What is Compassion?

What is compassion? We probably have a general idea of what compassion entails, but there is a whole lot more to it than we think. I had stumbled upon a podcast by Sam Harris which went over the differences between empathy and compassion. For half an hour, a detailed explanation of the differences were brought up. That’s when it hit me; I don’t know what compassion is. What the hell is it? My vague idea was that it was something like giving your attention to someone without expecting anything in return. This idea isn’t wrong or right, but after a while I felt like I should investigate a little bit and flesh out the details. Whenever I feel ignorant, especially if I use a word I don’t understand that well, I feel like it’s similar to navigating through the world without being able to understand the signs.

As usual, the first thing I did is look up the words etymology:

mid-14c., from Old French compassion “sympathy, pity” (12c.), from Late Latin compassionem (nominative compassio) “sympathy,” noun of state from past participle stem of compati “to feel pity,” from com “with, together” (see com-) + pati “to suffer” (see passion). Source

It’s interesting that compati means feeling pity. The feeling part is strange. I thought of empathy when I saw that the root of the world is in feeling for someone else. The French verb compatir is also defined as having compassion for the suffering of other beings. I wasn’t convinced about pity either, that’s kind of like looking down on someone. Hey, everyone gets an ounce of dignity, no matter how small.

I then proceeded with a lookup on Wikipedia:

Compassion motivates people to go out of their way to help the physical, spiritual, or emotional hurts and pains of another. Compassion is often regarded as having an emotional aspect to it, though when based on cerebral notions such as fairness, justice and interdependence, it may be considered rational in nature and its application understood as an activity based on sound judgment. Source

This definition is broader as it invites the idea that compassion doesn’t necessarily mean we need to invite a feeling of pain when we decide to have compassion for someone. In the podcast, Sam Harris talks about two citizens who volunteered during the 9/11 crisis that happened in New York. He said that the first citizen had worked for a few days before she collapsed emotionally from the tension as she regarded the victims of the events. The second citizen also went out of his way to help the victims, but he ended up working through the whole program. The end result is that one of the two citizens helped a lot more. They both felt compassion, but one style seems to be less effective.

It’s only months later that I stumbled upon a different view of compassion. It has it’s roots in Buddhism and was defined by Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa:

The best and most correct way of presenting the idea of compassion is in terms of clarity, clarity which contains fundamental warmth. At this stage your meditation practice is the act of trusting in yourself. As your practice becomes more prominent in daily life activities, you begin to trust yourself and have a compassionate attitude. Compassion in this sense is not feeling sorry for someone. It is basic warmth.

I can relate to this definition. As Trungpa pointed out, meditation is the continual act of making friends with yourself. When you make peace with yourself and accept your body, it naturally flows out in your daily activities. You know what you are and are not afraid of extending your hand, if need be. Chögyam Trungpa also seems to agree that compassion doesn’t need to have a feeling part:

You do not have to feel compassion. That is the distinction between emotional compassion and compassion compassion: you do not necessarily feel it; you are it. Usually, if you are open, compassion happens because you are not preoccupied with some kind of self-indulgence.

If you are interested in Chögyam Trungpa’s definition of compassion, his book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is filled with gems. It has given me a lot of food for thought as well as given a decent basis as to what compassion is. Hopefully that clarifies the word for others as well.

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