-60 teachers before and after their respective contemplative intervention training periods. The measures proposed here place an emphasis upon external validity as they are collected in naturalistic settings. An outcome of this project will be the availability of a digital daily diary report form that can be administered on-line for use by other researchers.


2014 Roeser PhotoRobert Roeser, PhD
Department of Psychology
Portland State University 

Measuring teacher care in elementary and middle school classrooms: Positivity, presence and patience

The goal of this project is to capitalize on two on-going school intervention studies: The Mindfulness in Elementary School Study and the Mindfulness in Middle School Study, to (a) develop new observational measures of teacher care in the classroom (b) to provide initial evidence for aspects of the validity and reliability of these new measures; and (c) to see if such measures are amenable to change through a well-studied teacher mindfulness program. The specific measures of teacher care in the classroom that we plan to develop as part of this project include: (1) teachers’ emotional positivity in classroom speech (derived from transcriptions of teacher speech in specified segments of classroom video); (2) teachers’ embodiment of a calm, clear, and kind presence in the classroom (derived from trained coders ratings of the same specified segments of classroom video); and (3) teachers’ patience in pedagogical exchanges with students during question-and-answer exchanges in the classroom (derived from trained coders ratings of actual wait time in teacher-student exchanges in these same specified segments of classroom video). Classroom observation, survey and executive function data from 22 elementary school teachers (grades K-3) and 78 middle school teachers (grades 6-8) will be used to develop and evaluate the teacher observation measures. Our goal in this project is to create rigorous, reliable, valid and feasible measures of teacher care in the classroom that can be shared with other labs to evaluate teacher-focused mindfulness and compassion programs like the Call to Care Initiative in Education.

The contemplative path: How do we learn?


In my own experience with meditation, I’ve often wondered about the difference between reading a thoughtful analysis or set of instructions, listening to an inspiring teacher, and sitting on the cushion to practice. These varied activities represent different ways of integrating information into our minds and bodies—in short, different ways of learning.

Is one mode more effective than another? In the domain of contemplative science, this question becomes important as meditation interventions are being developed in a host of applied settings. As people learn about meditation conceptually, is that enough to change habits and behavior, or is practice required?

Read More

The Contemplative Development Mapping Project: A new model for interdisciplinary investigation

This past winter, it was my honor and pleasure to participate in a Mind and Life Research Workshop convened by the Contemplative Development Mapping Project (CDMP). The CDMP is a group of scholars, scientists, and practitioners who are personally and professionally committed to enriching our understanding of contemplative practices and experiences. This interdisciplinary “think tank” is comprised of researchers from a range of disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, psychology, neuroscience and religious studies. By integrating first-person, second-person, and third-person methodologies as a means of investigating the nature and trajectory of contemplative development, the group aims to draw upon the unique academic approaches of each of its members to produce high-quality interdisciplinary scholarship and research.

 Since 2011, the CDMP has gathered annually, combining academic presentations and discussions with an innovative, self-directed retreat format. These hybrid conference/retreats provide a unique, informal opportunity for discussing works-in-progress, innovative and experimental ideas, and projects that align with questions born out of contemplative practice.

From December 30, 2014–January 4, 2015, the CDMP gathered at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies for their 4th conference/retreat, supported in part by Mind and Life Research Workshop funding. The experience was highly beneficial—generating useful insights for the individual participants, and also shedding light on a new path for the field by deeply integrating practice, scholarship, and discussion to arrive at more holistic insights about the nature of contemplative practice.

Participants (listed below) investigated the theme of Buddhist modernism and its impact on the contemplative practices and experiences of contemporary Buddhists. This event was designed and hosted by Dr. Willoughby Britton and Dr. Jared Lindahl, co-directors of the Varieties of Contemplative Experience research project at Brown University, and board members of CDMP. Below, they summarize the workshop and next steps for this initiative.

                                                                                                –Wendy Hasenkamp
Senior Scientific Officer, Mind and Life

While contemplative science research has explored the myriad ways that contemplative practices may enhance human flourishing, very little is known about individual differences and under what conditions contemplative practices produce less than ideal, or even harmful effects. In order to maximize the potential of contemplative practices to enhance human flourishing and alleviate human suffering, a comprehensive map of all outcomes—both positive and negative—is needed.

Read More

Mind–Body Interventions Affect Sleep and Oxytocin in Cancer Survivors

Surviving a cancer diagnosis and the treatment that follows requires overcoming significant emotional and physical hurdles. Even after a patient is cancer-free, he or she often continues to struggle with depression and anxiety from fear of cancer recurrence, and many also suffer from sleep disturbances. These ongoing challenges negatively impact well-being and quality of life, hindering a patient’s ability to fully flourish. Might contemplative practices help cancer survivors deal better with their mental and physical challenges to remain cancer free? In a recent study published in Integrative Cancer Therapies, Varela awardee David Lipschitz, MLI Fellow Yoshio Nakamura and colleagues at the University of Utah investigated the effects of two mind-body interventions on a number of physiological and psychological health outcomes in cancer survivors. This study used a strong experimental design, comparing three similar interventions to which participants were randomly assigned: mind-body bridging, mindfulness meditation, and a sleep education group as an active control. Below, David Lipschitz summarizes his Varela research project and its findings.

— Wendy Hasenkamp, Senior Scientific Officer


Mind–Body Interventions Affect Sleep and Oxytocin in Cancer Survivors

by David L. Lipschitz, PhD

OxitocinaCPK3DOxytocin is a hormone produced in an area of the brain known as the hypothalamus, whose release activates a variety of brain regions resulting in many different functions, including birth (labor), breast feeding (lactation), maternal behavior, parental care, social bonding, affiliation (such as couples being together), and well-being. In recent studies in humans, oxytocin has been shown to be associated with increases in prosocial behaviors such as trust, altruism, generosity, cooperation and empathy. These various functions suggest that oxytocin may promote health by reducing stress and increasing calm/relaxed states, resulting in improved quality of life and well-being.

Given oxytocin’s stress-reducing and calming properties, and its capacity to increase well-being, its action may be relevant to those fighting cancer. We conducted a study to look at the effects of two mind-body therapies on changes in salivary oxytocin levels in a cancer survivor population with self-reported sleep disturbance. Investigating oxytocin in cancer survivors could be important, given cancer survivors’ high levels of distress, depression, and anxiety, as well as poor sleep, possibly due to the effects of cancer treatment and worries about cancer recurrence. In our study, we hypothesized that the mind-body therapies would increase oxytocin levels, which would be associated with improvements in sleep, increases in quality of life and well-being, and reduced stress. Read More

The Dalai Lama’s Conjecture

A preview of Evan Thompson’s new book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy


DalaiDilemnaWhen I was eight years old my father gave me Gautama Buddha: In Life and Legend by Betty Kelen. I still have the copy, a 75-cent paperback, with my name in my own handwriting on the first page. I couldn’t put the book down. I read it in the backseat of our old blue Volkswagen station wagon, as we drove along Highway 400 from York University in Toronto (where my father taught Humanities) to our home in Bradford, Ontario, about 40 miles north.

I asked my father why he sometimes marked sentences in books he was reading with a red pen. He told me they were important ones he wanted to remember and find again. Like father, like son: the red ink I marked on the paragraphs describing the aspiration to attain enlightenment and become a Buddha hasn’t faded against the yellow paper.

Read More

The Bright Knight of the Soul  

How a 13th-century myth illuminates the contemporary mission of Mind and Life


As I reflect on the last 18 months and look forward to the next year and more, the medieval romance Parzival keeps reasserting itself. Its archetypal elements seem apt metaphors for the essential work of Mind and Life.

The story of Parzival opens with our hero as a young lad who has led a remarkably sheltered life in the woods of Soltane with a protective mother. He is the original innocent who knows neither his own name nor his lineage. One day, he sees in the forest what he believes must be a vision of angels—four dazzlingly armored and powerful men, traveling astride mighty horses. Upon seeing these knights, he quickly seeks his own way to King Arthur so that he too may become as those he saw.

Parzival’s journey of knighthood—too beautiful and too long to summarize here—leads him first to his mentor Gurnemanz, who teaches him courtesy and what is socially acceptable. His further adventures take Parzival to the Grail castle of Amfortas, the grievously wounded Grail King. It’s this part that I want to highlight. Read More

Summit in the Field

Four Scholars Reflect on the State of Contemplative Studies

This fall, Mind and Life held its International Symposium for Contemplative Studies—the biannual “summit” in the field. Over four days in Boston, the Institute welcomed seven exciting keynotes, including the Dalai Lama; featured more than 35 master lecturers; and presented the work of hundreds of scientists, scholars, and contemplatives. This convergence of minds and research offered insights into the fields of neuroscience, the humanities, clinical science, philosophy, psychology, ethics, physics, economics, medicine, and more. We asked four of our speakers a single question about the current state of the field.

Al Kaszniak

University of Arizona

What in your opinion, is the most significant, or meaningful, breakthrough in contemplative science over the past 30 years?

FEATURE_Summit(INSETWRAP)1I think that it is fair to say that we are presently in the “golden age” of contemplative science. Comparing the first to the second five years of this century, there has been a more than 300 percent increase in basic and clinical contemplative science publications. Given this explosion of published research, it is very difficult to single out any particular discovery as the most significant or meaningful breakthrough.

However, taking a step back and trying to see the forest rather than just the many trees, it seems clear to me that the two most important meta-trends in contemplative science have been: (1) the fruition of an approach that truly brings first-, second-, and third-person perspectives into collaborative interaction; and (2) the real beginnings of the sort of “neurophenomenology” that Mind & Life Institute cofounder Francisco Varela had envisioned. Read More

Ommm Ex Machina

How does the game change if we get a computer to meditate? Cognitive scientist Marieke van Vugt wants to find out.


“Friending” Marieke van Vugt online or meeting her in person might obscure her profession. A long way from coming across as the logic-obsessed, lab-leashed scientist, van Vugt is warm, open, inviting. Her Facebook photographs depict her and her friends—an actual ballet troupe—stretching across colorful stages. But van Vugt is also a veteran of the contemplative science community. She’s attended nine out of 10 Mind and Life Summer Research Institutes (SRIs). She’s a professor of cognitive modeling in the department of artificial intelligence at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. And she’s working on a computational model of meditation—more on that later.

Like many people, van Vugt learned of Mind and Life through Daniel Goleman’s 2003 best seller, Destructive Emotions. It was after that experience that she attended her first SRI. “Those were pioneering events,” van Vugt says, noting how in the early 2000s, at the first SRIs, the field of meditation research was relatively unrefined. While enormous conceptual and methodological strides have been taken since, and researchers have begun to capture the attention of mass media and such governmental organizations as the National Institutes of Health, van Vugt says that, “back then, no one had any idea. It was great. There were all these amazing people like Daniel Kahneman, Anne Treisman, and Jonathan Cohen. And they were giving talks about how we could study meditation.”

Van Vugt says she was struck by how those SRIs legitimized the field to the point that her work became less suspect, even to those in the academic circles around her. During graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, her doctoral advisor had been reluctant to consider the merits of meditation research. Though not a fan of contemplative practices, he nevertheless gave van Vugt intense training in cognitive science and computational modeling that allowed her to embark on what she calls “a lifelong quest” to fuse her interests and help develop the most advanced cognitive models of meditation possible. Read More

The Peril and Promise of Selflessness

A psychologist explores the path into depression or anatta


As a psychologist for 30 years, my focus has been on understanding the factors that lead women to depression, always with the goal of helping to prevent and treat the suffering it causes. From listening to interviews over time and across a variety of cultures, I have heard a core theme that puts women at risk: a specific understanding of selflessness. As depressed women have described it, selflessness means caring for others first and silencing their voices in order to preserve their relationships or their safety. “Silencing the self,” as I have called it, blends the genuine wish to be morally good and loving with cultural prescriptions about women’s roles, namely how they should consistently place their needs second to those of others, especially their partners.

For the past 13 years, however, I have deeply challenged my own notions about “self” by immersing myself in Buddhist teachings and meditation practice. In 2001, as a Fulbright scholar to Nepal teaching at Tribhuvan University and conducting research on gender and depression in government outpatient clinics, I began meditating. Through these and other experiences, I became familiar with a different, positive, and aspirational kind of selflessness, one that functions to alleviate suffering, not cause it. These two very different understandings have led me to puzzle over the relationship between self-silencing from a psychological perspective, and selflessness from a Buddhist perspective.

How do the Buddhist and Western concepts of selflessness differ? How do women (and many men for that matter) encounter the Buddhist understanding of expansive, compassionate selflessness without confusing it with the smaller, constricted view of selflessness that leads to depression? Can the Buddhist understanding of anatta, or selflessness with compassion and insight at its core, provide guidance for how to balance one’s needs with the needs of others?

These are ongoing explorations in my own life as a wife, mother, grandmother, professor, and committed meditator, but the questions they present are also relevant for many women for whom selflessness acts as a way into depression and, with greater understanding of anatta, possibly a way out. Read More

Embodying Care

Three practices that help us receive, develop, and extend care


We come into this world dependent upon the care of others, and the ways in which our caregivers have seen, loved, and welcomed us empower us to see, connect with, and care for others. Although our capacity for care is shaped by these formative relationships, it is also deeply shaped by the moments of care that permeate our lives. These moments—gestures of kindness, offers of sympathy or support, experiences of being fully present with another—often go unnoticed. Yet we can learn to tune in to them more, thereby enabling ourselves to deepen our own caring resources for others.

As part of Mind and Life’s Ethics, Education, and Human Development (EEHD) initiative, we have developed a model for using contemplative techniques to help students and teachers learn to recognize and nurture their deep capacities for care. This model is based largely on the Innate Compassion Training program developed by John Makransky. Though this program draws from contemplative patterns of Tibetan Buddhism, it has analogues in other contemplative traditions. Such practices are also amenable to secular contexts because they draw directly from the life experiences and worldviews of those who engage them. These particular methods for cultivating compassion have been tested in diverse secular and multifaith settings and are informed by insights from education and developmental psychology.

The EEHD program is structured by three modes of care: receiving care, developing self-care, and extending care. Each of these modes empowers the others. Though we developed this program with teachers and students in mind, these practices have application in all our lives. Read More