Kwan Yin, Goddess of Mercy and Compassion
Part of mindfulness practice is cultivating compassion for ourselves. For example, when we are meditating and we get lost in thought, our habituated reaction may be to give ourselves a hard time. This just throws us into another tangle of thoughts and emotions about past ‘failures’ and/or future hopelessness. But if we cultivate compassion for ourselves, we gently shift back to here and now.
Having cultivated compassion for ourselves, we are better able to cultivate compassion for others. But it’s important to distinguish between compassion and empathy. When we encounter someone who is struggling, we may feel empathy, especially if what they are going through is similar to our own experience now or in the past. We literally feel their pain as if it is our own. Because it is painful, we may turn away as a form of self-protection. Or we may be drawn in because it is so familiar. In either case, it doesn’t help the other person, does it? And it doesn’t help us, because we either feel guilty for turning away or we feel like we’re drowning in someone else’s misery.
Compassion is recognizing suffering and responding in a way that is useful. If I see an insect stuck on the inside of a screen door, compassion sparks me to open the door to let it out. If I was just feeling empathy, I might stand there and say ‘Oh, you poor little bug! Look how you struggle. Me too! Boo hoo!’ And if I had no empathy and no compassion, I’d grab the fly swatter, seeing the bug as a potential danger or at least an annoyance, threatening my own happiness and peace of mind.
Compassion respects all life. It isn’t limited to beings we find ‘relatable’, whose experience mirrors our own. Compassion recognizes suffering but expands to hold it in an open and loving way rather than succumbing to it.
Compassion is action. When we see someone in distress and we help them in whatever way is skillful, that is compassion. Many instances of compassion we might recognize as simply being human, being neighborly or ‘doing the right thing’. Compassion comes naturally to most of us, at least in certain situations.
I am sure you have performed many acts of compassion this week. Maybe you let a car merge in front of you. Maybe in the grocery store you helped someone get something off a high shelf beyond their reach. Maybe you gave a respectful nod to someone sitting on the sidewalk. Maybe you saw or heard about a community in distress from flooding or earthquake or other disaster, and you sent a donation. Compassion is action, but it comes in all shapes and sizes: From a nod of respect to giving a majority of your waking hours to a cause you care about or a person in need. As citizens in a democracy, we cultivate compassion when we vote and make our voices heard for the benefit of our community, our nation, all beings and the earth itself.
Compassion doesn’t register within us as an identity — “I am a compassionate person” — trying to be seen as a hero, taking credit for actions, or being concerned about how we are perceived by others. Shoring up a personal identity just knocks us into seeing ourselves as separate, rather than a part of the celebration of the oneness of all being that sparks true compassion, life loving and taking care of itself.
There are many among us whose whole lives are devoted to compassionate action. And for them especially it is important to discern between compassion and empathy. Over the years I have had a number of insight meditation students who are psychologists, counselors and therapists. Some have complained about the weight of carrying their patient/clients problems into their own lives after the appointment is over. I suggest, for the benefit of their clients and for themselves, that they think of the client’s sharing as being laid out in the space between them for both to examine in a spacious way. Trying this out, my students found that they could bring all their practice and wisdom to the challenge without taking it on as their own. For their clients it helped to see their sharing as a story passing through their experience rather than an aspect of their identity. It makes sense that people who choose professions in the field of psychology are empathetic and want to be of help to those that suffer. But the empathy can become a source of misery.
It’s important to acknowledge that this misery is not just experienced by the empathetic person. When when you share your grief and your friend cries, you are unlikely to feel you can share freely. It is painful to cause suffering in another. Sharing our suffering with a person who has cultivated compassion feels safer. They receive it with loving-kindness, respect and full attention, but they don’t make it their own.
An experiment conducted by neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki comparing empathy and compassion showed that empathy training activated motion in different parts of the brain than compassion training. The outcome was that the empathy-trained group found empathy ‘uncomfortable and troublesome’ while the compassion group felt kinder and more eager to help others.
This makes sense. Taking on the suffering of others as if it is our own is not very comfortable, is it? Being so empathetic we become drained when we spend time around others, because we are taking on their suffering. We may need to get away just to allow ourselves to reconnect with our own experience. While I encourage everyone to take time for themselves, having to be alone a lot can certainly be challenging in maintaining satisfying relationships. If this is your experience, you might notice whether being overly empathetic is at play, and whether cultivating active compassion might help to channel it more skillfully.
But whether we lack empathy or are inundated in it, how do we cultivate compassion? Again, cultivating compassion begins with ourselves: compassion for our own suffering and grief, but also for our ignorance, blundering and foolishness. We do this, in part, to soften the rigid pattern of harsh self-judgment and the resulting suffering that becomes toxic and contagious. This doesn’t mean we ‘let ourselves off the hook’ when we have done something unskillful. A part of our mindfulness practice is cultivating ethical behavior, speech and livelihood (See Noble Eightfold Path). But if we enforce our behavior with cruel words or punitive actions, then we are compounding our unethical behavior.
Instead we do what we can to right any wrong, make amends, apologize, and investigate what went wrong in order to learn from our experience and not repeat the unskillful behavior. But this is only possible if we also actively cultivate compassion, because without compassion we beat ourselves up or avoid dealing with it through all manner of addictive and distracting behaviors.
Once we have cultivated more compassion for ourselves, we are better able to extend compassion to others. We see the suffering at the root of the unskillfulness of those around us. For example, driving around we may be quick to judge someone who drives too closely, too fast, changes lanes erratically, etc. At that moment we might recognize their suffering, and feel compassion. Who among us has not at times driven mindlessly? Who among us has not been lost in our own suffering, or been lost in a hormonal high that makes us feel immortal. That last one is most often the realm of the young who haven’t quite connected with the reality of the two ton metal weapon they are wildly wielding on the road. But knowing that they are not immune to suffering in this life, we can have compassion for them as well, even if at this very moment it is challenging to do so. The compassionate action that arises within us is to not react or retaliate as we drive, but to maintain mindful safe driving and actively send lovingkindness. ‘May you be well. May you be safe.’
For most of us it is easy to feel compassion for someone in a temporarily difficult situation that we can relate to. We tend to have a harder time cultivating compassion for someone who seems to have made poor life choices and is now living with the consequences. It helps to recognize that our harsh judgments function as a bypass to avoid feeling other people’s pain or recognizing our own poor choices in life. Perhaps our poor choices did not have substantial adverse effects on our lives. Do we take that good fortune as a credit to ourselves? None of us is perfect. And none of us is immune to suffering, no matter how fortunate.
Compassion does not command us to be saviors. It offers us the opportunity to live fully in the joy of being alive, and to recognize all life as deserving of respect and kindness, and a little help from a fellow being now and then.