14 December 2022

The Nature of Compassion

The Nature of Compassion

By Joan Swart, Psy.D.

The 14th Dalai Lama has written in the Art of Happiness, “Love and compassion are necessities. They are not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” Nowadays, we hear a lot about it. But what is compassion comprised of? Although it is often used interchangeably with empathy, those are different concepts. The fundamental distinction between empathy and compassion is defining the former as feeling someone else’s emotional state and the latter as the warm feeling of concern rooted in the desire to improve the wellbeing of another person.

Compassion has various facets

First, compassion consists of that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It is the ability to be strong and to recognize that one is not separate from the suffering. But that is not enough. Compassion also means that we aspire to transform suffering by engaging in activities to alleviate the pain of others.

But compassion has another component too, and this part is essential to sustain our ability to care. We cannot be attached to the outcome. Any such attachment would profoundly distort one’s capacity to be fully present to the whole catastrophe that is life and death.

Compassion is paralyzed by fear

Compassion is actually an inherent human quality. It is within every person, but for the conditions of compassion to be activated, to be aroused, there are particular conditions. What is fascinating, is that compassion has natural and unexpected enemies. And those enemies are things like pity, moral outrage, and fear. We have a society, a world that is paralyzed by fear. And in that paralysis, our capacity for compassion is also paralyzed. The feeling of terror is global. So, to cultivate compassion, we need to address this archetype that has pervaded the psyche of our entire globe and distracts us, arguably intentionally, from the greater good.

Compassion cultivates resilience

It is often said that too much compassion is not healthy for a person. Too much empathetic suffering can lead to empathic distress, depression, fatigue, and even burnout. But, we also know from science that compassion has some very extraordinary qualities. Compassion people, while they share and feel the suffering of another a lot more, are able to return quicker to a baseline mindset. This is called resilience. Many believe that compassion drains us, but it can also rejuvenate and calm us.

Another thing about compassion is that it enhances neural integration. In a sense, it connects all parts of the brain. Compassion also strengthens our immune system. In the face of psychosocial and physical poisons of our world...So, the question arises. If compassion is so good for us, why don’t we train all our health care providers in compassion so that they can really transform suffering?

Compassion Cultivation Training

The promising thing is that compassion can be developed with training and practice. One such a program that was developed by Geshe Thupten Jinpa and his team at Stanford University. It comprises a structured protocol with eight once weekly 2-hour classes and a daily compassion-focused meditation practice that is designed to develop....

  • The strength to be present with suffering
  • The courage to take compassionate action
  • The resilience to prevent compassion fatigue

...by teaching how to settle and focus the mind neutrally observe one’s own thoughts and emotions, cultivate loving-kindness and compassion for loved ones, the self, and others, and embracing the shared common humanity and appreciating the deep interconnectedness of self and others, even in adverse experiences or difficulty.

Compassion requires back strength

Thereby, both the strength and kindness is developed that is needed in compassion. There is a saying in Buddhism that it takes a strong back and a soft front to improve the world. It takes tremendous strength to uphold oneself in the midst of suffering. That is the mental quality of equanimity. But, it also requires a soft front. The capacity to be really open to the world as it is, to have an undefended heart. This is the only way that each of us can help take the world forward.


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