Over the last 40 years or so, there has been increasing interest in exploring the wisdoms and practices of the contemplative traditions and comparing them with the Western scientific, objective approach to the mind (Dalai Lama & Ekman, 2008a, b; Gilbert & Choden, 2013; Gilbert, 2022; Goleman & Davidson, 2017; Tirch et al., 2015). A notable event in the development of this collaboration was the establishment of the Mind and Life Institute some 35 years ago (www.mindandlife.org). This was partly inspired by the Dalai Lama’s invitation for scientists to study processes such as mindfulness and compassion and their impacts on the brain and behavior. Since then, research has gathered pace with an increasingly large literature on the psychological, social, and physiological effects of mindfulness (Brown et al., 2015; Germer et al., 2013; Wheeler et al., 2017) and compassion (Di Bello et al., 2020; Gilbert, 2020; Kim et al., 2020; Petrocchi et al., 2022; Seppälä et al., 2017; Weng et al., 2013, 2018). Singer and Engert (2019) have shown that compassion training, empathy training, and mindfulness training have overlapping but also distinct physiological signatures and support different insights.

Another area that has seen fascinating collaborations is between Buddhist-based mind training and psychotherapeutic approaches to help people with troubled minds and painful bodies (Germer et al., 2013; Gilbert & Simos, 2022; Tirch, 2010). Kabat Zinn (19822005,) introduced mindfulness into medicine to try to help people with chronic pain and with good effect (Day et al. 2014). Various forms of mindfulness have also been applied to help states of stress and emotional regulation (Grossman et al., 2004; Khoury et al, 2015) and depression and anxiety (Hofmann & Gómez, 2017). Mindfulness is a central skill from which insight and compassion can arise. Central to Buddhist insight meditation, called Vipassana, mindfulness seeks to create clear insight by developing a calm and mindful investigation into the nature of experience, self-transcendence (Yaden et al., 2017), and the empty and non-dual nature of consciousness (Anālayo, 2023). This gives rise to insight into the illusions of a separate self (Hood, 2011; Niebauer, 2019) and the reality that nothing has a separate, permanent existence (Anālayo, 2015; Van Gordon et al., 2021). The concept of emptiness is often used in relation to transcendental states, but it does not mean “nothingness.” Rather it means non-independent existence and the process of the pattern of emergence—that is, all things are empty of independent existence (Anālayo, 2023); a snowflake is a manifestation of water not independent of it (Van Gordon et al., 2021). These insights and experiences in turn give rise to experiencing wisdom and compassion that can uproot the causes of suffering. As MH and CH discuss in detail, this guidance helps settle one’s mind and creates the mental context that enables the mind to “wake up” to different realities of interdependence and enables experiences of self-transcendence that dissolve a sense of separateness (Anālayo, 2015, 2023). This offers paths to freedom from binding cycles of psychological suffering (Huxter, 2016).

While the Western popularization of meditation for self-development has ignored some of the deeper implications of insight meditation, such as self-transcendence and emptiness (Rosch, 2015), the research community have become very interested in self-transcendent experiences, partly because of the multiple ways in which they are activated (Van Gorden et al., 2018) including with psychedelics (Ornstein & Ornstein, 2021; Yaden et al., 2017), their potential for therapeutic effects (Garland, 2021), and their implications for understanding the nature of consciousness itself and reality (Harris, 2019). In the book No Self, No Problem. How Neuropsychology is Catching Up with Buddhism, Niebauer (2019) describes how contemporary neuroscientists are coming to the understanding that what we call the self, as me, mine, and myself, is a creation of left hemispheric dominant language areas and default mode network; in other words, it is a physiological creation that changes as the physiology changes (see also Hood, 2011; Ornstein & Ornstein, 2021).


In order to provide a context and meaning for our explorations, we begin by providing an overview of Buddhist principles and meditation, including the Buddhist meaning of insight and what the objects of Buddhist insight are. This introduction will include reference to converging insights coming from science. Then, we will each provide our differing perspectives on the possible overlap with Buddhism principles and practices found in Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT). The first perspective will be that of PG, a clinical psychologist and CFT therapist. The second will be that of MH, a long-term Buddhist meditation practitioner, primarily from the Theravada tradition, who is also a clinical psychologist. The third perspective will be from CH, a long-term Western monastic of the Tibetan Mahayana/Vajrayana traditions.

What has come to be known as Buddhism (and there are now different schools and versions) began with the ‘awakening’ of Siddhartha Gautama in northern India almost 2600 years ago. He was a wealthy Prince who, in early adulthood, discovered the realities of disease, decay, and death as part of life and set out on the path to explore how to cope and then liberate oneself from these and other sources of suffering. The designation of the term Buddha means the awakened one, and what he woke up to was insight into the non-dual nature of consciousness and the four noble truths or realities (Bodhi, 2000b). The four truths are, in effect, pairs of cause–effect relationships:

  1. 1.

    Dukkha, a Pāli term, referring to the reality of suffering or unsatisfactoriness,

  2. 2.

    The origins of dukkha: greed—craving pleasures; ignorance—not seeing and understanding the way things are; and hatred—craving to push away or aversion,

  3. 3.

    Freedom from dukkha (nirvana), and

  4. 4.

    The path to freedom: ethics, meditation, and wisdom.

The third reality involves the realization of the unconditioned, which is also called nirvana (Sanskrit) or nibbāna (Pāli). Because the unconditioned is not subject to change, it is also not subject to dukkha. Nirvana is difficult to understand as it is beyond concepts of a separate self, time, and space (Van Gordon et al., 2021; Yaden et al., 2017) and it is hard to perceive and realize. Yet, it is a reality that can be experienced, and has been experienced, by countless meditators who followed the Buddha’s teachings. Buddhist meditation practices are an invitation to discover this self-transcendent, non-dual reality for oneself. It can also be experienced from other practices and sometimes spontaneously.

The fourth truth is the eight-fold path, which represents the path to psychological freedom or nirvana. The eight factors on this path are divided into three categories, which are all related interdependently. The eight factors are preceded by the term right as an indication of the right direction toward awakening. The eight factors as they relate to three categories are as follows: “Wisdom” (1 – view, 2 – intention), “Ethics” (3 – speech, 4 – action, 5 – livelihood), and “Meditation” (6 – effort or energy, 7 – mindfulness, 8 – concentration). Ethics provides the foundation, mental composure, and healthy-lifestyle stability that is conducive to meditation. Meditation produces wisdom. Wisdom goes on to inform ethical behavior, and so on, in an interdependent manner. In Buddhism, meditation cannot be separated from the context of the eight-fold path.

Buddhist meditation has two aspects: serenity (also called calm or tranquility; samatha – Pāli/shamatta – Sanskrit); and insight (vipassanā – Pāli/vipaśyanā – Sanskrit) (Gunaratana, 1985). The serenity aspect of meditation emphasizes concentration and can result in deep calm, inner quietude, spiritual pleasure, joy, happiness, equanimity, boundlessness (non-duality), a sublime sense of interconnection with all things, and altered states of consciousness and perception (Gunaratana, 1985; Shankman, 2008). The serenity aspect of meditation provides concentration powerful enough to penetrate into the nature of experience with insight. For Buddhists, the meaning of insight is consistent with how this word is often understood in English as realizations and deep and clear understanding. However, it also includes how the Pāli term vipassanā is understood as seeing or directly perceiving phenomena intensively and distinctly, as they actually are. What Buddhist meditators have insight into involves directly perceiving the four truths and three universal characteristics of existence (Accesstoinsight, 2005).

The four truths have been outlined above. The three characteristics of existence are (1) aniccā—impermanence or change, (2) dukkha—the fact that changing, conditioned experiences cannot bring enduring happiness and are essentially unsatisfactory, and (3) anattā—the reality that all experiences are empty of single “thingness.” There are many ways to understand emptiness, which is also called non-self in Theravada Buddhism, and more details about the Buddhist understanding of emptiness will be provided later in this paper. For the moment, however, one way to understand it is that conditioned “things,” including what we call our self, do not exist independently but arise in an interdependent manner.

According to accounts (Ñāṇamoli, 1992), after his awakening the Buddha traveled widely and taught extensively across northern India for 45 years and passed away at the age of 80. As Buddhism spread, it adapted and changed according to the cultures within which it was hosted. There are some distinct differences between Theravada Buddhism, which is sometimes called early Buddhism, and later developments, such as Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. These differences are evident in regard to its orientation, practices, priorities, and terminology.

In Theravada Buddhism, for example, the basic intention is to uproot the causes of suffering or dukkha (primarily craving) and thereby cease feeding into cycles of suffering. Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes recognizing one’s Buddha nature and thereby also realizing the reality of emptiness. This enables “a seeing though the illusions” of a fictitious permanent independent self, and seeing clearly the reality of continual flux and impermanence. An analogy often used in Mahayana Buddhism is that the mind is like water, which can contain a poison or a medicine, sweetness or bitterness, but is not what it contains; water itself is pure, clear, and empty but is a medium for those things. Meditation enables us to become more in tune with “the nature of water” rather than its contents. Despite the differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, the direct insight into and realization of the four noble truths are the same and these four realities also form the basis of all the Buddha’s teachings, regardless of the tradition.

Scientific investigations that reveal insights into the nature of the mind, in particular the evolution of the brain and its biopsychosocial functions, focus on different insights for different reasons. When we consider insight, guidance, and meditation in this paper, then, the crucial questions that arise are the following: insight into what? And why should one seek insight? Evolutionary perspectives, in contrast to the more transcendental ones, share overlapping but different approaches to these questions.

Evolution-Informed Minds, Mind Insights and Psychotherapy by Paul Gilbert

Core to the Buddhist path is a type of insight that, in a way, is beyond the nature of the biological mind and into the nature of consciousness itself (Van Gordon et al., 2021). However, the nature of insight that can facilitate brain-linked compassion relates to different processes of insight. For example, mindfulness can give rise to insight into the nature of the flow of thoughts and feelings that come and go, and thus to be able to discern the helpful from harmful contents of mind. Much of western psychotherapy seeks to provide insight into the products of a biologically constructed and socially shaped mind that can behave with different motivations and emotions, thoughtfully and wisely rather than thoughtlessly and harmfully. The use of reason and scientific methods can also give insight into practical solutions to alleviate and prevent suffering, such as creating vaccines on the one hand, but also into non-independent reality by exploring the nature of physical reality (e.g., quantum physics) and biological states (Harris, 2019).

Science has revealed the “energy” substrates of the material universe and how different physical forms emerge from different patterns of these substrates. Brains and bodies are made of proteins; proteins are made of atoms; atoms are made of subatomic particles, and so on, down to units of energy called photons. The atoms that make up part of your left thumb may once have been in a star, a dinosaur, or part of the sea. Everything that arises is the organization from energy that has no form of its own (Siegel, 2016). Modern science is also pointing to the ultimate “emptiness” of all things, meaning having no independent existence, partly by discoveries on how photons work (namely, they appear to come into existence and go out of existence). Indeed, the recent Nobel Prize was won by three physicists who have shown that our everyday concepts of ultimate realities are incorrect and the essence of our material realities is more in line with quantum mechanics than Einsteinian physics (Davis, 2022). Niels Bohr, a contemporary of Einstein and one of the founders of quantum mechanics, always argued that if we were not shocked by quantum mechanics and how it undermines our sense of reality then we have not understood it (Harris, 2019). Added to this is how the brain interacts with such “created realities” and our increasing understanding that the brain constructs reality rather than perceiving it “out there” (Hoffman, 2019; Hood, 2011).

Clearly, since brains are constructed from these processes, Western science has also begun to show interest in explorations into the nature of, and altered states of, consciousness itself. This includes studies and experiences such as non-duality, a sense of sublime interconnection, self-transcendence, and transpersonal forms of love (Yaden et al., 2017). In fact, early forms of spiritualities, before the advent of doctrinal religions, were rooted in personal practices to change physiology, including the use of psychedelics and rituals (e.g., fasting, or dancing for hours), directing participants to experience different brain states and thus different types of reality. (Dunbar, 2022; Muraresku, 2020; Ornstein & Ornstein, 2021). As another example, although near-death experiences can be frightening, Greyson (2006) and Woollacott and Shumway-Cook (2020) note that many are associated with a sense of self-transcendence, cosmic unity, and overwhelming love and joy. These are associated with losing a sense of a separate individual self to a sense of “being one with …” sometimes nature, the universe, or a representation of God. Van Gordon et al. (2018) discuss how types of near-death experiences can be explored through meditation. All these experiences typically became referred to as self-transcendent (d’Aquili & Newberg, 1993; Coxhead, 1985; Yaden et al., 2017) although this term is now used in different ways (Kitson et al., 2020). The crucial commonality between them is a sense of deep interconnection, “merging with,” and losing the sense of an individual, separate self and it being replaced with experiencing “wholeness.” Ornstein and Ornstein (2021) explore the history of religious and spiritual experience and how neuroscience is now identifying specific brain systems that are linked to specific spiritual experiences. For example, the parietal lobes link to experiences of time and space. When people have damage to this area, their sense of time and space changes. Similarly, experiences of a separate self and body dissolve when certain brain areas are disrupted. When people take psychedelics, thus changing the chemistry and interconnectivity of the brain, their experiences of a separate self and “oneness with all things” change.

In contrast to guiding people toward nirvana or self-transcendent states, most Western psychotherapy approaches help people become more aware of themselves, able to differentiate different motives and emotions, with a clear sense of differentiation between self and other. For example, with empathy development we become aware that suffering can exist within the other and though we may be moved by it we try not to fuse with it or confuse it as our own (as infants and young children do; Hoffman, 1991). Western psychotherapy uses many forms of visualizations and meditation to help people “gain insight and get to know one’s mind,” that is, to gain insight into the nature of their psychophysiological processes (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, motives, and emotions), how these are products of an evolved mind and brain. Insight can then be developed into the nature and origins of these processes which texture mental states for better or worse. This lays a foundation for how to work with them in order to promote helpful rather than harmful forms of them (Germer et al., 2013; Gilbert & Choden, 2013; Tirch et al., 2015). In addition, biopsychosocial approaches to psychotherapy are becoming more prominent, exploring the socially contextualized psychophysiological mechanisms underpinning different mental states and how to change them (Gilbert, 1995; Gilbert & Simos, 2022; Schore, 2019; Siegel, 2020). For example, growing up in a violent versus a loving household will have major impacts on the maturation of the brain, body, and epigenetic profiles, which in turn will orientate individuals to particular types of motive and emotional regulation processes and sense of self. Hence, these therapies address physiological processes, guide people toward improved body awareness (called embodied therapies), and draw attention to the way bodies and minds are regulated by social relationships (Gilbert, 1989, 2000; Gilbert & Simos, 2022; Petrocchi et al., 2022; Porges, 2021; Schore, 2019; Siegel, 2020). Evolution-informed psychotherapies (like CFT) also highlight the importance of mind awareness in relationship to the “tricky” (i.e., unhelpful) evolved dispositions of the mind that make us vulnerable to mental health problems and anti-social behavior (Gilbert, 1989, 1998a, b; Gilbert & Simos, 2022; Nesse, 2019; Tirch et al., 2015).

With the evolution of biological cells, there is the creation of a membrane that separates outside from inside and the evolution of mitochondria that begins the journey of separate, individual, living, replicating organisms and eventually creates humans. DNA creates us as separate beings, motivated to struggle to survive and reproduce, encased in a skin-bounded body that suffers. Suffering arises not simply from metaphysical cravings but from actual biological realities, such as nerves that can feel pain, emotion systems that can feel fear, rage that seeks to harm, and grief that mourns and despairs of losses. For the most part, the content of the minds of other animals is completely determined by the kind of bodies and brains they inherit and the life that sculptures them. We, like other animals, experience ourselves as separate, grasping, fear-of-suffering-and-dying beings because that is how DNA has created us to be. In addition, our evolved mind is not evolved to give us accurate reflections of reality “out there” and so our struggles are with how the brain creates these realities (Hoffman, 2019; Hood, 2011).

Western psychotherapies guide people in various meditations such as mindfulness and compassion not so much to create opportunities for understanding the essential nature of consciousness and insight into nirvana, non-duality, or self-transcendence states (Austin, 2011; Van Gordon et al., 2021), but rather to help them gain insight into the nature of our evolved mind with its myriad of tricky motives and emotions, hopes, fears, and passions, and how to orient and cultivate it to live “compassionately,” to be helpful rather than harmful (Gilbert & Choden, 2013). With this orientation to the nature of a biological mind, which creates the content of consciousness, we become aware that our evolved motives and emotions can be cultivated for good or for bad. Not only do we inherit dispositions to be compassionate and caring but we also inherit dispositions to be extraordinarily vengeful, callous, and cruel (Buss, 2019; Gilbert, 1989, 2005, 2019, 2021). Although the psychological maps are different, Buddhist traditions also highlight the potential for harms via what are called “poisons of the mind,” the near and far enemies of compassion (ignorance, greed, and hatred), and use meditation as “observation” to familiarize oneself with the tricky nature of the mind.

On his journey to enlightenment, Siddhartha did not have access to modern science about the evolved DNA-based nature of biological life and the construction of its motives and cravings. I like to think that if he had, he would have also been an evolutionist. He would have been fascinated by how evolved programs texture the mind with motives, emotions, and so forth and would have invited people to pay attention to their evolved programs of mind that will control them if they are not careful. CFT seeks not only to help people recognize just how much our evolved biological programming can control us, and how to become more aware of these programs in order to make better choices, but also to cultivate compassion motives as an ethical orientation to address the harmful sides of our nature and promote flourishing (Gilbert & Simos, 2022). CFT is a biopsychosocial and motive-based psychotherapy that seeks to impact psychophysiological processes in the brain and body and thereby promote mental health and prosocial behavior via these routes (Matos et al., 2017; Petrocchi & Cheli, 2019; Petrocchi et al., 2022). Like Buddhism, it highlights the importance of motivation as central to the organization of the mind (Dalai Lama, & Ekman, 2008a, b; Dalai Lama, 1995). Both approaches highlight that we can be motivated to acquire resources out of self-interest, callously disregarding the impact this has for others, and can be driven by ruthless ambition and vengeful motives (Basran et al., 2019). But we can also be motivated to share with, and care for, others, to seek social justice, and to alleviate and prevent suffering. Different motives organize our brain and body in different ways (Gilbert, 2021).

The Challenges of an Evolved Mind

The evolutionary model and the Buddhist model speak to different types of insight. The Buddhist model reflects the potential to experience some domains of consciousness that may not be dependent on physiology and to experience liberation from illusions woven by our physiological minds (Ornstein & Ornstein, 2021; see MH and CH’s contributions), whereas the evolutionary model highlights the importance of insight into the way our brains have evolved and function because evolution has created brains that can do considerable harm to self and others (Gilbert, 2019, 2022).

All living systems evolved to detect and respond to threats to their survival and seek out resources that are necessary for survival such as food and shelter. In addition, sexually reproducing life forms have a range of motives that facilitate competing with others in seeking sexual partners and caring for offspring. In pursuit of these basic biosocial goals, life forms will at times cooperate but at other times be in conflict with each other (Raihani, 2021). The classic example is the predator–prey relationship, which as a basis for the maintenance of life is completely callous. Another is the way parasites, bacteria, and viruses can maim and kill their hosts in their own replication journey, COVID-19 being the most recent of many billions of viruses that have been impacting genetic codes and been decimating life forms for many millions of years, sometimes driving them to extinction. In addition, members of the same species can be in conflict with each other over which individual will gain more control of resources. These conflicts result in hierarchies of territories and power-control via a social dominate–subordinate threat. In most species, the process of seeking dominance involves intimidating and frightening those below them into submissive postures and mental states, and sometimes injuring and killing competitors (Buss, 2019; Gilbert, 2019; Gilbert & Simos, 2022). In addition, conflicts between the genders are common in many species as those of one gender, usually males, seek to entice females and sometimes coerce-force them into sexual behavior. These basic motivational processes—for responding to threats, grasping after resources—are the grounding of most life forms. Unlike some spiritual views that see earth and life as something wonderful and a gift, CFT has more in common with the Buddhist and Gnostic positions that consider that actually biological life can be a nightmare. It can be textured by sensory delights and the joys of love but ultimately we live in a world of sickness, decay, impermanence, death, and suffering. For Buddhism, one wants to free oneself from the possibility of rebirth here. Hence, insight into what it means to have a biological mind, feeding experiences into consciousness, and how to use our capacity for conscious awareness of the contents of our mind, is crucial to this approach. Although transcendental and non-duality experiences can give people revolutionary feelings of interconnectedness and love (Yaden et al., 2017) they offer no insight into why material universes and biological life forms based upon DNA replication exist to create such horrors. Indeed, the universe is actually very hostile to biological life; go just a couple of miles above this planet and no biological life can exist in the expansiveness of space.


Buddhist schools highlight the importance of compassion for two reasons. First, compassion can help settle the mind and it supports well-being and ethical behavior (the non-harming of self and others) and, second, it creates conditions for self-transcendent experiences (see below). When your attention and intention is on the suffering of others, it loosens the focus on the strivings of the self. CFT uses this insight of how compassion impacts the brain in particular ways that are not only conducive to happiness but that can also stand against our potential harmfulness. Given the reality of our very tricky brains and pain-prone biological bodies, building minds and brains that generate compassion, with efforts to relieve and prevent suffering, can address these. With its impacts on cardiovascular, immune, and other physiological processes, compassion has powerful healing qualities (for reviews, see Brown & Brown, 2015; Seppälä et al., 2017). Although not particularly linked to meditation, these are very important scientific insights into the nature of how to address suffering and, given that meditation can promote compassion, they offer new reasons to practice.

Compassion evolved from the capacity for caring and it is understanding the way caring organizes the psychophysiological infrastructures of the mind that is important for Western therapy (Brown & Brown, 2015; Carter et al., 2017; Gilbert & Simos, 2022; Porges, 2021). The motive and behavior to care underpins the eight-fold path, noted by MH. Caring motives evolved from the maelstrom of short-lived and vulnerable life forms. One path for care is from rescuing behavior; indeed, even ants rescue injured colleagues and carry them to the nest where they can recover (Kessler, 2020). Linked to this is caring for the sick and injured (Spikins, 2015). Another pathway to the evolution of caring was from genetic replication. Many (non-avian) egg-laying species have reproduction strategies for producing hundreds and sometimes thousands of offspring at a time, most of which do not survive long (e.g., corals, fish, and turtles). They are victims to predation, disease, and hunger. However, gradually evolution gave rise to new strategies for reproduction, namely attachment and caring behavior (Cassidy & Shaver, 2016; Mayseless, 2016). The origins of attachment behavior began when species evolved to recognize their own offspring, and, as MacLean (1985) put it, “they don’t eat the kids” as species of fish often do. Second, came elements of protection; for example, crocodiles hear the sounds of their hatchlings and carry them gently to the water’s edge, which protects them from predators during hatching. Overtime protection was supplemented with “provisioning,” allowing infants to be protected, fed, and cared for. With genetic identification of one’s own genetic copies, over time evolution produced species that had capacities for highly complex forms of caring behavior.

CFT seeks to provide insight for people to recognize that, like all motives, caring and compassion are rooted in basic if A, then do B stimulus–response algorithms. We have many automatic algorithms such as if our temperature is too low, then shiver; if too high, then sweat; if a threat appears in our domain, then stimulate threat processing and engage fight or flight; if a food stimulus appears, then approach and take food into one’s mouth, chew and swallow; if a sexual stimulus appears, then approach, engage in courting behavior, and prepare for copulation. Now clearly algorithms can become incredibly sophisticated as they interact with each other such that although your computer is basically built algorithms it can do some amazing things. So to understand the basic units of a system does not mean that the system itself is simple. Clearly our capacity for learning and cogntive processing significantly impacts how we understand and work our algorithms. The caring algorithm, which evolved for caring for offspring, is: if the infant signals distress and need, then engage helping behavior to alleviate and prevent suffering. In many mammals, this can be sophisticated. For example, a human mother can work out if her infant needs feeding, rescuing, keeping warm, playing with, or educating. Despite complexity, this algorithm gives rise to the basic definition of care-compassion, which is:

sensitivity to suffering in self and others (stimulus) with a commitment (response) to try to relieve and prevent it.

Most definitions of compassion, both Buddhist and more scientific, tend to adhere to this sort of definition (Mascaro et al., 2020). There is good evidence that the way we empathically understand suffering, and its causes, is different from how we empathically engage with wise responses and actions. Courageous compassion without wisdom can be reckless, and wisdom without courage can be ineffective. Di Bello et al. (2020) have shown that the physiology of engaging with suffering is different from the physiology of thinking about what to do and doing it.

Connectedness and Confusions of Love

The evolution of motives to be caring, linked to close attachment relations, has diversified into many areas of social relating, including for sexual partners, friends, group members, and animals (this is partly due to the way over the last million years or so early humans shifted away from hostile hierarchical into egalitarian small group living; Camilleri et al., 2023; Narvaez & Bradshaw, 2023). This has given rise to strong motives for humans to form social bonds and seek out connectedness, belonging, feeling “part of,” being valued, and being loved (Camilleri et al., 2023; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2014). Becoming egalitarian hunter gatherers helped us evolve a psychology that emphasizes the need to be altruistic, to care and share (Camilleri et al., 2023; Narvaez & Bradshaw, 2023; Ryan, 2019). This fits with basic compassion-focused Buddhist principles of living too. One of the fascinating experiences people relate when they experience non-duality and self-transcendence is exactly these two, as an overwhelming sense of connectedness to all things and unconditional love (Yaden et al., 2017). However, self-transcendent, interconnected forms of experiencing love in these mental states are a different type of love experience from “I love you” or “you love me.” When Westerners talk loosely about the “need for love,” it is uncertain if they understand the differences between love rooted in biological systems that are associated with liking and closeness, and love-benevolence that emerges out of interconnected self-transcendence. Failure of insight to make these distinctions causes considerable confusion. Gene-built love, where we love our children, friends, and pets, is different from universal-benevolence that arises from being touched by states of self-transcendence that seeks the same freedom from suffering and the finding of happiness for every child, person, and ultimately sentient being. Indeed, Anālayo (2015) argues for the use of the term benevolence and friendly benevolence, as a better description of compassion, particularly when seeing it as “the desire to relieve all sentient beings of suffering and its causes.” Crucially then, whether we focus on love for our children or friends or whether we focus on self-transcendent universial benevolence, what these have in common is an absolute determination and wish for “the other” not to suffer. It is the dedication to address and prevent suffering that is crucial to compassion and that can be extended to all sentient beings, even those we do not like. Hence, the Buddhist wish is “may all beings be free of suffering and the causes of suffering” is a focus for meditation and can also be an energized joyful wish.


The motivation to care evolved with a set of supporting psychophysiological systems. These include genes for oxytocin (Carter et al., 2017; Kucerova, et al., 2023), core neurocircuits (Kim et al., 2020; Vrtička et al., 2017), and adaptations to the autonomic nervous system, particularly the vagus nerve (Porges, 2021). These processes influence the immune, cardiovascular, and other systems. This insight is important because there is increasing evidence that if compassion training is not able to shift physiological systems toward (for example) a more balanced autonomic nervous system, individuals may struggle with the psychological aspects of compassion (Steffen et al., 2021). Insofar as these physiological systems are associated with settling the mind, balancing the autonomic nervous system, stimulating parts of the frontal cortex, and creating a sense of safeness, they may also offer powerful groundings for settling the default mode, which increases the potential for insight, awareness and self-transcendence (Mehrmann & Karmacharya, 2013; Ornstein & Ornstein, 2021).

From Caring to Compassion and the Role of Evolved Cognitive Competencies

One of the reasons that we can have insights at all is because we have a brain that enables us to have insight and know that we have had an insight (Byrne, 2016; Hood, 2011). This depends on at least three types of cognitive competencies that each bring their own dimensions for insight. A key theme of CFT is how we came to have an extraordinary range of cognitive competencies that has made us the dominant species. These competencies are essential to develop knowing awareness and knowing insight. While many animals have capacities for reasoning and problem solving in their own domain of existence, humans have evolved three important cognitive competencies (Gilbert & Simos, 2022).

  1. 1.

    Competencies that facilitate reasoning, problem solving, and insight are the basis of the “scientific mind,” a mind that can grasp complex relationships and has insight (Byrne, 2016). These have enabled us to understand the nature of natural phenomena in the world and accumulate knowledge that builds on itself over generations. For example, the accumulated knowledge of medical science enabled us to understand viruses and then create vaccines. We have evolved language, which allows for an extraordinary new way of thinking and also social relating through sharing ideas, information, and knowledge. However, for all its benefits we can use our thinking mind to be harmful as well as helpful. In addition, we can be so full of thoughts about the past and the future, what we want to have or be, and what we want to avoid, that we can have a mind that is constantly jumping from one idea, thought, and impulse to the next and often with a conflict of wants and thoughts. Moreover, this chaotic mind is not easy to settle such that we are not able to live in the moment but in a world of created scenarios of possibilities, hopes, and fears. It is these chaotic, distracting, and at times over arousing mental processes that meditation seeks to settle. If we are lost in or to thought, then it becomes much more difficult to be able to experience the actual nature of a sensory-based consciousness of “being.” A typical analogy is that consciousness is, like the sky, ever present, but thinking, desiring, and wanting are like clouds that obscure awareness of it.

  2. 2.

    A second extraordinary human competency is the new forms of empathic awareness we have evolved. These give us insights into the nature of, and functions of, our mind itself. Other animals have some capacity for empathy (Tomasello & Vaish, 2013) but humans have evolved extraordinary competencies to have insight into the minds of self and others (Luyten et al., 2020). We can understand that our minds are made up of motives, desires, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs and that our actions and sense of self arise out of them. We understand other humans as having similar experiences (motives, wants, passions, fears, and hopes) to ourselves, which is called theory of mind. This enables us to intuit that other beings can have conscious experiences of suffering and seek happiness not suffering.

  3. 3.

    The third major human competency is that we have become conscious of being conscious (Hood, 2011; Siegel 2016). This means we are able to have an inner awareness that we exist, to be aware that we have motives, desires, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, and are able to consciously track streams of such processes as they are texturing our consciousness moment by moment. It is possible for us to know we are experiencing anger, joy, or anxiety and to distinguish the contents of consciousness from consciousness itself. This competency is the basis of mindfulness and the window into consciousness itself. It is however also clear that much of what we do is guided by unconscious processes (Bargh, 2017). Indeed, the nature of conscious awareness itself may be quite limited because what comes into consciousness can be quite late in the information-processing chains and sequences; in other words, as Bargh (2017) argues, the brain may already have made a decision about a stimulus or situation or even what to do before we know about it.

These competencies give rise to what can be called knowing awareness. For example, a lion will clearly intend to hunt and kill prey but not knowingly. It cannot reflect on its behavior or consider it to cause suffering, be cruel and to become a vegetarian or to train to get fitter. It can only act on its basic triggered motives. Its cognitive processes will simply be about tracking the speed of prey and how to launch an attack. Humans, however, can “know” and have insight and metacognition into what they are thinking, feeling, and doing, can work out the consequences of what they are doing, and they can make decisions to do something radically different. Compassion in many ways depends on these competencies because compassion has to include refraining from causing suffering with insight into how we could cause it, sometimes unintentionally but sometimes intentionally and do different.

These competencies turn caring into compassion. Many species care for their young and sometimes each other but caring behavior is not identical to compassion. For example, we may care for our gardens, prized cars, and houses but if they are damaged, we would not have compassion for them, though we might have compassion for ourselves as the owners. This is because compassion relates to the conscious experience of suffering. As inanimate objects and AI do not have consciousness, we do not think they suffer, even if we use the word (e.g., my computer is suffering from a virus). It is this awareness of suffering, allied with competencies such as empathic intuition and our abilities to reason, that transforms caring into compassion. This is depicted in Fig. 1 indicating that compassion arises when our caring motives to address suffering are guided by the insights and wisdoms of our new brain competencies.

Fig. 1
figure 1

From Caring to Compassion: Adapted from Gilbert (2019). Living Like Crazy with permission from Annwyn House

Hence, compassion is when we use our new brain competencies knowingly and with aware (insightful) intention to understand and relieve suffering. These competencies give rise to new domains of wisdom.

CFT also highlights the fact that attachment, social connectedness, and social caring have been profoundly affected by recent human evolution (Camilleri et al, 2023; Cassidy & Shaver, 2016; Spikins, 2015) and these insights need to be fully integrated into psychotherapy (Gilbert & Simos, 2022). CFT aims to identify our basic motives, emotions, and competencies and provide practices that stimulate the psychophysiological systems that are associated with prosocial behavior and well-being. Compassion, motivation, empathy, reasoning, and mindful observation training have all become built into the psychotherapeutic process (Germer & Siegel, 2012; Gilbert & Simos, 2022; Tirch et al., 2015). These insights are taken up as ways of helping people work with minds that can be full of (evolved potentials for) distressing and harmful emotions, motivations, and memories. Attention training, which is sometimes seen as a basic, albeit a somewhat limited form of mindfulness, helps people to notice and then interrupt the spiral of positive feedback systems between particular ways of thinking and feeling and the generation of distress states. One can literally lift oneself out of this whirlpool and become an observer of it and therefore not a feeder of internal distress. One can then consciously choose to relocate one’s attention and focus on something more helpful or “wholesome” (Ricard, 2015). This approach to mindfulness offers little guidance into the nature of the consciousness awareness competency itself.

Moreover, CFT sees the origins of this form of becoming “conscious of being conscious” competency as arising from complex physiological adaptations; that is to say, the mind evolved competencies for consciousness of consciousness and therefore, these competencies are rooted in the biology of the brain. Change the neurochemistry of the brain (as one might with psychedelics or long-term meditation and other means; Ornstein & Ornstein, 2021) and not only do you change the experience of consciousness itself but also its content. Indeed, one of the attractions of psychedelics has been to try to generate different emotional experiences through changing neurochemistry (Daws et al., 2022). Compassion training is therefore also brain training (Singer & Engert, 2019).

One of the fascinating and important questions is the degree to which these evolved brain competencies are important and  involved with self-transcendence (Ornstein & Ornstein, 2021). An area that is controversial is near-death experiences, with self-transcendent non-duality experiences, which can occur when people’s brains are highly compromised (Woollacott & Shumway-Cook, 2020). It may be the types of compromise that enable these states to rise (Ornstein & Ornstein, 2021).

Coming to Terms with the Callousness of Life

While deep meditative practices can give rise to self-transcendent and interconnected states of non-dual conscious awareness, and are associated with great joy and love, the biological realities of life are quite different. Life gives the opportunity for many “conscious” sensory and other joys and passions, and some see the creation of life as a mystery, a gift, or something wondrous and magical. However, the reality of evolution reveals a very different story. Life on this planet has emerged from simple cellular organisms into complex ones via a callous (indifferent to suffering) process of DNA creating short-lived organisms. Many billions of varieties have existed; over 99% of which are now extinct. Most life forms need to consume other life forms. They are “designed” to struggle to survive and reproduce and, for this, DNA builds into them systems that will texture consciousness with pain, fear, rage, and so forth—the basis of intense suffering. Evolution is not guided by design or by intention but simply creates organisms that interact with the material world that enable genetic replication. Evolution, as a process, has neither interest nor intention to create conscious emotional textures of fear, anger, joy, or happiness; it just does.

Among  the great debates is how and why material universes exist at all, and how and why biological organisms evolve, and become conscious of being conscious. This is further complicated by the fact that consciousness and conscious awareness tend to be quite late in the brain’s information-processing chain. Indeed, much of our processing is non-conscious (Bargh, 2017). As far as we know, we are the only species that have evolved brains that can begin to understand our predicament. We are also beginning to recognize that the brains that DNA build are not oriented to perceive a reality “out there” but rather to create it (Hoffman, 2019; Hood, 2011). Is a tomato red in any “real” sense, or is it that the light frequencies emanating from a tomato stimulate receptors in the eye-brain that give the conscious experience of redness? If you are color blind, you might see it as green. The brain creates the experience of color; it does not exist “out there” in the light frequencies. Mantis shrimps actually “see” far more colors than we can because their eyes and brain are sensitive to a wider frequency of light. Indeed, the human brain filters out most potential inputs, creates illusions of space and time (Hoffman, 2019; Ornstein & Ornstein, 2021) and illusions about a separate self (Hood, 2011). Studies in physics, particularly quantum mechanics, are showing that even the material universe is not “solid” or “real” in the way we thought it was (Davis, 2022), and with developing studies to stimulate and explore self-transcendence and different layers of consciousness, we may be on the edge of radical potentials for changes in thinking about the link between brains and consciousness (Ornstein & Ornstein, 2021; Yaden et al., 2017).

Concluding Comments

Ever since humans became conscious of themselves as “existing,” they became aware of their fragile, short-lived, and often suffering-filled existence. Many efforts have been made to try to understand it and many Gods have been created to try to explain and cope with these realties (Dunbar, 2022; Ornstein & Ornstein, 2021). Clearly, humans are capable of immense callousness and harmfulness yet also compassion. Science is revealing why we are so oriented to these extremes and why it is so important we gain better insight and understanding of ourselves in order to pursue the helpful rather than the harmful in all areas of life. Modern psychotherapies, including CFT, therefore use the insights from science to help people become mindfully observant of what we call the “tricky brain,” a brain we did not design or choose but have to consciously gain insight into if we are to live to be helpful, not harmful. While CFT focuses on the challenges of an evolved brain, designed for survival and reproduction, Buddhist approaches also focus on different dimensions of the human condition altogether, namely the issue of the impermanence of all things, the illusions of the self, and the nature of consciousness itself. These offer different but complementary routes to enlightenment and compassion cultivation.

The Relationship Between Theravada Buddhism and CFT in Regard to Insight by Malcolm Huxter

The four truths were described earlier in this paper. These truths have noble and ennobling levels (Bodhi, 2000a). Noble levels involve the direct realization of nirvana or the unconditioned. Ennobling levels, on the other hand, are moving toward psychological freedom but do not involve the realizations of the unconditioned. The cause–effect relationships as demonstrated in the noble truths can also be applied to patterns evident within everyday psychological difficulties and provide ways to reduce and ease these forms of suffering. At this basic level, the realization of these relative patterns could be described as ennobling. They could also be consistent with much of what happens in psychotherapy and there is much that can be written about the integration of Buddhist principles and practices into clinical psychology (e.g., Huxter & Pizutti, 2021). However, in the following section I will focus on the relationship between Theravada Buddhism and CFT, primarily in regard to the cultivation of insight. This will include reference to emptiness and wisdom from a Buddhist perspective, both serenity and insight meditation, compassion, and an example of a Buddhist mindfulness meditation to develop insight at an ennobling level. The importance of balancing serenity and insight as well as emptiness with compassion will also be addressed. In addition, the overlap with Buddhist and CFT practices as well as what I consider to be at least one important difference will be mentioned.

Emptiness, Dependent Arising, and Evolution

The are several ways of understanding the meaning of emptiness in Theravada Buddhist traditions (Anālayo, 2015; Van Gordon et al., 2021; Van Gordon et al., 2021). One classic way described in early Buddhist teaching involves enquiring about a chariot. A monastic called Nagasena asks King Milanda, “Where is a chariot? Is it in the reigns, the wheels, the frame, the axle, outside the elements, or the combination of all those elements?” The answer is that the concept of chariot is merely a name (Obrien, 2019). Similarly, what we call our “self” is a combination of components with no lasting independent thing called a self to be found. As mentioned earlier in this paper, emptiness, or not self, is considered a universal characteristic or mark of existence. The other two are impermanence and dukkha, unsatisfactoriness. Emptiness is sometimes confused with vacuity, the experience of nothingness or a thing. However, emptiness as a characteristic of existence generally means that “no thing” arises in and of itself. As proponents of CFT describe it, emptiness is not a state of mind but the reality of the interdependent totality of all existence. That is, from the subatomic through to the complex such as human beings, living forms are not separate entities but interdependent (P. Gilbert, personal communications, 2021; Tirch et al., 2015, pp. 197–198). These patterns arise and fall without any separate existence in and of themselves. In regard to emptiness from a Buddhist perspective, Anālayo (e.g., 2022) often makes the comment that “the void of emptiness is full to the brim with causes and conditions,” meaning that emptiness can be realized in the complex cause–effect interactions of life.

Another way of understanding emptiness is by considering that a perception of one experience is empty of the perception of another. As described in the Buddha’s shorter discourse on emptiness (Anālayo, 2015; Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi, 1995), a perception of boundless spaciousness is empty of materiality. For example, when we focus on the perception of the spaciousness of a room with furniture, our perceptions can become empty of furniture. In addition, as also outlined in the discourse, the perception of boundless consciousness of spaciousness is empty of subject–object bifurcation. This lack of subject–object bifurcation is also sometimes called non-duality. Another analogy that is relevant to understanding the meaning of emptiness is being able to perceive the clear, limpid, pure water within the muddy water of a pond. When the mud is purified out of the water, what is left is what was already there: pure, clear water. It is “empty” of mud. The clear water could be compared to an awakened mind, seeing self and the world as it actually is. In this case, the awakened mind is empty of mental distortions.

Yet another way of understanding emptiness from a Buddhist perspective is that there is no internal essence of a single being that endures over time. In this respect, Buddhism is consistent with CFT and its basis in the science of evolution. Unlike creationism, which posits that an all-seeing and all-knowing creator created human beings and controls the events that happen in our lives, both CFT and Buddhism understand that human beings and our experiences have arisen due to the coming together of many interdependent factors, causes, and conditions.

In an angle that is different from but complementary to CFT, which uses evolution and changing DNA to explain how humans have come to be as they are, the Buddha described a principle called dependent arising. This principle also explains the arising of dukkha as well as its release and the four truths are an example of dependent arising. Dependent arising is complex and difficult to comprehend. Nonetheless, it could be understood by considering that when there is no cause for suffering then it does not arise. In the suttas, it is often described in the following way:

When this is, that is;

because this arises, that arises.

When this is not, that is not;

because this ceases, that ceases (Bodhi, 2000b, p. 552)

Though it is not the same as the Buddha’s description of dependent arising above, the evolutionary derived algorithm of if A then B, described earlier in PG’s overview of CFT, bears some similarities. In the previous section on CFT, PG also wrote that our DNA-created minds are the source of our cravings, demands, and aversions. From a CFT perspective, these arise because DNA builds brains and bodies that seek survival and reproduction in an endless cycle of genetic replication, generation upon generation. Hence, the challenge is to seek to alleviate suffering and the causes of suffering in all sentient beings by becoming more aware of how unwholesome motives and algorithms pull us into certain behaviors, desires, and emotions. From the CFT perspective, part of this challenge is to develop mind awareness, which allows us to observe, recognize, and then not to act on those motivations that lead to further suffering in the long run. In relationship to this, Wright (2017) writes about how the challenges of meditation include seeing clearly and not acting on the illusions of obsolete urges and false positives. Seeing emptiness provides the opportunities for us to make wise choices, choices to act in ways that will reduce suffering. CFT and Buddhism have a clear overlap in the connection between seeing emptiness at an ennobling level, choosing to act skillfully, and following through with actions that will reduce suffering in the long run.


There are many ways to understand wisdom. One way is to see and understand a situation clearly then choose to act in ways that are helpful and not harmful. The factors of right view and right intention of the eight-fold path are related to wisdom. At a noble level, a right view involves seeing (perceiving) the three characteristics of existence and dependent arising, in particular the realization of the four noble truths (Huxter, 2015). Noble and ennobling right intentions have three aspects: (1) renunciation, which refers to giving up a gross pleasure for a higher happiness, or simply letting go; (2) good will, which can refer to benevolence and compassion directed to self or other; and (3) harmlessness, which can also refer to compassion (Anālayo, 2015; Huxter, 2015). Ennobling right view and intentions could involve perceptions of the three characteristics as well as cause–effect relations at ennobling levels. They could also simply involve, as described above, understanding a situation clearly, discerning the need to act or not act, and then choosing to act in ways that reduce suffering for self and/or other.

Buddhist Meditation

In the late 1970s, I ordained as a monastic and lived and practiced in forest temples in Northeast Thailand for almost 2 years. The meditation instructions were simple. We were instructed to be aware (mindful), to calm, still, and quieten our minds, and then to enquire. These instructions reflected the general relationship between serenity and insight. We calm our turbulent minds so that they become fit for the purpose of insight and awakening (Wallace, 2006). The serenity aspect of meditation has been compared to making a telescope so that we can see clearly things that are not visible to the naked eye. The power and clarity of stillness and quietude provide the tools to investigate into the nature of experience, our self, and consciousness. Though serenity meditation can deliver extraordinarily blissful states of mind, boundlessness, perceptions of non-duality, and beautifully altered states of consciousness, all these states are subject to change and therefore dukkha. It is with insight that we realize the enduring effects of waking up to the four noble truths and the three universal characteristics, including emptiness. According to scholars, the utilization of the serenity and insight aspects of meditation have three pathways: serenity first then insight; insight only; and serenity and insight cojoined (Anālayo, 2019; Gunaratana, 1985).

To understand the relationship between Buddhist insight meditation and CFT practices, it is also important to have some basic understanding of the role of serenity meditation, which I will provide below. This description will include reference to a serenity practice used with CFT, focusing on compassion. Then, I will outline an insight-only approach to meditation. In the next section of this paper, CH will provide details about a serenity-first-then-insight approach.

Concentration and Compassion as Serenity Practices

A main feature of serenity meditation is the development of samadhi, which refers to non-dispersed, focused attention, gathered and unified. Another way to describe samadhi is simply as concentration or stability of attention. Except in the case of sign-less samadhi (Anālayo, 2015), which is a contentless meditation, serenity meditation usually focuses on one particular object. In Theravada Buddhism, there are many traditional objects to pay attention to and absorb into with serenity meditation practices. These can include the breath, elements of nature, and increasingly subtle signs of concentration (Brassington, 2015; Shankman, 2008). The four boundless divine abodes (benevolence, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity) are also considered serenity meditation practices because the meditator focuses solely on the experience and becomes absorbed into these qualities. This set of practices is also found in Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, where they are called the four immeasurables. Focusing attention can calm the mind, relax the body, and bring peace. It also has significant mental health benefits, such as short-circuiting worry and rumination, increasing well-being, and improving productivity (Huxter, 2016).

The serenity aspect of meditation serves to provide focus and clarity to insight. With the muddy pond analogy used earlier, serenity is like letting the silt of the muddy pond settle so the water in the pond becomes very clear, and we can see what is at the bottom of the pond. With the increased mental clarity, we are more able to understand what increases suffering and what reduces it and thereby also more able to act with compassionate wisdom.

Further to this, with concentration we are more able to attend to one object and not another. When we attend to the nuances of a particular experience, our focus is enriched and enhanced, and distractions from other experiences fall away. With focused attention, it is like we become more and more absorbed into the experience and it absorbs into us. With meditation on the four divine abodes as examples, it is as if we begin to embody and become the qualities we are focusing on.

The CFT exercise of compassionate image meditation has an overlap with compassion as a divine abode meditation as well as Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana practices. With these latter practices, meditators focus their attention on deities that represent qualities of the Buddha, such as wisdom and compassion. Meditating on these deities and their qualities, the meditator merges with and becomes one with the quality. With the CFT compassionate image exercise, one brings to mind a compassionate figure (person or other) with as much clarity as possible. One can focus on the figure’s smile or warm eyes or imagine hearing words of wisdom. From a CFT perspective, these cues are evolutionary-based stimulants to activate the affiliative (connection) soothing emotional system. From a Buddhist serenity meditation perspective, paying attention to these nuances helps to absorb into these qualities. Subjectively, it may feel like compassion is flowing from this figure into us. Later, the practitioner realizes that the compassion is coming from within his, her, or their own heart. The CFT exercise of the compassionate image meditation is an example of a serenity meditation and is a powerful way to transform suffering to freedom via the cultivation of compassionate qualities and what is called in CFT, the compassionate self. On a technical note of difference between Buddhism and CFT compassion meditation practices, in early Buddhism the four divine abodes are considered boundless (Martini, 2011). This means that they are not only experienced as infinitely spacious; the boundaries between self and others also dissolve. They are experiences of non-duality, where there is no subject–object bifurcation. The three flows of compassion as described in CFT, other to self, self to other, or self to self, become redundant with the boundless divine abode of compassion because there is just its unitary experience.

Ennobling Insight Meditation

Using the muddy pond analogy again, when the water settles and becomes clear we are more able to see the precious jewels (our wholesome qualities) we may have lost in the pond. We are also more able to see the broken bottles and rusty cans of our lives, so that we can avoid stepping on them or remove them. The insight aspect of meditation serves to deconstruct the problems we may create out of misunderstanding and misperception. Insight helps us see and understand ourselves, life, and the world realistically. With insight meditation, we ask the questions “what” is happening and “how” is it happening. There are many different styles of insight meditation and some forms emphasize discursive thinking or focused reflection, while other forms emphasize direct experiencing with mindfulness. In one discourse called the satipaṭṭhāna sutta (Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi, 1995), the Buddha outlined four establishments of mindfulness, which has become synonymous with insight meditation. Please note there are many definitions of mindfulness. One that may be apt for the current discussions has been provided by Venerable Bodhi as: “remembering to be attentive to immediate experience with care and discernment” (Shapiro, 2009, p. 556). The four establishments are as follows:

  1. 1.

    Body, including its mortality, component parts, postures, actions, and physical sensations;

  2. 2.

    Feelings, or the hedonic tones of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neither;

  3. 3.

    Heart-mind or consciousness, including moods, emotions, and states of mind in varying manifestations of greed, ignorance, and hatred and their opposites;

  4. 4.

    Phenomena, including emotional, mental, and behavioral patterns considered either wholesome or unwholesome (Huxter, 2015). This establishment of mindfulness also includes a form of intelligence that serves to reduce and release the psychological patterns that perpetuate dukkha such as the hindrances as well as the mindfulness to foster those psychological patterns that are helpful and liberating. These liberating patterns are called the seven factors of awakening and they are mindfulness, investigation/enquiry, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity.

The four establishments of mindfulness encompass all possible human experiences, including nirvana. Unlike serenity meditation, which emphasizes paying focused attention to a single object, with insight meditation the objects of attention and momentary concentration can vary. An example of a general practice at an ennobling level may involve firstly grounding in a form of open monitoring with presence in the body (posture, sensations, or actions). Then, when a strong and predominant experience arises, one attends to the experience. This is done in an open-minded, non-condemning, non-censoring, and non-clinging manner. It includes seeing along with or tracking the experience and noting how it changes with a curious and enquiring mind. The various experiences may shift between body, feelings, heart-mind, and/or phenomena or may stay within a particular establishment. The experiences can be internal (such as one’s own subjective sensations, thoughts, and emotions), external (such as people, places, and things external to oneself), and/or include the dynamic between internal and external. The practice is based on tracking experience so that we see directly the “what” and “how” of experience, thus developing insight and wisdom.

An insight meditation session where an intense angry emotion could be processed may begin by noticing the physical sensations of hardness and softness as we sit on a cushion (mindfulness of body). After a short period, we may remember an incident where we had a disagreement with a friend, which was unpleasant. At this point, we could note and track the unpleasant feelings (mindfulness of feelings), or the emotion of anger (mindfulness of heart-mind). We do not censor, suppress, or fuel the angry emotion by feeding into the thoughts about it but could track the experience by paying attention to the way it is experienced physically (mindfulness of body). After a while, we may become aware of a familiar pattern of aversion that regularly and cyclically gets triggered when things do not go the way we want them to go (mindfulness of phenomena) and how painful this experience is (mindfulness of feelings). When we become mindful of the experience and the pattern, we can then apply the seven factors of awakening to the experience (a sub-domain mindfulness of phenomena). As we enquire into this pattern in an honest, non-censoring, and open-minded way, energy is roused, leading to joy, then tranquility, then concentration, then equanimity. Throughout the process, we realize that this experience is impermanent, not who and what we are, and not worth identifying with. We also realize that this pattern is destructive and hurtful to ourselves as well as possibly harmful to others. Once we realize what is happening with compassionate insight, we may naturally be inclined to release the grip that this ill will has on us. What may then be predominant is the experience of self-directed compassion and, as we are mindfully aware of its presence and how it arose, choose to nourish and nurture it.

When we can track experience with mindfulness, we gain an understanding of ourselves, the world around us, and life in general. That is, we begin to see and understand how things come into being and also how they pass away (dependent arising). We also see directly that all things change, that they are empty of solid and enduring thingness, and that they cannot bring enduring happiness. As well as cause–effect relationships, insight meditation is directed at being attentive to and perceiving the three characteristics of existence: annicā (impermanence), dukkha (suffering), and anattā (no self).

The Three Characteristics of Existence

With insight meditation, when one has insight into one characteristic, it generalizes to insight into the other two. Therefore, if one can see impermanence in one experience, seeing emptiness and the dukkha nature of that experience also follows. The same generalizing feature is also extended to different experiences. For example, noticing the impermanent nature of a falling leaf can be generalized to understanding the impermanent nature of a distressing thought. Following on from this, in seeing the impermanence of a thought, one is also able to see the unreliability (dukkha) and empty nature of that thought, which can be liberating.

We often cling to and identify with self-concepts. When something challenges the concept that we cling to or it changes, we may suffer. However, when we can begin to see the impermanence of our various self-concepts, we also begin to understand their emptiness and the futility of clinging to and identifying with them. The realization of impermanence, unreliability, and interdependence can be powerfully therapeutic. When someone overwhelmed with despair realizes the distress will pass (impermanence), it is freeing. When they realize unreliability (dukkha), they also understand that tormenting thoughts in relationship to the despair are not necessarily facts and credible and therefore do not need to be believed or acted on. Similarly, insight into emtiness can be a great relief. When someone who is experiencing a painful emotion realizes its interdependence, they also understand that their emotional pain is not their fault but the result of many causes and conditions coming together. In addition, they realize that they need not take painful subjective experiences personally or fuse and identify with them (Huxter, 2016).

Serenity and Insight as well as Compassion and Emptiness in Balance

In balance, the two aspects of serenity/calm and insight work together in mutually supportive ways. If they are out of balance, however, it can be problematic or ineffective. Insight without calm presence or compassionate intention can be quite distressing because we may see what is happening in our lives but not have the psychological resources to cope. On the other hand, being calm and relaxed without any understanding can be directionless and occasionally become misdirected. In the section on CFT, PG made the comment that a compassionate orientation can help to provide a secure base to progress with insight. This is also true for Buddhist meditators. During an online retreat, Anālayo (2022) said: “compassion without emptiness is exhausting, while emptiness without compassion is toxic.” It is easy to become dissociated and disconnected from common humanity when the focus of our practice is on insight into emptiness. In practice, many insight meditation practitioners include meditations on at least one of the four divine abodes in their daily and retreat practices. This serves to maintain a tangible connection with humanity and counter the toxic effect of emptiness without compassion. The four divine abodes are ways in which awakened ones naturally relate to themselves and others. On the path to awakening, they have numerous benefits, including providing an internal safe haven. The Theravada Buddhist approach to meditation has benefits for a range of psychological issues and many overlaps with CFT.

A Theravada Perspective, Concluding Comments

The ultimate aim of Buddhism is awakening to the four noble truths, which includes freedom from psychological suffering. CFT also aims toward freedom from suffering by using a range of contemporary psychological approaches consistent with the Buddha’s Noble Eight-fold Path. CFT differs from Buddhism in that, though CFT practices may lead to complete awakening, these practices are not oriented to incline toward nirvana. Motivated by compassion (right intention), CFT practitioners are committed to living ethically and relating to themselves and others in a way that does no harm (right speech, action, and livelihood). In other words, they live to be helpful not harmful (P. Gilbert, personal communications, 2021). When compassionate motivations are followed up with compassionate actions, not only does it benefit sentient beings and the world but meditation practitioners are also equipped with the composure and the internal safe haven to embark on journeys of insight meditation.

Though not necessarily delineating between the Buddha’s four establishments of mindfulness, with mind awareness, CFT utilizes practices that can be found in all four. This includes monitoring the breath (mindfulness of the body), tracking thoughts, emotions, and intentions (mindfulness of feelings and heart-mind), and being mindful of the unhelpful, in order to not feed into it, as well as being mindful of the compassionately helpful, in order to nourish it (mindfulness of phenomena). Even though it is possible that the depths of noble wisdom may arise with CFT practices, in my opinion CFT more certainly cultivates ennobling wisdom. In this way, there is clear overlap with the Buddha’s ennobling eight-fold way.

In the next section, CH will write about the relationship between Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhism and CFT in regard to insight meditation. It is my view that CFT is more aligned with Mahayana Buddhism than Theravada Buddhism because with CFT and Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is central in its orientation, motivation, and practices.

Mahayana Buddhism by Choden

Buddhism evolved through three main phases that can be broadly described as Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. They were described as the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma. Theravada, or early Buddhism, focused on the experience of suffering, what causes suffering, how we can end suffering (but not necessarily pain), and the path to the ending of suffering. This was expressed in the Buddha’s first teaching called the four noble truths. These truths lay the foundation for all the subsequent Buddhist teachings and practices.

I have been a Buddhist practitioner for over 30 years, some of that time as monk, based in a monastery in Scotland (www.samyeling.org/). In 2009, I began work on exploring the link between an evolutionary approach to compassion and some of the basic Buddhist teachings (Gilbert & Choden, 2013). Mahayana Buddhism, the second major turning of the wheel of Dharma, is not different from Theravada. There is just a shift of focus. Training in compassion is brought to the forefront through the concept of bodhicitta, which is the deep wish to liberate all living beings from the endless round of cyclic existence. In modern terms, this could be understood as educating people and helping free them from unconsciously following evolutionary drives and impulses. So, motivation becomes central in Mahayana. Secondly, the notion of emptiness or sunyata is brought to the forefront too, but this derives from the Theravada understanding of no self. In Mahayana, liberation arises from cultivating both compassion and wisdom of emptiness.

In a conversation with Matthieu Ricard, a highly esteemed French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk, there was a suggestion that the mind is like water. Water is clear, but it can contain many different things. Water can contain a medicine or a poison. The great misunderstanding of the mind is to confuse itself with what it contains (i.e., with the poison or the medicine). Using another analogy, the mind is like a spotlight that can shine on many things, but it is not the thing it shines on. Part of the issue is that it may not know it “exists” unless there is something that reveals its existence for it to shine on.

Using the analogy of the water from Matthieu Ricard, we cultivate compassion for the content of the water (the poison) and we cultivate wisdom by recognizing that our mind is in essence the water and not the poison.

Relative and Ultimate Bodhicitta

The important point of Mahayana is that we always operate at two levels: The first is the relative bodhicitta, which means cultivating compassion for the suffering of biological life. The practices of CFT fit in well here. This has direct application to CFT and what was written by PG in the first part of this article. In essence, relative bodhicitta entails nurturing the compassionate motivation as a core construct around which all our actions in life revolve. Mahayana did not have available to it the contemporary insights of modern science and psychology but what arose from deep meditative insights of Mahayana practitioners was the primary role of motivation in transforming our response to suffering. This has a direct correlation with the CFT model of the Compassion Circle and the competencies of engagement and action discussed earlier. If relative bodhicitta were to be expressed in modern psychological terms, the Compassion Circle would describe it very well.

In Mahayana literature, the compassion of relative bodhicitta derives from sadness. The image sometimes used is that of a mother watching her child being swept away by a powerful river but not having the ability to save it. The sadness lying at the root of bodhicitta is also found in the practice of Chenrezig, which is an archetypal expression of compassion expressed through imagery. When Chenrezig sees the suffering of the world, he weeps and, from this sadness, a powerful motivation to free living beings from suffering emerges. This has given rise to the ideal of the bodhisattva, central to Mahayana, which is akin to a compassionate hero who does not rest until all beings are freed from the ocean of suffering.

The second level is the ultimate bodhicitta: this is an understanding that biological suffering is at the level of the content, not the nature, of a mind. The suffering is due to the poison in the water; it does not lie in the water itself. Another analogy is that of a mirror. It can reflect ghastly things and beautiful things—but this does not affect the mirror. It always remains the same.

This points to the notion of emptiness that lies at the heart of ultimate bodhicitta. The term “emptiness” is often misunderstood as meaning nothingness, but it does not mean that at all. It derives from the deep meditative insight that the ground of our being is awareness. This is the water in the metaphor cited above.

It is useful at this point to distinguish between awareness and consciousness as used in Buddhist literature. Consciousness means divided awareness; it is where awareness is polarized into self and other and becomes dualistic. This is how most of us experience awareness most of the time. Awareness is non-dualistic and is like a field of knowing and intelligence that permeates all of life, much like sunshine illuminates everything we experience in the daytime. This is often called “Buddha nature” or the primordial ground of our being. When we touch this level of reality, we realize that it is the closest thing to us—closer than our own skin—yet it is impersonal because it pervades all of life. From the perspective of awareness, everything else in our experience is empty because it is constantly changing. All our thoughts and feelings and dramas of mind are temporary experiences. Yet awareness is unchanging.

From a practical point of view, emptiness helps us see that our changing states of mind are like illusions. They do not taint or impair the core of our being that is unchanging awareness. In this respect, the view of emptiness might have important application to psychotherapy because it can give people who are struggling with difficult emotional states a glimpse of the fact that what they are going through is not as solid and real as it might feel, and that it does not damage the core of their being, which is awareness—just like a ghastly image does not stain the mirror on which it is reflected.

This could be the next step for CFT. Relative bodhicitta is already well expressed through a recognition of being caught up in the flow of life through no fault of our own, and how tapping into the evolved caring motivation and linking it to the unique mental competencies of being human give rise to the powerful transforming force of compassion. In many ways, the CFT approach to relative bodhicitta is more sophisticated than the Buddhist one because it is grounded in the contemporary insights of modern science and psychology. But what is missing from CFT is the perspective of ultimate bodhicitta and the view of emptiness. This is something valuable that Mahayana Buddhism can offer.


Bodhicitta entails shifting back and forth between these two perspectives. Suffering hurts at the relative level, so we attend to it at this level. But at another level, it is empty of the reality that we feel it has. This is not just esoteric. It can help a lot to get the direct felt sense that one’s torments and struggles are not as solid and real as they feel—they are more like a hallucination—but the hallucination hurts so we also take care of it as best as we can.

There have been many analogies for this. One is to imagine two waves on the Pacific rushing across the ocean. A big wave says to a smaller wave, “Oh dear it’s all coming to an end. There are cliffs ahead and there is foam everywhere. We are done for!” The smaller wave replies, “Don’t worry, all is fine.” The big wave then suggests that the small wave is kidding itself because it cannot see ahead, to which the smaller wave replies, “You have missed the point because you’re not a wave, you are water.” A similar analogy is of the snowflake, marveling at its structure and floating with millions of other individual snowflakes, until they hit the sea. Analogies can only take you so far of course, but they remind us to go beyond the material domain.

Insight Meditation and CFT

As mentioned earlier in this paper, in all forms of Buddhist meditation a distinction is made between calm abiding (also known as serenity and shamatta) and insight meditation (vipassanā). One first gets stability in the former before practicing the latter. In modern secular mindfulness, these two are mixed together, with the danger that there is not enough stability for genuine insight to arise. In most Buddhist approaches to meditation, the practitioner spends a lot of time on shamatta meditation before practicing the methods of insight. If we approach insight too quickly, there is not enough stability to hold the deconstructing process of insight and there is a danger of the mind becoming unstable. A simple example is that we first need to learn to sail a boat in calm water before taking into the turbulent waters of the high seas.

Shamatta involves calming down and stabilizing attention. If we use the analogy of a torch for how we train our attention, we first need to take it in our hands and shine it where we want to shine it rather than it being pulled here and there by the threat and drive systems. This meditation is often done through focusing on breathing. However, as described earlier there are many objects to focus on to calm the mind. Body awareness, for example, helps to anchor one’s attention in the present moment.

The purpose of shamatta meditation is to create the inner conditions for the mind to settle, to quieten the flow of algorithmic inputs from our emotions and motivations, and to turn off the new brain thinking. This lays the ground for insight meditation or vipassanā. The basic view of CFT is that the physical body and brain is the source of the motivations and emotions that have been built into us. These give rise to two fundamental problems called grasping and aversion in Buddhist literature. In CFT, these are loosely related to the motives and emotions of threat and drive systems, and the pursuit of evolutionary-based biosocial goals and life tasks.

Practitioners quickly learn that the contents of mind are chaotic, turbulent, and wild. That wildness is partly because of our biology. We are designed for survival and reproduction. But it is also partly memory-based and conditioned since it is linked to our personal life stories and body programming. Sometimes, this is overwhelming. This is because the algorithms of the mind—those underlying motives and emotions that nature has built into us—are constantly firing off to get control of the body for action, to attend to threats, to plan for subsequent activities in the world, and to pursue resources, rewards, and positive experiences. This is our biological programming in CFT terms.

The insight meditation practices of vipassanā help us to see the link between consciousness and the body/brain. In CFT terms, this means seeing directly the chaotic nature of our evolved motives and emotional programming. Through insight meditation, you come to see that the content in the water (evolved motives and emotional programming) is not as solid and real as you normally experience it and so you identify with it less and therefore, it loses some of its power over you. You begin to see that you are under the spell of the evolved mind and how it operates. By simply seeing the spell as a spell, it loses some of its power over you. This is the meaning of emptiness in practical terms.

For this type of practice to be effective, you need first to stabilize the mind. You need to get used to sailing your boat in calm waters before heading out to the open sea. That is why it is so important to start with shamatta and to spend a lot of time stabilizing this level of practice. This typically starts by paying attention to attention. In CFT, participants are taught that before they venture into the choppy waters of the mind they need to take their torch with them and learn to use it properly. The torch is their attention. By learning to focus their conscious attention in a certain way, they provide the conditions for insight to arise.

From the CFT perspective, practices such as soothing rhythm breathing allow our attention to ground itself in the body and give it a focus that is not linked to any of the basic emotion or motivational systems. This is important. We need to spend a lot of time training the attention to rest on a neutral focal support and not to let it get pulled into the dynamics of grasping and aversion—not to let it get pulled into the orbit of the drive and threat systems. This is precisely the same approach taken in Buddhist shamatta practice although it is explained in a different way.

The practice of shamatta is simple yet powerful. When the breath is used as the meditation object, we observe its coming and going through the nose or mouth and feel the movement of the breath in the body. This helps to ground our attention in the body and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. When we notice our attention being carried away by thinking, often linked to grasping and aversion, we just notice this and return our attention to the breathing. Through practicing in this way, we are shifting our energy and focus away from the algorithms of the evolved or conditioned motives and emotions. This loosens the hold of these motivations and emotions on our awareness and we can then begin to rest more in the awareness itself. This is the doorway to vipassanā meditation, so now shamatta and vipassanā begin working together.

Vajrayana: Cause and Nature

It is very important to make a distinction between causes of psychological processes and insight into the nature of these processes (Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche (2003). Therapeutic approaches in general and CFT in particular are focused on the former, whereas Buddhist insight meditation is focused on the latter. Insight meditation from this perspective is trying to give you a direct feel for the elusive, intangible, ungraspable nature of our inner world, as well as our perceptions of the outer world.

This brings us to the Vajrayana, which is described by some as the third turning of the wheel of Dharma, or the third major development of Buddhism. Vajrayana focuses on nature of mind—going back to our analogy of the medicine or poison in the water, nature of mind refers to the water. It is not something different from Mahayana; it is a particular way of practicing it. It entails a different approach to practicing insight meditation, which we will come to in the next section. One of the key understandings in this approach is that compassion naturally arises once we gain insight into the nature of mind. In other words, when we learn to naturally abide in the water rather than be fixated on content, then we discover that compassion is an inherent quality within the nature of mind; it is not something that we need to cultivate. Nevertheless, Buddhist approaches always stress approaching compassion on two levels: learning to cultivate it in specific ways, like CFT does, while also recognizing that it is already a fully present quality in the nature of mind.

The insight meditation approach in Vajrayana differs from the approach of Theravada in how it is practiced, although the essence remains the same. The two main Vajrayana systems taught in the West are Mahamudra and Dzogchen. We will focus on the former here. Once again, shamatta is the first step. Once there is some settled calm in the mind and we are in control of the torchlight of attention, we now practice lhaktong (Tibetan term for insight practice). This involves a direct inquiry into whatever processes of thinking, feeling, or emotion are arising within our mind in the moment. In the Tibetan approach, the term thought is very broad and includes the entire range of mental and emotional processes that occur in the mind.

We inquire in this way (Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, 2003): where does this thought come from, where does it go, where does it abide, what is its color or texture, what substance is it made of, where are its boundaries and edges? An example given in the traditional literature is that of a mist forming in a valley (the mist being analogous to a state of mind arising). You cannot identify exactly where it came from, nor where it goes; it is not solid, and you cannot identify its edges—but yet it is definitely there! You cannot track how it came from a neighboring valley and has not settled in your valley, and nor can you track its departure to another valley. Mind processes do not work like that. Instead, when certain causes and conditions are present—moisture and heat in the valley—then the mist arises, and when the conditions change the mist vanishes. Even when the mist is quite clearly there, you cannot identify anything tangible or solid. Even a scientific analysis of the mist can produce a theory of the changing of water molecules and how they produce mist, but this still does not influence one’s direct experience of it. You cannot take hold of it nor can you discern its precise edges or boundaries. Yet you still experience it. This is the main point.

The lhaktong approach is interesting because none of these questions can produce any answer, yet you still ask them. In the traditional texts, they say that you should constantly investigate your experience in this way to the point of exhaustion! This is similar to the use of koans in Zen meditation. The conceptual mind cannot come up with an answer because no definitive answer is possible. Instead, you come face to face with the ephemeral, inconceivable, and ungraspable nature of all psychological experience. The more you do this, the more that the solid-seeming nature of experience—the heaviness and seriousness of our psychological processes—loses its grip. More and more we see all inner experience as rapidly changing, insubstantial, and elusive.

The main point in the investigation process is to come to our own personal conviction that all these states arise, yet they are ephemeral—and most importantly that nothing within our experience can be conceptualized or grasped. This has the effect of loosening the delusion of nature’s mind and allowing a deeper reality of mind to shine through.

This kind of insight meditation is normally done in short spells of settling the mind and investigating, followed by frequent breaks of resting without any focus (non-meditation). You would settle the mind (shamatta aspect) and then investigate whatever appears using the questioning approach above (lhaktong method) for about 3 or 4 min and then just drop all attempts to meditate and rest for 2 min or so, and then start again with 3 or 4 min of settling and investigating.

This approach is also combined with devotion and compassion. As you sense the deeper reality (the water), you cultivate devotion for it, while also cultivating compassion for the contents (the many strands of toxicity in the water). The devotion is like an internal love affair with the nature of mind—the water—that starts to become more and more apparent in our own experience. The compassion is directed at all those countless living beings who are caught up in the delusion of nature’s mind, who are carried along by it for their whole lives and who never experience the illusoriness of it all and who never taste the freedom or nature of mind. The devotion is linked to emptiness and the compassion is linked to the suffering of the biological reality of life. Bringing these two together is what ignites liberation in the Vajrayana approach.

Dual Approach: CFT and Vipassanā Integrated

The important thing is to have dual approach: approaching things from two different perspectives. This is how bodhicitta works as a practice. You need to engage with life on the everyday level where things happen and stuff hurts. This is described as relative bodhicitta. It is my view that the Buddhist approach of seeing things in terms of karma, reincarnation, and different realms of existence (like hell and hungry ghosts) is outmoded in our modern society that is informed by science (this view would be controversial in Tibetan Buddhist circles). What would work better here is the evolutionary model used in CFT of finding oneself in the flow of life that is not our design and not our fault. Using our oft-quoted analogy, this is like understanding why the poison is in the water and identifying the right medicine to apply so as to purify the water. It looks at the content and seeks to understand it and heal it. This would bring in a lot of the insights and practices of CFT—namely understanding how we are caught up in nature’s mind and using our evolved capacities of caring as the basis for compassion. This is the level of cause in the sense that we are trying to understand why our experience is the way it is, and what remedy we can introduce.

But then you can also apply the other approach once the mind has settled enough. This is bringing in the teachings around emptiness that are part of ultimate bodhicitta. Perhaps a more accurate term would be the profound level of bodhicitta. Whereas the relative or everyday level of bodhicitta looks at how things appear and what causes that appearance, the profound level looks at how this appearance is empty like the mist in the valley. This is where the teachings and practices of insight meditation fit in. From the Vajrayana perspective, one uses the Buddhist insight approaches to get insight into the ephemeral nature of experience. This is the level of the nature of mind. So here we are examining the nature of mental processes, not their cause. The focus here is not so much our inner processes in and of themselves, but how we solidify them, believe in them, and take them to be “me.”

Wright (2017), in his seminal book Why Buddhism is True, makes the point that our minds and bodies are created by the process of evolution but that through the practice of insight meditation we can initiate a silent rebellion against our overlord, the process of natural selection. In this article, we have argued that we initiate this silent rebellion by exploring the causes of our human predicament—understanding how evolution has shaped us—while also examining the nature of mind experience, moment by moment, through insight meditation. The former equates to relative bodhicitta and the latter to ultimate bodhicitta. The former is the basis for compassion and the latter is informed by the wisdom of emptiness. Bringing these two together is how we become free.

In practice, the way insight meditation works is that once there is enough steadiness of mind from having practiced shamatta we can then hold our attention on what the body/brain and electrochemical patterns are doing. We can begin to have insight into the way that they texture and color our consciousness. We can then begin to make a distinction between awareness itself (the water) and awareness of X or Y (the poison or medicine). Through this combination of stability (shamatta) and penetrative awareness (vipassanā), we can begin to have some control over the push and pull of grasping (drive) and aversion (threat). At the most profound level, we get insight into the nature of consciousness itself. This is the experience of Mahamudra or nature of mind, which is the union of shamatta and vipassanā.

There are various analogies to help us understand this process. One is that of watching a television show. If you are just caught up in the television show and not aware of the television itself—how it is producing the programs that you are absorbed in—then you are just absorbed in the show, and you can become excited, frightened, or sexually aroused by it. But if you remember to shift your attention and notice that the show is being produced by the television, your experience will be very different. Indeed, if you do begin to observe the process and consider what’s going on behind-the-scenes—how the sets were put up, how the actors had to learn their lines and practice, how they got things wrong—then of course you won’t be absorbed in the film itself and you will have little emotional engagement. Your enjoyment and experience of it will be quite different.

But there is something very interesting here as well because even though you know it is a movie and not real, your brain will still give you feelings. Indeed, that is the whole point of going to the movie. When some people have watched horror movies, they can be quite traumatized and have nightmares even though they know it is completely made up and not real. It is the way the brain is; it responds to stimuli in particular ways and beginning to observe how it does that is part of insight. But knowing that it is a movie, rather than just being caught up in the movie unconsciously, still makes a big difference. This is an application of insight meditation.

Suppose you apply the TV analogy to your own mind. When you are caught up in the turmoil and chaos of the mind, you can pull back and simply be curious: How did this unfolding program that is running in my mind get scripted and written? Where does it come from? What is it really seeking? How is it that it works through billions of other minds the same as mine?

Neuroscientist Ani Sef (2021) describes how the brain hallucinates our experience of conscious reality based on predictions from what went before. So we make our best guess of what is “out there”—as well as what is “in here”—because the brain is not able to directly apprehend reality, and then, we make subtle adjustments to these predictions based on the input from the senses. For this reason, he describes our experience of life as being like that of a 3D movie we are fully immersed in. This is a powerful metaphor for emptiness. Many of the great meditation masters of old described our normal waking experience of life as being like that of sleep-walking through a dream.

We can imagine ourselves sitting in our living room in front of a large flat screen TV with a remote control in our hands flitting from one channel to the next. We can take this as a metaphor for our lives. The key point is that the remote control is in our own hands but we do not realize this. So then evolutionary drives and archetypal patterns take hold of the remote control and fire up all kinds of emotions that produce different scenes in our internal 3D movie—some of them are good and many of them are awful. Through mindfulness training, we come to realize that we are holding the remote and we learn to press the channels for the movies we want to see. We realize the power of what we hold in our hands and how it can cause great harm to ourselves and others, so we use it wisely. In Buddhism, this is informed by a code of ethics—that of non-harming—and a compassionate motivation of wanting to help others. This is why it is so important for mindfulness to be grounded in ethics and directed by a compassionate orientation. We are not just cultivating mere mindfulness where we know that the remote is in our hands but nonetheless use it for destructive purposes (like the oft-quoted example of the mindful sniper).

From the perspective of CFT, when we settle grasping and aversion the mind becomes more peaceful and content. Goodwill and metta arise more easily, namely the benevolent wish that others may be happy and free of suffering. Without drive and threat running the show, the rest and digest system can pattern the mind and when it does so our experience of life feels very different. People feel safe and in that context compassion is a more likely response.

What we are describing so far is the level of everyday reality, described as relative bodhicitta. But the other level, ultimate bodhicitta, is very important too. We come to realize that we are immersed in a 3D movie—we begin to see that reality is not as solid and real as it feels. This is the path of insight meditation, which is informed by the view of emptiness. When we combine the compassion with the emptiness (the relative with the ultimate bodhicitta), we have the path to freedom from suffering that the Buddha taught.

There is a deeper level to insight meditation too. Once you see clearly the ephemeral, changing nature of experience, then you come face to face with awareness itself—the water—and you learn to rest in it, which means to identify with it as being “you” rather than identifying with the biological stuff created by nature’s mind as being you. You begin to see the biological processes in terms of the three marks of existence (described above): it is all change and unsatisfactoriness and there is no enduring “you” to be found in any of it. This is the silent rebellion that Wright talks about.

CH’s Concluding Comments

On the path to awakening, after establishing ethics the first step of meditation is shamatta—using meditation to steady our attention and perceive the chaos of the biological mind as it goes about its evolved programming. The second stage involves understanding the causes and drivers of our experience—to become aware that evolutionary algorithmic programs have no interest in the happiness of self or others. They are purely survival and reproductive programs running the show.

As we become more aware of these programs, we can shift the focus to the nature of mind and use insight meditation techniques to see first-hand how these programs pattern our experience in a way that is not solid, ephemeral, and changing all the time. We glimpse the empty nature of experience. The key point of this section is that genuine and deep change comes from working at two levels at the same time: identifying and alleviating the causes of our suffering (relative bodhicitta) while also seeing the empty and illusory nature of this suffering (ultimate bodhicitta). This is the big insight of Mahayana and is a potential gift to psychotherapy in general and CFT in particular.

This is empowering because we then realize that we do not have to be enslaved by the habits of a lifetime, and we can shift our focus to give rise to patterns of motivation, emotion, and thinking that are more wholesome and altruistic. This is the birth of compassion that is closely linked to wisdom. We realize that how we use our attention is very important because attention stimulates physiology—so we are very careful how we use the TV remote control in our hands. If we deliberately choose to focus on something sexual, annoying, or exciting, we realize that this will create very different patterns in the brain and body—we realize that the channels we select will fire up different scenes in our very own internal 3D movie!


One of the most important aspects of both contemplation-based insight meditation and psychotherapy is to gain insight into the nature and functions of a mind, in other words to enable “mind awareness.” A key difference is: insight and awareness into what? Most psychotherapies focus their efforts on helping clients gain insight into the psychophysiological nature of their minds and bodies, the link between thoughts, motives, emotions, and behaviors, and at times helping people become conscious of processes that may be outside their consciousness (Bargh, 2017). Some therapies, like CFT, invite clients to explore fundamental evolved motivations and archetypal processes such as attachment and care, and competitive motives, that structure the experience of the self. Science has revealed that we are DNA and socially contextualized created beings, textured by a range of motivational and emotional systems that evolved for survival and reproduction. These processes can be a source of care, compassion, and helpfulness but also serious harmfulness. Hence, humans need insight into the nature of their minds in order for them to become “mind aware,” to be able to differentiate and tolerate different aspects of the mind, and to develop a discerning orientation to enable us to live to reduce suffering, not to cause it, and to live ethically.

If the Buddha were alive today, it is quite possible he would have also recognized the importance of an evolutionary approach to the mind, just as the Dalai Lama does today (Dalai Lama, & Ekman, 2008a, b). There is therefore much to be gained by recognizing the mutually supportive methods for developing mindfulness, mindful awareness, and discernment, and pursuing an ethical pathway that supports flourishing and prosocial behavior. Where the two approaches differ (at least at present, though it is changing) is that the contemplative approaches guide forms of insight and experience that transcend biology and point to a different view of the nature of consciousness itself (Van Gordon et al., 2021; Yeden et al., 2017). In this approach, consciousness does not emerge from biology, rather consciousness is the “ground of all being.” Biology creates “patterns of experience” within consciousness. Rather than being lost in the pattern being created by our biological brain, it is suggested we can transcend and step outside of it and experience it for what it is; like the wave, discovering it is a manifestation of an ocean. This is why it is sometimes called 'awakening', like waking from a dream. This ability to step out of the confines of a biological mind that fills consciousness with reproductive and survival-based urges is profoundly transformative. Elements of these states of mind can occur not only through complex meditation but also near-death experiences and psychedelics. They remain controversial in scientific circles but many scientists now argue for the importance of major research into these states are becoming fascinated by the possibilities (Woollacott et al., 2020). CFT does not deny these possibilities, but simply suggests it is not the focus or the expertise of the therapy.

The above discussion illuminates both the overlaps and the different grounding and orientation of insight meditation to address and understand the nature of mind and the nature of suffering. Figure 2 offers a way to conceptualize the differences between an “evolution-informed” and a “contemplative, the-nature-of-consciousness-itself informed” approach. We do not think they should be seen as competitive views but rather seen in terms of how they differ yet may come to support each other.

Fig. 2
figure 2

© P. Gilbert

A comparison of an evolution and contemplative approach to the nature of mind.

In regard to the left part of Fig. 2, PG outlined an evolved model of our minds above. DNA, which in turn can be traced down to atoms and then subatomic particles and so forth, raising issues about its fundamental nature, creates organisms that are designed to support genetic survival and reproduction. While other life forms have forms of consciousness including self-consciousness, they do not (as far as we know) have a “consciousness of being conscious,” a consciousness plus self-awareness that gives rise to knowing awareness. Whether animals can have experiences of (self-)transcendence is completely unknown. And it is possible that this is an unhelpful way to think about these issues because in the Buddhist traditions it is more about how consciousness is having “experiences” of being a butterfly, an elephant, or a human; all is part of a single flow. Water can be a wave on an ocean, or a snowflake, or an ice run on the ski slope or steam. How it manifests does not change its essence, To this viewpoint, consciousness is experiencing the creation of patterns of “energy” within it through us, not the other way around. Hence, seen this way, we as authors are not experiencing consciousness; consciousness is “experiencing” a manifestation of patterns called Paul, Malcolm, and Choden.

Clearly, however, some of these experiences are dependent on our chemistry because if you change the neurochemistry of the brain then the experience of consciousness changes. In the Buddhist traditions, however, consciousness is not an emergent property of biology but is a property of what Mahayana Buddhists would describe as the ground of all being and what Theravada Buddhists would say are dependently arising causes and conditions (Anālayo, 2015; Austin, 2011; Siegel, 2016).

A second difference is the insight that leads to the path to cultivate compassion. In the evolution tradition, compassion arises from the evolution of caring behavior. The evolution of caring behavior brought with it a range of physiological processes that support caring. When oriented through self-conscious “knowing awareness,” caring motivatiion can become forms of deliberate compassion. Compassion training (as in CFT) is therefore directed toward changing physiological, psychological, and social processes to enable and enhance compassion as a motivation and set of competencies. One of the reasons to do this is because “compassion” has profound effects on physiological patterns, even potentially our epigenetics, reduces mental distress, and promotes well-being and prosocial behavior. However, these may change the brain in such a way that it may facilitate certain brain states that enable non-duality experiences to arise.

The Buddhist traditions have the same motivation and to some extent also understand the brain as “tricky” and full of potential poisons, affliction, and unwholesome processes. They, too, highlight the importance of specific training, as in the specific forms of mindful meditation and behavior practices, reflections, and the eight-fold path. However, they have an extra dimension of mind training through the process of enlightenment. This arises from observing experience (including the mind itself), insight into the nature of impermanence and non-duality, and the direct realization of the four truths including nirvana. MH and CH highlighted the importance of these dimensions of mind training that are not usually part of psychotherapy. There is indeed increasing evidence that minds who are afforded some experiences of self-transcendence and a sense of interconnectedness, full acceptance and love, and loosening of the sense of time and space have very transforming effects on mental states (Ornstein & Ornstein, 2021; Yaden et al., 2017). Be it through psychedelics or meditation training, ways to promote these experiences for people who have troubled minds is a new therapy frontier and way of thinking about what insights humans need in order to progress the helpful and reduce the harmful (Tagliazucchi et al., 2022; Woollacott & Shumway-Cook, 2020; Yeden et al., 2017).