Compassion Meditation

Compassion Meditation

by Beth Fishman, PhD, Program Manager, Addiction Services

Some years ago I was assisting at a session on the sudden loss of a loved one.  The topic was challenging to focus on; when it was time to take a break, the convenor asked me what I could do to support the participants.  I chose to lead the group in a five minute compassion meditation.  The room became silent as the attendees followed the instructions to listen to my guiding phrases and repeat them silently to themselves.  Some began to cry.  Others put their hands over their hearts.  In this short period of time, the weight of heavy emotion began to lift.

What is compassion meditation, and how can it be so impactful so quickly?  In this form of meditation, one offers simple phrases of good will to oneself and to others.  The most widely known compassion meditation is “metta” meditation, typically associated with Buddhist practice, although its origins are obscure but appear to predate Buddhism.  The exact number and content of the phrases can vary widely.

Research has found that even short periods of compassion meditation:

  • Reduce the stress response
  • Decrease inflammation in the body
  • Increase a wide range of positive emotions, including love, gratitude, and contentment
  • Activate brain regions associated with empathy and attunement to others
  • Increase social connectedness

Knowing that we all face many challenges, I developed a Compassion/Chesed meditation for anyone seeking emotional or spiritual healing.  Chesed is the Hebrew word for loving/kindness or compassion. This Jewish Compassion/Chesed Meditation for Healing incorporates virtues and values from the Priestly Blessing/Birkat Kohanim, Judaism’s oldest known recorded blessing.  In the Torah, instructions for the Priestly Blessing/Birkat Kohanim are given to Moses in Numbers/Bamidbar 6:22 - 27:

22 And the Holy One spoke to Moses, saying:

כג  דַּבֵּר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל-בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר, כֹּה תְבָרְכוּ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  אָמוֹר, לָהֶם.  {ס}

23 'Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying: In this way you shall bless the children of Israel; you will say to them

כד  יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ.  {ס}

24 The Holy One bless you, and protect you;

כה  יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ.  {ס}

25 The Holy One make the Holy Face shine on you, and be gracious to you;

כו  יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.  {ס}

26 The Holy One lift up The One’s Countenance on you, and give you peace.

כז  וְשָׂמוּ אֶת-שְׁמִי, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַאֲנִי, אֲבָרְכֵם.  {ס}

27 So they will put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.'

In the Compassion/Chesed Meditation I teach, the virtues of these ancient phrases (Blessing, Protection, God’s Light, and Peace) are folded into simple phrases of loving wishes said in silent repetition, thereby opening space for sacred healing for those around us as well as for ourselves.

Here are instructions and a guided audio recording for the meditation.

This practice has been taught in groups of individuals who are bereaved, who have faced medical challenges, who are in addiction recovery, and who are looking for a supportive practice in these challenging times.   No particular Jewish observance or familiarity with Hebrew is required, just a desire to learn and the willingness to practice for a short period daily.  A new online group is now forming. Please contact Beth Fishman for more information and to register.  May all be blessed and protected at this difficult time.