What is Compassion?
Compassion is the virtue of empathy – not sympathy – for the suffering and plight of others. Compassion is seen as a fundamental part of love, and the cornerstone of humanism as well as social connectedness. The act of being compassionate should be applied both to our friends and our enemies.
Being compassionate is more virtuous and important than practicing empathy, as compassion often makes us want not only to feel another’s suffering, but also brings about the desire to alleviate (or put an end to) their suffering.
Compassion may be regarded as one of the few things that we can each actively practice that can bring about both long and short-term and lasting happiness to our lives. In order to become, compassionate to others, we must practice compassion every day. To become compassionate, think about it when you wake, while you interact with others, and think about ways to become more compassionate as you go to sleep.
In this way, compassion becomes an integral part of your life.
Compassion is considered to be among the greatest of virtues in many religions.
There is only one way to practice compassion – in the moment you are in.
What is The Difference Between Compassion, Sympathy and Empathy?
While empathy and compassion are often used interchangeably, the words have different meanings.
Empathy is noting, understanding the experience of another’s situation, or perspective. Empathy does not imply agreement, sharing the same feelings or see their problems with the same set of eyes. Empathy simply means that you see that someone you know is suffering.
Sympathy is not simply just understanding another’s perspective – it also involves feeling the same way as the other person does about their problem.
Compassion – is empathy (understanding how another feels) and sympathy (feeling the way that person feels) combined with assisting the person in alleviating their suffering. Compassion is the desire to help someone.
Why Compassion is Necessary:
Practicing compassion is necessary both in our public and private lives. Becoming compassionate can stop us from inflicting pain upon others. To speak out of spite, out of self-interest, to exploit, to deny rights to anyone and create hatred by being cruel to others – even if they are cruel to us – is a denial of our commonalities.
Compassion should be a clear, dynamic force in our world and our lives. Treating each other with compassion and kindness can break down even the most fundamental differences between each of us. In this way, we can work toward the creation of peace.
What Are The Benefits To Being Compassionate?
There are a number of benefits to being a compassionate person. From children who may be bullies to people prone to depression, compassion and meditation should be learned. Like learning anything else – from playing the trombone to learning to play hockey – MRI’s have concluded that compassion is a skill that can be learned.
There are a number of physical benefits that have been linked to compassion.
- Scientific studies have shown that practicing compassion leads to an increase in the hormone DHEA; the same hormone that counteracts the aging process.
- Practicing compassion also reduces cortisol – hormones that produce stress – levels in the body.
- A recent study found that those who had extensive practice in learning compassionate meditation dramatically changed the parts of the brain (the insula, specifically) that are used to ascertain emotions and feelings.
Emotionally, the benefits of being compassionate allow for both an increase in personal happiness, which, in turn, creates happiness for those around you. Most people aim to become happier in their lives – practicing compassion is a simple way to become happier.
Okay, How Does One Learn Compassion?
While many of us are – by nature – inherently compassionate, we can always strive to be more compassionate to those around us. It’s been proven through scientific studies that, like many other skills, developing compassion can be learned. The best way to learn to be compassionate is through practice.
Here are some tips for practicing compassion, as adapted by the Dalai Lama.
Compassion Tip One: Morning Ritual.
Wake up each morning and make some resolutions about the day. This one, inspired by the Dalai Lama is what I choose to say to myself each morning:
“Today, I’m fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have a precious human life and I am not going to waste it. I will use my energies to develop myself, expand my heart to others, to achieve enlightenment.
I am going to think kindly about others, I am not going to think the worst of others, and I am not going to be angry with others. I will work to help others as much as I can.”
Clearly, you will want to adapt your mantra to be your own, but this is a good jumping off place.
Compassion Tip Two: Developing Empathy.
The first important step toward development of compassion is to develop empathy – something most of us already have developed to a greater or lesser degree.
However, human nature can be selfish, which means that our sense of empathy toward others may require a bit more cultivation.
Here’s a tip for working on the development of empathy:
- Imagine that someone you love is suffering as something horrible has happened to them – imagine the horrible situation in great detail.
- Imagine the physical and emotional pain that your loved one may be experiencing as a result of the suffering. Allow yourself to feel that suffering.
After you’ve mastered being able to muster up empathy toward your “suffering” loved one, you may be able to work to imagine the sufferings of acquaintances and be able to put yourself in their shoes, as well.
Tip Three: What Do We Have In Common?
We’re often led to think of the differences between ourselves and our neighbors. Instead of thinking about the differences between yourself and another, think about what you have in common – what we all have in common.
Things we all have in common may include:
- The desire to love and be loved.
- The need for shelter and food.
- The need for attention.
- The need for affection and recognition.
- The drive and need to be happy.
Ignore the differences – focus upon the ways we – our friends, our enemies – are all alike.
Tip Four: Practice Alleviating Suffering.
Once empathy comes naturally, once can you empathize with another, to understand the suffering and humanity of another, the step that follows is to want to alleviate the suffering of another.
Practice compassion by using the following exercise:
- Imagine the suffering of someone you’ve recently met.
- Imagine that you are the one who is suffering.
- Think about how much you’d like to end that suffering.
- Think about how much you’d like it if someone wanted your suffering to end – and acted to end your suffering.
Open your heart to the person you’ve met, and if you feel that you’d like to end their suffering, reflect upon that feeling – this is the feeling of compassion you’re working to develop. And with practice, you can grow and nurture compassion within yourself.
Tip Five: Practice Kindness.
Once you’ve begun to learn to be compassionate toward others, it’s time for step five – kindness. Here are some tips for practicing kindness:
- Imagine the suffering of someone you’ve just met.
- Imagine you’re that person who is suffering.
- Imagine that another person would like to help end your suffering – how could they end your suffering?
Then reverse roles – YOU are the person who wants to help the person who is suffering. YOU want to ease or end their suffering.
Put the mental exercise in motion – do something small – tiny, even – each and every day (or many times through the day) to end the suffering of another. You can do this by such simple things as:
- Smiling at a stranger.
- Giving up your spot in line to the person behind you.
- Putting a stray cart back into the cart corral.
- Talk to the waitress – really talk to her about her day.
- Embrace your neighbors long grass or barking dog.
- Saying something nice to someone you barely know.
- Helping with a chore or errand.
- Talking with another about a problem they are having.
Tip Six: Compassion To Those Who Are Unkind.
The final stage, the last step toward learning compassion is to not simply want to ease the suffering of those who we meet and love, but even those who treat us poorly.
Here is how to practice compassion with those who are unkind:
When we meet someone who is unkind, who mistreats us, rather than reacting in anger, withdraw and retreat.
Once you are calmer, detached from the situation, reflect upon the person who was unkind or mistreated you.
- Imagine where this person came from – what the person learned as a child.
- Imagine the sort of day or month the person may have been having.
- Imagine the mood the person may have been in and why.
- Reflect upon what suffering that person may have been dealing with.
- Remind yourself that the action was not about you – but about what the other person was dealing with and going through.
- Reverse the roles: if you mistreated another and they treated you, rather than with anger and unkindness, but with compassion and kindness, how it would make you treat that person in the future.
- Imagine, rather than responding by being similarly unkind, that you could do something to stop the suffering of the person.
This is a skill set that takes much time to practice, so break it into tiny bits until you are good at this skill at being compassionate toward those who are unkind to us.
Tip Seven: Evening Meditation.
When mastering compassion, it can be helpful to practice bedtime meditation. Think about the day you’ve had; those who you have met and been kind to, those who you treated well and whom you treated well. Ask yourself:
- Did you manage to act with compassion toward others?
- What could you have done better?
- What have you learned about yourself and others today?
- What will you try to do better tomorrow?
Learning To Be Compassionate To Yourself:
While many of us can be compassionate toward others, it is also important to be compassionate to oneself. For those of us who are incredibly prone to being critical of ourselves, this is no easy feat. Self-criticism and self-loathing may tamper with the way we feel about ourselves – and the self-doubt spiral can lead us nowhere but down.
Here is an example of the self-doubt spiral and how to defeat it using compassion toward self:
Event: Rachel is upset that she did not win the Dodge Ball Champion event this weekend – her friend Becky did.
Self-Talk: “I never win anything – I suck at life. Becky is way better at life than me.”
Feelings: Self-directed anger, sadness, despair.
Reasons for negative self-talk and feelings: Rachel remembers how she, as a girl, was always last to get picked in gym class – she always felt unwanted and like a failure when no one wanted to be her dodge-ball partner.
Rachel needs to practice self-compassion, rather than simply say, “I need to get over myself already.” Here’s how to work on some self-compassion:
1) Understand where your thoughts come from:
Rachel needs to remind herself that based upon her childhood experiences feeling inferior – she learned to feel like a failure – that’s why it makes perfect sense for her to feel so badly about herself.
2) Validate, Validate, Validate your emotions:
It’s completely natural that as a child, Rachel would feel this way, that she’d be sad and angry and full of despair – of course she’d feel those old emotions in a similar situation as an adult.
3) Come up with a self-compassionate alternative:
Rather than continue with her self-shame spiral, Rachel needs to practice self-compassion. Rachel wasn’t inferior or a failure as a child – she was simply small for her age, which means she was less proficient in sports.
Whereas, her friend Becky was the reigning dodge-ball queen and still plays in a neighborhood league – of course Becky would be better at dodge ball.
If Rachel can’t rationalize it out, she can think about how she’d treat her friends Becky or Dawn in this same situation – would she say, “Wow Becky and Dawn, you guys suck at life?”
Chances are, no, or she wouldn’t be friends with Becky and Dawn for much longer.
Additional Compassion Resources:
Charter for Compassion: is a cooperative effort to restore not only compassionate thinking but, more importantly, compassionate action to the center of religious, moral and political life. Compassion is the principled determination to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and lies at the heart of all religious and ethical systems.