The True Meaning of Compassion

What is compassion? Strangely, a word so commonly bantered about today needs defining, but as a society, we’re seriously confused about the definition and usage of the word compassion. At least, compassion as it’s understood in Karuna Training, and Karuna means compassion in Sanskrit. 

The word compassion means “to suffer together.” And in modern-day Western research, compassion is defined as a feeling that arises when you are confronted with another's suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. 

The word compassion does not mean the same as empathy, sympathy, or altruism, even though the concepts are related. For example, we often hear the word compassion used to convey feeling sorry when we realize someone has less than we do. Therefore, we say we feel compassion for the other person, but that’s not compassion. That is sympathy. Sympathy has a slight hierarchy of one person has more, and the other has less. Compassion always occurs in a relationship of equals.

From a Karuna Training perspective, to feel genuine compassion requires that we feel the pain of others from the inside, meaning as inseparable from our suffering. For example, if we feel motivated to offer something to an unhoused person on the streets, we do so from the perspective of our unhoused nature. Touching the pain of being unhoused inside of ourselves takes a certain kind of bravery. Feeling our homelessness is often the feeling we are trying to manage away by offering the unhoused money in the first place. That willingness to assume the equality of suffering is what makes us genuinely compassionate.

That is why Buddhist Masters say that genuine compassion is as rare as a star in the daytime. Instead, genuine compassion arises from complete selflessness and utter bravery to feel the suffering of others, to begin with, and then aspire to alleviate that suffering using whatever methods one has at one’s disposal. 

Westerns have jumped on concepts such as Christine Neff’s notion of ‘self-compassion.’ Self-compassion refers to an essential developmental process in the development of compassion, which in Sanskrit is called Maitri. Maitri means loving-kindness toward oneself and others. But, unfortunately, there is no English translation for this word Maitri, so the words ‘self-compassion replace the need and understanding for the development of Maitri. We have to befriend and develop acceptance toward our suffering before being genuinely available to feel true compassion for others. 

I think words like self-compassion are what are leading to the confusion about compassion. Leave it to Westerners to turn a selfless notion like compassion, something utterly and exclusively about others’ suffering-- into something to do with oneself! And yet, there is a deep need to befriend oneself genuinely before developing the actual ability to be compassionate toward others, and traditionally that step is called Maitri. 

Loving-kindness with oneself naturally leads to relaxation and less self-consciousness. Once we have befriended ourselves, then curiosity about others develops naturally. This curiosity and friendliness toward others create a ‘soft spot’ toward the suffering of others, which is the seed of compassion. Developing genuine compassion is a time-tested recipe of the Buddhadharma from the Mahayana tradition of developing selflessness. 

The notion of selflessness is critical in the development of a compassionate heart. A compassionate heart is responsive to and not defended at all when one meets the suffering of others. A compassionate heart is not self-concerned whatsoever! Making friends with oneself has already occurred in the process of becoming more open, and therefore, we are available, honest, and responsive to others’ pain.

I think it’s important not to get too religious around the practice of compassion but to check out our motivation when we feel open-hearted toward today’s issues. So I ask myself what my motivation is when I think I’m feeling compassionate, to see if I truly am.

For example, during the evacuation of Afghanistan, as I listened to interviews of women who fear for their freedom under the rule of the Taliban, I felt fear. I could not watch Margret Atwood’s Handmaid's Tale on television, a fictional tale about mass take-over of the feminine, because it felt too real, and I’m afraid it could happen. So my compassion for Afghan women is fear-based, yet as I feel into that fear, I can open my heart to their fear of being controlled, which we share. In this way, I touch into empathy which is a stepping stone to genuine compassion, nevertheless, I can empathize with their fear.  

There are many manifestations of compassion in action. For example, I’m seriously amazed by two Karuna teachers, who both involve themselves in stressful endeavors working with opposite-minded political stances. One of them acts as the voice of the democratic party in a radically Republican State; the other one participates in something called The Braver Angels, a  group that works to find common ground with those who hold the opposite political views. Understanding the thinking of others when it is directly the opposite of our thinking takes enormous compassion, open-heartedness, and selfless motivation. And it takes a lot to feel the panic and loss of ground when we open up to another’s views that are directly opposite of our own.  

Bringing acts of genuine compassion closer to home, anytime we’ve expressed aggression or hostility, and we notice it has hurt someone else. It’s an act of compassion to make amends and say we are sorry. Saying we are sorry takes feeling the effects of how we’ve impacted another person or people. Making amends takes humility and selflessness, which are the foundations of true compassion.

Compassion has been packaged into a ‘feel-good’ new age emotion, but in my experience, compassion doesn’t usually arise from feeling good. Instead, It stems from the willingness to open up, be responsive, let down our fences, and generously feel the suffering of another as if it is our own. We cry together, and that grows a human strength of heart. 

In Karuna Training, we create an environment where it is accepted to explore our unpleasant emotions, question our biases, and discover our mental conditioning. Developing an open heart takes time and a lot of maitri, or loving-kindness towards ourselves, to first befriend ourselves for who and what we are, then to begin to accept others for who they are. This step-by-step formula is how one develops true compassion. Consider joining an upcoming program on Contemplative Psychology and committing to a path of open-heartedness.

Article written by Melissa Moore

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