Learn how to express fundamental kindness and mindful compassion. You’ll also learn the key difference between compassion and empathy, and the cultivation of compassion.
Some of the noblest aspirations of the human heart include the ability to see wrong and try to right it, to see suffering and try to heal it, and to see war and try to stop it. These phrases also offer a precise description of the essence of compassion.
For most of us, the skill to be compassionate toward difficult people comes at the end of a very long road. Mindfulness can guide you through working with the easier cases, learn mindful compassion, and help you gradually progress to the harder ones.
Table of Contents
I. Mindful Compassion #1: Compassion versus Pity
Compassion is the desire to alleviate suffering—or dukkha, to use the richer term. Compassion entails the courage to face dukkha, the wisdom to gaze into it deeply, and the resolve to respond to it in a way that brings relief.
More than just a sentiment, compassion is born of a brave consciousness and a strong will. It may arise as tenderness in the heart, but it requires the support of a tough mind.
Compassion with mindfulness is not pity, although the two are sometimes confused. Pity is simply feeling sorry for someone who has to endure suffering, but pity keeps its distance from suffering. Pity can’t get past the element of fear; it’s afraid of pain and suffering and wants to flee from their presence.
Compassion doesn’t keep its distance; it means “to experience or endure with.” Compassion is willing to be with suffering up close because it has learned to accept rather than resist suffering.
Words are sometimes used to hide our discomfort with suffering. Sometimes we just don’t know what to say, but it’s better to keep quiet than to utter vacuous words. The compassionate person does not flee from pain or silence.
Even without words, one can bring comfort to another by merely being physically present and mindfully attentive. Such gestures can strengthen others by conveying that it is possible neither to resist nor run away from suffering.
The capacity for compassion is in our deepest nature as human beings. To be sure, some of us manifest the face of compassion more plainly than others. Many consider motherhood to be the prime exemplar of compassion.
In the Tanakh—the Hebrew Bible—the word translated as compassion derives from the same root syllable from which the word for womb comes. The word for womb, rehem, is itself occasionally translated as compassion. Both words are related etymologically to ar-Rahman, meaning “the exceedingly compassionate,” one of the Qur’an’s 99 most beautiful names for God.
When we fail to act compassionately, as we often do, we have either been conditioned to ignore suffering, or we have suppressed the desire to relieve it. Our frequent failure to be compassionate does not mean that compassion with mindfulness is not a basic part of who we are; it simply means that our fundamental nature has been obscured and needs to be gently revealed.
Much in our modern culture works to separate us from our basic compassion and, hence, alienate us from one another and ourselves. Our love of competition, our fear of pain and suffering, our quest for pleasure, and our endless forms of distraction all function to enshroud compassion.
As we continue with the daily sitting practice, occasional body scans, walking meditation, and mindful eating, we subtly counteract those deadening aspects of our culture. Whether we recognize it or not, mindfulness practice quietly subverts those forces and gently eases their effects on us.
II. Mindful Compassion #2: The Cultivation of Compassion
Being able to see dukkha is the prerequisite to deeper compassion, but perceiving the deeper expressions of suffering isn’t easy and requires the skills of attentiveness that mindfulness practice sharpens.
Seeing the extensive and subtle nature of dukkha permits us to be more adept at identifying it and becoming more familiar with it. That familiarity, in turn, helps us to accept it as a present-moment experience, which we need not run from or resist.
Compassion requires the willingness to look at suffering, tragedy, and pain without aversion or attachment. Recognizing the subtle nature of dukkha also enables us to see how its evident manifestations, such as war and conflict, are interrelated with its less-apparent forms, such as greed, fear, and disappointment.
Common to all experiences of dukkha are self-centered desires that often outstrip the capacity of reality to satisfy them. Insight into the conditions that give rise to suffering is necessary to be able to respond to that suffering constructively.
Recognizing dukkha in our own experience is critical to seeing it in the lives of others. Unless you understand the nature of your suffering, you can do little to help others with theirs.
Paradoxically, then, you can take your conditioned tendency to focus on you and use it to turn outward toward others in compassion. As we go further into our practice, however, we begin to see that this is hardly a paradox at all, as we come to understand that there is not your suffering and the suffering of others—there is only suffering.
III. Mindful Compassion #3: Compassion and Empathy
Being compassionate toward others is based on empathy, or what the Buddha called “putting yourself in the place of others.” Knowing that you want to be happy and free from suffering, you can infer that other beings want this as well, and you can treat them accordingly.
The first step in being compassionate toward others thus involves imaginatively entering into the interiority of another person, sharing his or her inner life profoundly by recognizing that they are like you.
The world’s religions and philosophies almost uniformly endorse this empathetic precept and make it the cornerstone of their ethics. It is the basis of what we in the West call the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
In East Asia, many follow the same principle as it was formulated by Confucius over 2,500 years ago: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” If you do a little research, you might be surprised by how widely and frequently this simple idea is articulated in the world’s wisdom traditions.
Despite its ubiquity, most of us find it difficult to remember to be empathetic, which may be a clue as to why the principle is so repeatedly articulated in the traditions.
It’s not that empathy is particularly difficult for us. Sometimes, it arises within us spontaneously, perhaps more than we ordinarily recognize—unless we’re paying attention. Just as often, however, we neglect to practice empathy because the illusion of self gets in the way.
Your conditioned tendency to regard the universe as revolving around you makes it easy to forget that the rest of the world thinks the universe revolves around them. When you’re so absorbed in seeking your happiness utilizing the usual frantic and misguided methods, you’re too preoccupied to appreciate that others are seeking the same freedom from suffering that you are.
If we can just look around—at our world and each other—taking some time to stop the futile climbing up and sliding down, we can see what a state we’re really in. That awareness changes our whole attitude toward the world and toward each other.
IV. Mindful Compassion #4: Empathy in Practice
When you’re not feeling particularly empathetic with some of your fellow human beings, there is a simple practice to remind you of the common humanity we all share beneath the labels and identify cations that divide us. Any time you discover yourself being annoyed by or feeling alienated from someone, recite the words “just like me.”
If you’re seeking an ideal location for testing your progress on the mindfulness path, there’s no better place than an airport. Where else do you have such wonderful opportunities to experience the subtle manifestations of dukkha, to practice patience and anger management, to observe other people, and even to meditate?
Let’s say you find yourself waiting in one of the several airport queues you have to go through to get to where you’re going. Just ahead of you as you’re rushing to get through security is a bumbling passenger who has no clue how to negotiate this procedure expeditiously.
As you watch the bumbling passenger, it is the perfect time to practice your skills of empathy. Say to yourself: “Just like me. Here is a person who forgot to empty his pockets: It’s so easy to get flustered going through these stressful queues that I can understand how someone could overlook that step.”
You don’t know what is ailing the pushy woman behind you or the slow man in front of you in line. What you do know is they are seeking happiness just like you—and probably doing so in the same misguided ways as you.
“Just like me” is a versatile practice. It can be performed just about anywhere, at any time. You can practice as you read about or watch events in the news, taking a moment to ponder why others behave the way they do, trying to imagine how you would react in a similar situation, reflecting on the ways we share a common humanity.
“Just like me” is extremely effective for establishing empathy with others, particularly those we find difficult to like. Empathy and compassion do not require that we feel affection for the other. We can have compassion for our worst enemies.
Ultimately, the full pursuit of mindful compassion practice requires that we cultivate empathy for some very tough characters, including those whom we know to be the perpetrators of horrendous violence and abuse. Compassion cannot be selective.
There is one very tough character you’ll have to work with before you can go any further with this practice: yourself. For some of us, it may be harder to muster compassion for ourselves than for others.
There is a saying attributed to the Buddha: “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone more deserving of your love and compassion than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, as much as anybody, deserve your love and compassion.”
V. Things to Remember:
Compassion: The desire to alleviate suffering.
Pity: Feeling sorry for someone who has to endure suffering.
VI. Things to Consider:
- Recall a time when you were the recipient of another’s compassion. What effects did that experience have on your state of mind?
- Do you accept the idea that compassion is an inherent part of who we are? Why or why not? Either way, compassion needs cultivation.
(Also Read: Wellness Tips: How You Can Be Your Therapist?)