This article discusses the key differences between mindfulness and compassion.
Table of Contents
What Is Compassion?
Put simply, “compassion” means “to sympathize,” or “to feel with,” especially to feel the pain of another. We might have a sense that a person is innately compassionate or not, or we might choose not to be compassionate if perhaps we have enough of our pain to deal with. Over the last few years, compassion, as it is practiced in the Buddhist traditions, has moved into the spotlight for researchers and meditation teachers alike, as it promises more than just “to sympathize.”
Compassion in this context is defined as the wish or impulse to alleviate suffering in another living being (which is different than to just “feel with”). If the suffering is in oneself, we call the wish self- compassion. Compassion arises out of the foundation of a generally well-wishing and benevolence toward all living beings; this is called loving-kindness. Compassion arises out of loving-kindness as a natural response to suffering or pain.
Throughout the article, we sometimes use “loving-kindness” and sometimes “compassion.” Please keep in mind that the source of the feeling is the same, but the expression depends on the situation (e.g., if suffering is present or not).
Compassion, like mindfulness, is a capacity that we are born with and all know how to access to various degrees, but it can be enhanced, deepened, and strengthened through specific meditation practices and reflections.
The Difference Between Compassion and Empathy
Recently, terms like “compassion fatigue” or “vicarious or secondary trauma” have become mainstream, especially in health care and caregiving circles. In everyday language, “compassion” is often used synonymously with “empathy.” But empathy is more of a reaction to witnessing pain in another being: the “I feel your pain” response, which is commonly how compassion is defined in mainstream English.
There is evidence that empathy is transmitted automatically through mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a network of neurons in the brain that fire upon observing behavior or emotion in the same area as the neurons in the person or animal expressing the emotion or behavior.
They were accidentally discovered by a research group in Italy (Di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi, Gallese, & Rizzolatti, 1992) when a monkey, who had electrodes placed in its brain to study movement, watched a researcher eat a peanut. The motor neurons in the monkey’s brain correlating to hand and arm movement fired as if he had moved the arm himself.
The working group around Tania Singer in Germany is doing some fascinating research around the difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy is feeling the pain of another without any protection or buffer. It can easily overwhelm us and lead to an emotional shutdown. Compassion, in comparison, is the protection against this overwhelm and shutdown.
Singer’s group likens empathy to the currency in an electric pump and compassion to the water in the pump. If there is only empathy, the pump will easily run hot and burn out. The presence of compassion (i.e., the active wish to ease the suffering) will buffer the pain and make it tolerable. Dr. Singer’s team states that “compassion fatigue,” a recognized phenomenon in caregiving contexts, is a misnomer and that it should be called “empathy fatigue” instead (Klimecki, Ricard, & Singer, 2013).
Compassion can be taught and will protect from burnout, which is one of the reasons for the increasing interest in the subject.
What’s the Difference Between Mindfulness and Compassion?
Jack Kornfield, Trudy Goodman, and some other senior mindfulness teachers now use the term “loving- awareness” when they talk about mindfulness. Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm calls it “kindfulness.” Why? Because kindness is the most important quality to be cultivated together with mindfulness.
Strictly speaking, mindfulness and compassion (or kindness) are not the same. But to wed them in the terms “loving or friendly awareness” or “compassionate awareness” makes sense, as we know that the easiest, least painful way to hold our experience in awareness is in the presence of kindness or compassion. And the more the better. This is particularly true during difficult moments.
To quote Jon Kabat- Zinn: “In Asian languages, the word for mind and the word for heart are the same. So if you’re not hearing mindfulness in some deep way as heartfulness, you’re not understanding it. Compassion and kindness towards oneself are intrinsically woven into it. You could think of mindfulness as wise and affectionate attention” (Szalavitz, 2012).
These definitions of the terms also help practitioners and teachers alike understand that we are not just talking about attention skills (like the attention needed to solve a math problem or to finish homework). So while we like to marry these to the qualities of the heart and mind, we also want to help you understand the differences.
Here are some basic differences between mindfulness and compassion:
Non-Doing vs. Doing
Mindfulness entails uninvolved receptivity of experience in a non-doing mode. Loving-kindness and compassion, on the other hand, are actively directed practices: radiating out or embracing.
The deeper understanding that all beings want to be free from suffering transforms into the wish to alleviate this suffering (in others and in ourselves). We desire to do something, even if it’s as small as a kind word, a loving smile, or a hug. We could also call it “resting with experience versus embracing it.”
Cool vs. Warm
Mindfulness is often described as having a cool or cooling— but not cold— quality. Observing, witnessing, and resting with experience all allow for the reactivity, aversion, or desire to cool down. Common idioms express “the heat of the moment,” “making one’s blood boil,” or “a burning desire”; we know from experience that it is hard to stay cool or rational in these situations.
Mindfulness helps with that. That said, we associate kindness and compassion with the heart (or qualities of the heart) and some heat, as in “she is a warm person” or “he has a warm smile”; this warmth describes a kind and friendly person.
The Traps of Detachment and Sentimentality
Mindfulness and loving-kindness are traditionally described as two wings of a bird: With the wing of mindfulness, you develop the capacity to observe nonjudgmentally and allow things to be as they already are. With the kindness wing, you cultivate a friendly and compassionate stance toward what is happening. And you need both wings to fly.
When mindfulness encounters suffering and sees it clearly for what it is, compassion will naturally arise. The same is true with compassion: compassion has the seed of wisdom built-in.
But the natural balance can get uneven at times: unbalanced mindfulness without kindness can become detached and cold. And unbalanced compassion that is void of “seeing things as they really are” can become sentimental and too soft. We can train them separately or together. But together they balance each other out and allow us to fly.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
One of the core texts or teachings in Vipassana is the four foundations of mindfulness. The four foundations lead, when properly practiced, to “liberation, to the end of suffering.” You could also phrase it as: this practice leads to increasing moments of freedom from suffering.
Mindfulness students in clinical settings don’t typically join a class for the kind of “enlightenment” the foundation’s point toward. Yet competent facilitators in such settings should be familiar with these foundations.
All the main mindfulness practices on this platform can be categorized into these four foundations.
1. Mindfulness of the body:
Mindfulness of the body is the first foundation of mindfulness. It is our starting point and our anchor to the present moment. We practice this first foundation with the Body Scan, Mindful Eating, Mindfulness of Breathing, Mindfulness of Sound, and Mindful Walking when we notice the direct sensory experience of the body.
2. Mindfulness of feeling tones:
By being mindful of the body we start noticing that all experiences can be categorized into three distinct “feeling tones”: unpleasant, pleasant, or neutral. While the two are easily confused, feeling tones are not the same as emotions rather, they actually accompany them. For example, while we usually think sadness is unpleasant, it can also be experienced as pleasant, or not really register at all if the feeling tone is neutral.
3. Mindfulness of the mind:
In the third foundation, we turn the attention to mental activity like thoughts or emotions as mere objects that can be observed in a nonreactive way.
4. Mindfulness of how the mind operates:
In the fourth foundation of mindfulness, the focus is on the classification of related experiences into specific categories or lists (starting out as an orally transmitted tradition, Buddhism is full of lists). For example, see the “Dharma Teacher’s Perspective” on the Five Hindrances, the Five Precepts, or this list here, of the four foundations.
Mindfulness is present- moment non-judgmental awareness, while compassion is an active and kind turning toward suffering—one’s own and that of others—with the aim of relieving it to whatever degree possible. We learned about other supportive attitudes that support mindfulness practice as well as the origins in the Buddhist tradition— both in the East and in the West.
We hope the foundational skills presented in this article are helpful to you both personally and professionally in all the work that you do.
Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve. — Max Planck