Discerning Compassion

Compassion: “An emotion that is a sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering of another; to show special kindness to those who suffer. Compassion essentially arises through empathy, and is often characterized through actions, wherein a person acting with compassion will seek to aid those they feel compassionate for. Compassionate acts are generally considered those which take into account the suffering of others and attempt to alleviate that suffering as if it were one’s own. In this sense, the various forms of the Golden Rule are clearly based on the concept of compassion. Compassion differs from other forms of helpful or humane behavior in that its focus is primarily on the alleviation of suffering. Compassion is considered in all major religious traditions as being among the greatest of virtues.” Wikipedia

Compassion: “Deep Awareness of the suffering of another without the need to relieve it, feeling total appreciation for its value; a state of non judgment.” Jelailah Starr

I elected to write on compassion for the simple reason that our world needs more of it. I am a firm believer that we must place our attention on our intentions. To create a more compassionate world we must redirect our focus collectively and individually.

Mother Theresa once stated that she would not attend an anti-war rally but would attend a pro peace rally. If attention is on war, war remains in consciousness. If attention is redirected toward peace, peace is in our consciousness. What is in our consciousness influences conscious action.

As stated by the Buddha, “With our thoughts, we make the world“. From our thoughts come our words and from our words, our conversation. From our conversation comes a reinforcement of that which we speak. Thus, the prescription for a healthier world is greater attention on virtue not vice, solution not problem, cooperation not competition, peace not war, forgiveness not vengeance, compassion not condemnation.

Two similar yet distinct definitions of compassion are presented above. Both emphasize deep awareness of the suffering of another. The former suggests compassion in action where suffering is sought to be alleviated. The latter focuses on non action and appreciating the value of suffering.

Starr’s definition implies that suffering is an inherently valuable part of the human experience. Seeking to relieve the suffering of another is an interruption of the natural psycho-spiritual process of growth and healing. To better illustrate this point I am reminded of the story about a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. As the story goes:

A college student studying entomology found himself watching a butterfly struggling to free itself of its cocoon.

He thought, “Here is where I can step in and help.” He took a very sharp instrument and slit the sides of the cocoon so it would open more quickly and the butterfly could emerge. The butterfly did emerge. It flew out of the cocoon and fell straight to the ground. It started to fly again, and once more, fell to the ground.

The student discovered that his plan to help the butterfly was actually a liability. During its struggle to free itself of the cocoon, the butterfly develops its wings. It gains strength in its struggles. It develops all it needs so when it does leave the cocoon, it is strong and complete and is able to operate on its own.

Both definitions call us toward discernment in matters of action, yet, both are aligned in terms of sentiment. We must discern when helping is hurting or when compassionate acts are more a function of our needs than those we seek to assist. We must discern the necessity and appropriateness of rendering aid for the well-being of another or allowing the struggle to foster capacities necessary for the life journey.

Extending compassion outwardly, and the clarity in doing so, begins with directing compassion inwardly. Pema Chodron states, “in order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves. In particular, to care about other people who are fearful, angry, jealous, overpowered by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, miserly, selfish, mean- you name it- to have compassion and to care for these people, means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves.”

Too often we are quick to shame ourselves without seeking to understand why we function as we do. This approach creates much of the pain that prevents us from identifying and owning the lesser angels of our nature. When fully understood, all behaviors are simply efforts to meet core needs…emphasis on needs.

The antithesis of compassion is judgment and condemnation. The negativity that we hold towards others, and ourselves, often emerges from a lack of understanding. I am always amazed by what happens to judgment and condemnation when we hear another person’s story. What we once may have criticized someone for is seen through a larger context where dots are connected and blanks properly filled in. In many cases, almost instantaneously, the negativity held toward another dissolves and understanding takes hold.

Plato’s instruction to us is wise- be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. If we can shift attention from judging, shaming and condemning to understanding, we move toward greater compassion and acceptance of ourselves and each other.

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