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Centering compassion in a community divided: SBS Downtown Lecture Series happening now


Leslie Langbert, director of the Center for Compassion Studies, presents at the College of Social and Behavioral Science’s Downtown Lecture series. Langbert presented her research with compassion training. Photo courtesy of Mackenzie Meitner. 

The College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona will be hosting their Downtown Lecture Series, “Compassion: A Tool for Human Understanding and Liberation.” The series will be held every Wednesday in the month of October at 6 p.m. at the Fox Tucson Theater.

The Fox Tucson Theater has strict requirements stating that all attendees must show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination card or a negative test result for COVID-19 before being allowed to enter. 

John Paul Jones, SBS Dean, and Maribel Alvarez, associate dean of community engagement, planned the series. Alvarez explained that she and her team decided that compassion was the right topic for this year’s downtown series due to the heightened tension and divisions in our society due to COVID-19, politics and much more.

“We felt that compassion is what we need… [it is] a topic that brings out the better parts of us,” Avarez explained.

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The Downtown Lecture Series is also an opportunity for those interested to hear from professionals with in-depth perspectives on the science and practical applications of the topic being discussed. According to Alvarez, this is a good opportunity for UA students to enhance their knowledge outside of their lectures.

“Faculty use this event to ignite the imagination for what knowledge can do for the world outside of class assignments,” Alvarez said. 

Leslie Langbert, executive director of the Center for Compassion Studies, will be the first UA presenter of the event. Langbert’s presentation will be held on Oct. 6 and has the title of “Compassion Is Not a Luxury: Practices of Care in Community”.

The Center for Compassion Studies is currently doing research on applying cognitively-based compassion training with transgender and gender creative youth who experience higher risk for mental health problems, and their parents who also experience stressors, according to their study.

Langbert commented on how the research being done at the Center for Compassion Studies, as well as by others who study the impact of cultivating compassion, has shown benefits of compassion training to individuals.

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“Part of what we see is, as we cultivate these skills, when we encounter stressful situations or difficult situations, that our stress levels don’t get as high…and we are able to return to these pre-stress levels faster,” Langbert said. 

There have been multiple studies showing that compassion training can reduce the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone that if found in high amounts in the blood can affect many bodily functions and especially inflammatory functions. 

Cultivating compassion, as Langbert and her team are discovering, is something that also works for adults who may not have developed strong connections early on and help them decipher the moods and subsequent actions of those around them.

The second presenter for this event, Joseph Lacoste Sanguinetti, will give his talk “Are Our Brains Wired for Compassion? The Science Behind Caring for Others” on Oct. 13. Sanguinetti is the associate director for the Center for Consciousness Studies and a co-director of the Sonication Enhanced Mindful Awareness lab, which hopes to study and develop mindfulness training using brain imaging and neurostimulation.

Mindfulness training, also called attention training as said by Sanguinetti, has a lot of overlap with compassion training and the SEMA lab hopes to see if there are ways to expand one’s mindfulness faster. To do this they are studying people who have meditated for 5,000-10,000 hours in their lifespan and using the data to assist people who are just starting out meditating and building their mindfulness.

According to Sanguinetti, this is useful because to feel another person’s pain, or to be compassionate, can put a lot of stress on a person and meditation, as well as mindfulness training, can make it so one can withstand this stress and turn it into a positive action.

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“There is often a question of ‘What do I do?’…and part of the argument I am making in my talk is that we are built to help each other- it’s part of what is inside our nervous system,” said Sanguinetti. 

Sanguinetti’s presentation will focus on the parts of our brain that seem to be hard wired to show compassion through a reward system, how this has related to our survival thus far and what benefits stem from it.  

Sanguinetti also previewed his presentation by saying there is a huge amount of suffering in the world and if one tries to take it all on, they are likely to collapse. He will try to argue that one should start by being compassionate to one other person and if everyone started to do this, it would make an impact worldwide. 

On Oct. 20, Maha Nassar, who is an associate professor at the School of Middle Eastern and North African studies and the writer of “Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World,” will be speaking. 

Nassar’s talk, titled “Compassion for Whom? Shifting U.S. Conversations About Palestinians and Israelis” will be a commentary on how people determine who receives their compassion and what influences that determination. On top of this, Nassar hopes to address how listening to stories from groups like Palestinians and Black communities in America can help individuals further connect and then feel more compassionate to those unfamiliar to them.

Part of Nassar’s passion for these topics has to do with her background. Nassar was born in Tucson and then raised in Chicago, but heard stories of Palestine from her parents who immigrated from there and the Arab Muslim diaspora community around her. 

After noticing the stark differences in how American media viewed Palestinian culture and what she had heard growing up, Nassar went into her undergrad studying language and literature. Later she began focusing on the parallels she saw in Black American writers and Palestinian literature she researched in grad school.  

“If we want to make the world a better place, we need to be able to extend compassion to people we normally wouldn’t,” Nassar said.

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Hoping to demonstrate this, Nassar will reference the peace framework, a pro-American idea stating that American influence will bring peace to the world. She will also reference the justice framework, an opposing viewpoint that gives insight to those who see the damage that American influence can cause. Nassar believes that both of these frameworks must be considered and given spotlight in the media, the world can become a more compassionate place. 

Finally, Lama Rod Owens, a Buddhist minister and teacher at the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism, will present “Compassion As a Tool For Liberation And Racial Justice” on Oct. 27.

Owens will use his background in Buddhist teachings and racial justice movements to teach his audience about how to put compassion into their daily lives at a deeper level than the simple charitable act.

Admission to all events is free and anyone interested in attending the event can register at The presentations will also be live streamed and posted on YouTube for all who cannot attend in person. 

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