Cultivating Compassion and Altruism

From I to We: The Role of Consciousness Transformation in Compassion and Altruism by Cassandra Vieten, Tina Amorok, and Sofia University’s chair of the PhD programs, Marilyn Schlitz

Religious and spiritual leaders, sociologists, psychologists, educators, and neuroscientists are all interested in how compassion, altruism, and other prosocial emotions and behaviors can be cultivated.Indeed, learning more about how other-regarding virtues can be fostered is a goal with personal,societal, and perhaps global implications. What factors are involved in the cultivation of compassion and altruism? What experiences and practices support the development of compassion and altruism that extends beyond one’s immediate kinship circle? What contexts support experiences of compassion and empathy and facilitate the translation of those emotions into altruistic behavior? How can dispositional tendencies toward compassion and altruistic behavior be fostered? Religious, spiritual, and transformative practice traditions have developed specific methods that are directed toward cultivation of these virtues, and we may have something to learn from their approaches about how compassion and altruism are developed.


screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-12-43-24-pmMost religious and spiritual traditions include prescriptions for living that involve the cultivation of compassion and altruism. In Sikh and Hindu-derived traditions, the Sanskrit seva refers to being of selfless service to the needs of others. In Christian and other Western spiritual traditions, the Greek word agape (or in Latin, caritas) refers to human beings manifesting God’s pure love, or an intentional and unconditional love for others, including enemies. In Buddhist traditions metta in Pali or maitri in Sanskrit is used to refer to both a quality and a practice of unconditional and unattached loving kindness, or the strong intention for the happiness of all beings. The Tibetan Buddhist practice of
tonglen refers to the practice of taking in suffering and giving out love or blessings.
Stephen G. Post points out that while “one finds rough equivalents of the ideal of divine Unlimited Love across the major spiritual and religious traditions…the consensus among religions about the various ways human beings can connect with this source of love needs to be better understood” (2003, 140).


Over the past several years, our group has been engaged in a study of the factors that initiate, mediate, and sustain positive transformations in consciousness. To learn more about how consciousness is transformed, we sought to identify common elements of the transformative process in religions, spiritual traditions, and modern transformative movements. We have employed a qualitative research method with the goals of generating hypotheses and informing definition, selection, and operationalization of relevant predictor, mediator, and outcome variables. Through this process, we are developing a theoretical model of the transformative process that is not specific to any one tradition but is informed by common elements of the transformational process across traditions, without excluding unique contributions from specific traditions. Our thematic analysis suggests that increased compassion and altruism is a common goal of trans-formative traditions and that there are experiences and practices across traditions that foster increased compassion and altruism through a number of potential pathways.

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A Look at the Next Generation of Transpersonal Researchers and Scholars

The field of transpersonal psychology has changed radically since 1992, when the late William Braud and I joined the Core Faculty at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (ITP), now Sofia University. Not only has transpersonal psychology expanded and diversified as a field but we are no longer the only academic field interested in spiritual and related phenomena. Investigation of topics, such as compassion, forgiveness, altruism, and mindfulness, are now commonplace in mainstream psychology and the health sciences worldwide.
The subject matter of human spiritual experience is no longer radical and no longer defines transpersonal psychology as a unique field of study. Therefore, especially in hindsight, what William Braud and I learned about the essential nature of transpersonal research and scholarship in response to our doctoral students’ needs in the 1990s and 2000s becomes more relevant now than we could have ever foreseen at the time. When we founded the field of transpersonal research methods with the publication of our first book,
Transpersonal Research Methods for the Social Sciences: Honoring Human Experience
(Braud & Anderson, 1998), we could not have imagined that the epistemological perspectives and transpersonal research methods we generated together in those early years would be a crucial element distinguishing transpersonal psychologists from mainstream scholars now investigating spiritual phenomena.
My British transpersonal colleague, Les Lancaster, has already expressed similar views in his recent address at the Alubrat Transpersonal Research Colloquium in Brazil in September 2015 (Lancaser, 2015). In this short essay, I first tell the history of how William Braud and I came to conclusion that the essential dynamic for transpersonal research and scholarship is the inquirers’ willingness to engage the Sacred in a journey of transformation— a journey that implicates both their understanding of the topic and themselves as human beings.
Second, I reflect on some of unique characteristics of transpersonal researchers and scholars. Third, I discuss some of the risks involved in transpersonal research and scholarship especially projection and narcissism. In conclusion, I discuss the role of independent scholarship among the next generation of transpersonal researchers and scholars, their needs for training and networking, and progress made to meet some of these needs worldwide.
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Can Social Consciousness Develop Through Transformations In Worldview?

From Worldview Transformation and the Development of Social Consciousness by Sofia University’s Doctorate Program Chair, Marilyn Schlitz, as well as Cassandra Vieten & Elizabeth M. Miller.
Each person has his or her own personal story about the nature of reality. Genetic tendencies, religion, culture, and geographic region,together with all the experiences people have both internally and in relationship to their environments, give rise to their 
worldview, or their general way of viewing themselves and the world around them.
Worldview is one aspect of consciousness. Psychological, social and neurophysiological theories of development indicate that as we grow and interact with the world we learn to categorize, discriminate,and generalize about what we see and feel (Flavell, Miller and Miller,2002; Siegler and Alabali, 2005). A worldview combines beliefs,assumptions, attitudes, values, and ideas to form a comprehensive model of reality. Worldviews also encompass formulations and inter- pretations of past, present, and future.
In our worldviews, we construct complex conceptual frameworks to organize our beliefs about who we are and about the world we live in. Worldviews function in similar ways to the internal working models proposed by Bowlby (1969) and elaborated by Bretherton and Munholland (1999). These models arise from interactions with primary attachment figures, and ‘provide a framework for understanding new experiences and guiding social interaction’ (Shaver, Collins and Clark, 1996, p. 39). Worldview is a broader construct that is influenced by more than interactions with attachment figures, but similarly provides the holder a belief structure within which to organize perceptions and new experiences within the context of their social and physical environment.
Human perceptions are filtered by the ways people view the world. People’s worldviews therefore influence every aspect of how they understand and interact with the world around them. Worldviews profoundly impact individual and shared goals and desires, shaping perceptions, motivations and values both consciously and unconsciously. Worldviews inform human behaviour in relationships and choreograph individual and social reactions and actions every moment of the day.
In 1997, a multidisciplinary team of researchers at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) initiated a series of studies focused on the process of worldview transformation. The goal has been to under-stand the process by which people experience fundamental shifts in perception that alter how they view and interact with themselves and the world around them. In particular, our team investigated factors that facilitate the kind of worldview transformations that result in increased social consciousness and prosocial behavior.
To read more of this research article, click here.

Chopra Center Program Associated with Reduction in Markers Linked to Cardiovascular Disease Risk Among Participants

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-1-18-00-pmSenior Author, Dr. Deepak Chopra, Professor of Consciousness Studies, Sofia University

Integrative medicine practices, such as meditation and Ayurveda, are popular but their effects on human physiology are not yet fully understood. Ayurveda, a Sanskrit word that means the ‘Science of Life’ or the ‘Science of Perfect Health’, is the traditional system of personalized medicine from India that emphasizes disease prevention and health promotion.

Panchakarma, Ayurvedic medicine’s principle cleansing and rejuvenation protocols, incorporates various treatment modalities such as a vegetarian diet, Ayurvedic herbs, meditation, yoga, oil massage, heat therapies, and other specialized treatments that are thought to promote general health and well-being1.


While numerous studies have examined the health and well-being benefits of practices such as meditation, yoga, Ayurvedic herbs and diet, few studies have examined the effects of traditional medical protocols that employ several of these modalities concurrently in one program. To date, very few controlled studies on Panchakarma have been undertaken. Previous studies on Panchakarma have reported improved psychosocial outcomes in healthy subjects as well as improved psychological parameters in depressed patients2,3.

However, little evidence has been reported regarding the physiological and metabolic effects of such treatments. Thus, given interest in integrative therapies with the general public and medical community is steadily increasing, there is a burgeoning need for additional studies that investigate Ayurvedic medicine with modern scientific techniques to further elucidate the relevant biological effects and mechanisms related to these practices.


In a controlled clinical trial, participants in the Chopra Center’s six-day Ayurvedic immersion program, Perfect Health, that featured a vegetarian diet, meditation, yoga, herbs, and massages, experienced measurable decreases in a set of blood-based metabolites associated with inflammation, cardiovascular disease risk, and cholesterol regulation.

The findings, published in the September 9 issue of Scientific Reports, represent a rare attempt to use metabolic biomarkers to assess the reported health benefits of integrative medicine and holistic practices. Chopra Center co-founder Deepak Chopra, MD, was the senior author of the study. Dr. Chopra is also a clinical professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and a noted proponent of integrative medicine.


“It appears that a one-week Panchakarma-based program can significantly alter the metabolic profile of the person undergoing it,” said Chopra. “As part of our strategy to create a framework for whole systems biology research, our next step will be to correlate these changes with both gene expression and psychological health.”

Panchakarma refers to an ancient and elegant mind-body cleansing system experienced by participants in the Perfect Health program, combining herbal therapies, massage, and other interventions.

To read the full study, click here.

To learn more about the Chopra Center’s Perfect Health program and sign up for a workshop, click here.


Exploring Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences


Excerpt from Clusters of Individual Experiences form a Contiuum of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences in Adults by Jeffrey A. Martin of Sofia University’s Transformative Technology Lab

Persistent forms of nondual awareness, enlightenment, mystical experience, and so forth
(Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience) have been reported since antiquity. Though sporadic research has been performed on them, the research reported here represents the initial report from the first larger scale cognitive psychology study of this population.
A category of human experience has been reported in the writings of philosophers and mystics since antiquity (Hanson, 1991; Stace, 1960). It goes by many names, including: nondual awareness, enlightenment, mystical experience, peak experience, transcendental experience, the peace that passeth understanding, unity consciousness, union with God, and so forth ( Levin & Steele, 2005; MacDonald, 2000; Thomas & Cooper, 1980).
These types of experiences, referred to collectively in this paper as Persistent Non -Symbolic Experience (PNSE), are often reported in spiritual and religious individuals; however, atheists and agnostics also report them (Newberg, d’Aquili, & Rause, 2001; Newberg & Waldman, 2006, 2009).
image source: unknown
Virtually all information about these experiences comes from a highly variable self-reported data (McGinn, 1991; Stace, 1960). These types of experiences have traditionally been regarded as very difficult to examine scientifically. Given the number and range of research tools available it seems increasingly possible to rigorously examine these types of psychological claims. The present research set out to determine testable claims and collect detailed first person data in a way that side-stepped the religious, cultural, and other contextual ways in which PNSE is often described. Questions were asked that related to: sense of self, cognition, emotion, memory, and perception. The results suggested that similar psychological claims, in distinct groupings, were present across individuals self-reporting PNSE. These distinct groupings each appeared to offer a specific flavor of the experience.
Defining the Phrase: Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience (PNSE)
It was difficult to gain cooperation from this research population. They generally believed they would not and could not be understood scientifically. Finding language that did not push them away during their initial introduction to the research program was extremely important. Over the course of the research I tested a wide variety of words and phrases to find one that wold be widely accepted by them.
image source: Alex Grey
The term non-symbolic was derived from Cook-Greuter’s (2000) research involving ego development and transcendence. While she generally favored the word postsymbolic, she used a term related to non-symbolic in a 2000 paper, in the following context:
Eastern psychologies have often pointed to the nonsymbolically mediated, or immediate ways of knowing as the only kind of knowing that can lead to enlightenment or true insight into human nature. In fact, they cnsider our additiction to language-mediated, discursive thought as a major hurdle in realizing the true or divine Self, or union with the Ground. (Cook-Greuter, p.230).
To read more of this article, click here.

Developments in the Neuroscience of Dreams

by Global PhD student, Bryrony Shaw

Humans spend roughly one third of their lives in bed sleeping and dreaming. Dreams have
been a source of fascination to many philosophers and psychologists. Main purpose of this
short review is to explore the history of dreams and the scientists fascinated by them and to discuss developments in neuroscience as they relate to dreams and sleep. I discuss differences between approaches between Sigmund Freud and Gustav Jung. This historical comparison suggests certain parallels between the psychologists and the philosophers. I examine perspectives on dreaming from the philosophers Rene Descartes, Aristotle and Plato.
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Plato was one of the first philosophers to discuss dreams. In “The Republic,” Plato discusses dreams in book IX. He is the first to discuss dreams and connect them to psychological underpinnings of the dreamer: “I can imagine a healthy man who lives in harmony with himself. He goes to sleep only after he has summoned up the rational element in his soul, nourishing it with fair thoughts and precepts” (Plato, 1985, p. 260). Plato argues the dreams of a healthy man will have less violent content than the dreams of a man “wild and brutish, sated by food and drink” (p. 260). Both Plato and Aristotle believed food or digestion affected sleep and dreaming.
Sigmund Freud was the first to write a whole book about dream interpretation (something
Aristotle disagreed with; Aristotle did not believe there was any predictive element to the act of dreaming), and his hypothesis involved dreams as a manifestation of wish fulfillment. Freud’s theory on dreams helped substantiate his theory of the unconscious, and emphasized the importance of the unconscious as evidenced by the dream world.
In 1953 dreams became more than a topic of conversation between philosophers,
psychologists and dreamers. A student and his professor in a sleep laboratory at the
University of Chicago discovered Rapid Eye Movement (REM). REM was discovered to not
only be apparent during sleep, but it seemed to be connected with humans as they were
dreaming. People were woken during periods of REM and asked to report on their dreams.
“In the years since Aserinsky & Kleitman’s discovery, a considerable amount of dependable information has been gathered about the physiology of sleeping and of dreaming” (Shafton, 1995, p. 11). It has been discovered since these experiments that dreaming does not only occur during REM sleep.
To read more of this article click here.

Study Reveals Benefits of Vacation and Meditation

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 6.04.02 PMThe meditation program included in this study was designed by Deepak Chopra, MD, who did not participate in data collection or analysis. Dr. Chopra was recently appointed Professor of Consciousness Studies here at Sofia University. The study below was funded by the non-profit The Chopra Foundation, and Marc and Lynn Benioff.

Scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the University of California, San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School used a rigorous study design to assess the biological impact of meditation compared to vacation.

They examined the effect of meditation on gene expression patterns in both novice and regular mediators. The researchers found that a resort vacation provides a strong and immediate impact on molecular networks associated with stress and immune pathways, in addition to short-term improvements in well-being, as measured by feelings of vitality and distress.

A meditation retreat, for those who already used meditation regularly, was associated with molecular networks characterized by antiviral activity. The molecular signature of long-term meditators was distinct from the non-meditating vacationers. The study was published today in Springer Nature’s journal Translational Psychiatry.

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The study involved 94 healthy women, aged 30-60. Sixty-four women were recruited who were not regular meditators. Participants stayed at the same resort in California for six days, and randomized so that half were simply on vacation while the other half joined a meditation training program run by the Chopra Center for Well Being.

For greater insight into the long-term effects of what scientists dubbed the “meditation effect” compared to the “vacation effect,” the team also studied a group of 30 experienced meditators who were already enrolled in the retreat that week. Researchers collected blood samples, and surveys, from all participants immediately before and after their stay, as well as surveys one month and ten months later.

“In the spirit of other research efforts we have pioneered with other groups, this work underscores the importance of studies focused on healthy people,” said Eric Schadt, PhD, senior author on the paper and the Jean C. and James W. Crystal Professor of Genomics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Founding Director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology. “By combining an interrogation of gene networks with advanced data analysis and statistics, we have generated clinically meaningful information about stress and aging that is relevant to the broader population.”

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The research team examined the changes in 20,000 genes to determine which types of genes were changing before and after the resort experience. Scientists performed an integrative transcriptomic analysis, comparing gene expression networks across all three groups of participants and finding unique molecular profiles and pathway enrichment patterns.

Study results show that all groups — novice meditators, experienced meditators, and vacationers — had significant changes in molecular network patterns after the week at the resort, with a clear signature distinguishing baseline from post-vacation biology. The most notable changes in gene activity were related to stress response and immune function.

Researchers assessed self-reported measures of well being. While all groups showed improvements up to one month later, the novice meditators had fewer symptoms of depression and less stress much longer than the non-meditating vacationers. The psychological effects appear to be enduring and it is unknown how much of this longer lasting benefit may be due to continued practice or lasting changes in how people view events in their lives.

“It’s intuitive that taking a vacation reduces biological processes related to stress, but it was still impressive to see the large changes in gene expression from being away from the busy pace of life, in a relaxing environment, in such a short period of time. These findings will have to be replicated to see if the changes are reliably invoked under the same circumstances, in future studies, and compared to an at-home control group,” said Elissa S. Epel, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco and first author of the study.

“Based on our results, the benefit we experience from meditation isn’t strictly psychological; there is a clear and quantifiable change in how our bodies function,” said Rudolph Tanzi, PhD, the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Meditation seems to provide relief for our immune systems, easing the day-to-day stress of a body constantly trying to protect itself. The prediction is that this would then lead to healthier aging.”

About the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is an international leader in medical and scientific training, biomedical research, and patient care. It is the medical school for the Mount Sinai Health System, an integrated health care system which includes seven hospitals and an expanding ambulatory network serving approximately 4 million patients per year.

The School has more than 1,800 students in MD, PhD, and Master’s programs and post-doctoral fellowships; more than 5,600 faculty members; over 2,000 residents and fellows; and 23 clinical and research institutes and 34 academic departments. It is ranked among the highest in the nation in National Institutes of Health funding per principal investigator. The School was the first medical school in the country to create a progressive admissions approach for students who seek early assurance of admission through the FlexMed program.

The Graduate School of Biomedical Science trains PhD and MD/PhD students, and offers master’s-level programs in areas such as genetic counseling, clinical research, biomedical sciences, and public health, and an online master’s degree in health care delivery leadership. The seamless connections between our medical school, graduate school, and hospital campuses provide an extraordinary environment for translating scientific discoveries into clinical treatments.

For more information, visit or find the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

Paper cited:

Elissa S. Epel, et al. Meditation and vacation effects impact disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Translational Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1038/tp.2016.164