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What Is Compassion?

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What is compassion? The definition of compassion, from the Buddhist perspective, is not just empathizing with others’ suffering, but actively wishing to take it away.

Beyond hope and fear

One of the most famous Buddhist sayings is to “Have no hope and no fear.” At first when you try and imagine a way of living without these two emotions, it’s almost like imagining how to cook without salt or oil. What does a life even look like without hope and fear?

I’ve also noticed in presidential elections, how the two candidates typically square off with one of these positions: hope or fear. In the Obama campaigns, they even used “hope” as their campaign slogan. And the other side emphasized fear.

But an authority no less than The Dalai Lama says there’s something that is more powerfully motivating than hope, fear, anger, desire, and the other emotions that are motivating, yet cause so many disturbing side effects. That purer source of motivation is called compassion.

I’m Scott Snibbe, and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Today on the podcast we’re looking at the Buddhist concept of compassion, the actively engaged wish to take away other people’s suffering and to be an altruistic force for good in the world. 

Compassion is going mainstream

Compassion is at the heart of Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhism that’s practiced in Tibet and that emphasizes cultivation of this universal mind of altruism. Compassion is also starting to rival mindfulness as the next most popular up-and-coming form of secular meditation for mental health. 

Compassion meditations are now being used in hospitals, by psychotherapists, in corporate training, and by nonprofits to improve the mental health and well-being of both their patients and themselves.

Thubten Jinpa, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s translator, is now focusing much of his effort on these secular applications of compassion through the Compassion Institute‘s compassion training that he developed with researchers at Stanford University. 

I attended one of the Compassion Institute’s one-day compassion training workshops and was impressed at how they managed to distill these Buddhist compassion practices into practical, secular exercises in positive psychology that a room full of 250 people could go through together in a day.

One of the reasons compassion is going mainstream like this is that science has begun demonstrating and measuring the concrete benefits of compassion, altruistic behavior, and other positive emotions to our health and to our well-being. 

What is self-compassion?

Dr. Kristen Neff is a pioneer in this area. Her work emphasizes how self-compassion is the foundation of a healthy mind. And also, how it’s the foundation for the expansive compassion that takes in those around us. For this reason, you’ll see in next week’s meditation that we start with self-compassion and then move on to these more expansive forms of compassion. 

Self-compassion has become one of the biggest ways Western meditation instructors guide compassion meditations, because in our culture we can sometimes be so hard on ourselves, so self-critical. 

Tara Brach is one of the great masters at skillfully guiding us through self-compassion. And her pioneering audiobook Radical Self-Acceptance is one of the foundations in this area. I highly recommend it, and I did a short solitary retreat with the course once that had a profound effect on my own ability to accept all dimensions of myself. It helped me realize how self-compassion is this prerequisite to opening your heart to others.

What is Compassion?

Compassion is another word that’s fuzzy in English but precise in the language of Buddhism. From a Buddhist perspective, the definition of compassion is simple: wishing others to be free from suffering. 

Compassion is the complement to love, or loving-kindness, the wish for others to be happy.

Compassion is wishing others to be free from suffering

What Compassion isn’t

Our own dictionary definition of compassion is more like empathy: feeling the suffering or misfortune of others. But the Buddhist path specifically warns that compassion is not merely empathy, and that empathy alone will burn you out.

When scientists studied master meditator and former scientist Mathieu Ricard, they validated this Buddhist wisdom through neuroscience. Scientists were puzzled why, when meditating on compassion, Ricard’s brain didn’t light up the same way as it did for people experiencing empathy. 

These scientists subsequently conducted a disciplined study on empathy vs. compassion, and found that for some people, meditating on compassion for just a week enhances positive, expansive, connected feelings of well-being, as well as emotional regulation. On the other hand, meditating with empathy alone increased negative feelings, increased feelings of personal suffering, and made it more difficult for subjects to control their emotions.

Empathy, experiencing sympathetic feelings with others’ pain, is the first stage of compassion. But both the inner experience of meditators and the laboratory experiments of scientists show that empathy alone becomes the cause of difficult emotions and increased pain.

Health care workers talk about “compassion fatigue,” where they get so overwhelmed by the suffering of others that they completely burn out. But they shouldn’t call this compassion fatigue, it’s really empathy fatigue. Compassion and empathy aren’t synonyms. Merely empathizing with others’ pain just fills you up with their suffering without offering a productive outlet.

While compassion is a positive and proactive wish to take away others’ pain, empathy alone can cause some people to ruminate and even reject others’ suffering as they become overwhelmed by it.

As a lover of math and physics and programming computers, one of the things I also love about Tibetan Buddhism is its precise definition of terms. One way Buddhists do this is, like we sometimes do in mathematics, to define a term by what it isn’t.

So what isn’t compassion?

Compassion isn’t the sad, anxious feeling we often experience when we see or hear about other peoples’ pain.

Compassion also isn’t the sentimental involvement in others’ problems, where we fall into melodrama, wallowing in shared suffering without doing anything about it. There’s a twisted aspect to this kind of melodrama, where we get a certain pleasure from wallowing in pain, like when we watch a soap opera, but with a real person’s life.

There are a couple of phrases that have become notorious in the last few years that people say after horrible events like shootings in schools or churches or racially motivated violence: “Our hopes and prayers are with you.” And “I’m sorry for your loss.”

I’m sure there are people who say these phrases with genuine compassion, and for those of you out there, I beg your pardon. But I think we’ve all seen these phrases used as a way of dissociating from others’ discomfort, walling their pain off behind a Hallmark card catchphrase that creates distance between the speaker and the sufferer. These phrases can emphasize the safe distance between empathy and suffering, Instead of bonding over our mutual humanity and our shared capacity for pain and grief.

I’m guilty of responses like this myself, and I feel awful when I have this kind of response to others’ pain, I’m guilty of responses like this myself, and I feel awful when I have this kind of response to others’ pain, whether it comes out in words or just passes through my mind. I was raised in a family where there was a lot of denial of pain in this way. So it helped me so much to learn about the Buddhist meaning of the word compassion. It’s helped me to deal better with tragedies in my life, my friends’ lives, and in the greater world. 

The connecting closeness of compassion contrasts starkly with the distancing that comes from anxiety, sentimentality, or indifference to others’ pain. 

From empathy to action

Compassion at the mental level goes from empathizing with others’ problems to wishing we could do something about their problems. But we don’t even stop there. We then take the next step to create real compassionate acts in the world, at least when we can. 

This “not stopping” is actually a more recent innovation in Buddhism, something the Dalai Lama has said he and other Buddhists have learned from the engaged branches of other religions, particularly the engaged compassion of Christianity. 

The Dalai Lama has been very open with his criticism of compassion that only stays on the cushion, safe and comfortable at home while others outside suffer. His Holiness has repeatedly urged Buddhists of all denominations to be inspired by the form of engaged compassion that you find in Christianity with its hospitals and soup kitchens and schools. And that you find in people without any religion who dedicate their lives to serving others through secular organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, or the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Real compassion goes beyond empathy and unhealthy anxiety, sentimentality, or dismissal and blame, to a transformative wish to actively take away others’ suffering. And then it moves our body and our speech to actually do something about it.

Benefits of compassion

Part of the reason that compassion is transformative is that it’s realistic. The view of compassion brings us into greater clarity and focus with the true nature of reality—at least the inner shared reality of we human beings.

As we’ve talked about in earlier episodes, the essence of meditation and the Buddhist way of approaching the world is to see reality as it is: both our inner and outer realities. With true compassion, we become wiser in several ways:

  1. Compassion is like a graduate level course in suffering. Through compassion, we understand how and why suffering occurs through repeated, deep, intelligent reflection on others’ suffering.
  2. Through compassion we also become able to more realistically deal with situations of suffering. There are several reasons for this, but one of the most important is that the mind of compassion is unclouded by the more deluded ways of dealing with others’ suffering like denial, guilt, sadness, or sentimentality. 
  3. Compassion’s a kind of high-octane fuel for coming up with solutions to problems, and then for motivating us to be part of those solutions. Since it doesn’t weigh us down, compassion gives us energy to do what we can to help through an act of compassion.
  4. Compassion also has an element of wisdom to it: the wisdom to accept our limitations and not worry about what we can’t fix through our own direct action. “Have no hope and no fear,” means that we have no hope that we will succeed… but no fear that we won’t!
  5. From the Buddhist perspective, compassion is actually our inner nature. Compassion as a meditation and mind training practice is merely polishing the pure compassion that’s already inside us, rough, like an uncut diamond, but still there in its essential nature.

Compassion for all stages of the path

Despite being the root of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, explicitly contemplating and meditating on compassion in the Tibetan Lamrim tradition comes late on the path. 

Effectively engaging with compassion requires the foundation of realizing your precious human life, impermanence, cause and effect, refuge in our own good nature, understanding the nature of suffering and how to escape it by turning toward our inner goodness rather than outer achievement and accumulation

Only then, traditionally, after gaining some realization about all these topics, do you enter this path of compassion. Because otherwise we would do these practices with a more materialistic or selfish or biased motivation.

Even within this greater scope stage of the Mahayana Path, compassion isn’t the first thing you cultivate, but rather equanimity, which has the more modest, but still difficult mind-transforming goal of seeing all beings as equally deserving of happiness and the freedom from suffering.

So, from this perspective, compassion’s one of the last topics you come to on the path.

But from another perspective, compassion is the beginning of the path. If you’ve noticed in our guided meditations, at the beginning of every meditation, no matter what the topic, we generate a motivation to do the meditation not only for our own happiness, but also for the benefit of everyone around us; wishing to become a better partner, friend, father, mother, son, daughter, wife, or husband. We even wish to become a better stranger to the random people we encounter each day.

When you begin with a motivation to meditate for the greater welfare of all humanity, it turns whatever you meditate on into a meditation on compassion. There are all kinds of mental tricks, tricks that Robert Thurman calls “spiritual technology” that serve to universalize practices that would otherwise be self-centered. 

A simple example, is how, when you meditate on the preciousness of your life, after cultivating the feeling of your own life’s preciousness you then expand your mind to embrace how every other human on earth feels exactly the same way about their life. 

All our lives are equally precious from our own points of viAll our lives are equally precious from our own points of view. By feeling a sense of connectedness with all living beings’ healthy, realistic, self-centered wish to be happy and not to suffer, almost magically, we generate this expansive compassion. We universalize our self-focused perspective to family members then loved ones and then even to strangers, feeling compassionate toward all beings on earth. 

In an upcoming episode we’re going to explore this technique of universalizing in depth, because you can do it out in the world with everything that occurs to you all day long, whether good or bad.

Compassion transcends bias

Compassion’s expansive, embracing attitude also serves to transcend bias. We naturally feel biased toward our family, friends, and others that are close to us. And we feel biased against those that do us harm or do harm to the world. But compassion isn’t considered true compassion until it encompasses everyone. In Tibetan Buddhism we call this Great Compassion, or in Sanskrit mahakaruna.

Why extend compassion to our enemies?

You can see how compassion brings you closer to those you love. And you can probably see why cultivating compassion for strangers also helps, as an antidote to denying their suffering or becoming overwhelmed with it. But why is it worth extending our compassion to our enemies?

A place to start is with our own self-interest. If you take a look at those that have a mind of compassion, this mental state actually makes you happier and more effective in the world. So, just with the motivation of feeling good and making your life worthwhile and full of energy, that’s reason enough to practice compassion. This motivation aligns with some of the secular programs to train compassion in the workplace or in weekend workshops.

Also, this seems obvious, but we often forget that if you stop being angry at your enemies you actually become happier! My mother used to tell me that my anger hurts me far more than anyone else. So if you really believe your enemy wants to hurt you, then they want you to be angry. They want you to suffer under the pain of the mental delusion of anger. 

So why give them the satisfaction? Maybe the best way to get back at your enemy is to not let them get to you, to remain happy, to maintain a peaceful mind even as you methodically work against their actions that you believe are wrong, with a mind of compassion and a wish for the greater good, rather than for revenge.

There’s also this logical, analytical side of Buddhism that I love that analyzes the situation. Few of our enemies are truly evil, like comic book villains. Enemies, like anyone overtly doing anything against their own interest or the interests of others, are deluded. They’re acting out of a mistaken sense that their actions will make themselves and others happy. 

Even among the most destructive people that lived on earth, few demonstrated this comic book pure evil. But rather, they believed deeply in their cause. They thought they were doing the best thing for humanity, however wrong that cause turned out to be, or their methods to achieve it. And their harmful actions failed to make them happy, becoming just another source of that person’s suffering.

We all know about the dreadful ends of tyrants like Saddam Hussein, who was caught hiding, dirty and hungry, in a tiny hole after decades of living like a king. But even for tyrants that remain in power, when we hear stories about them, the reports are of personalities that are insatiable, angry, and jealous; not happy and satisfied. Inside they’re already miserable.

And as painful as it is to contemplate sometimes, your enemy does have some good qualities. Even the worst people on earth love and are loved: by their parents, their partner, their close friends and colleagues. And they often have millions of fans.

We can also look at impermanence, remembering that everything changes. We often think about impermanence in terms of accepting that everything breaks down, disappears, and doesn’t last. 

But the other aspect of impermanence is that it means things can also change for the better. Our enemy’s mind is fundamentally capable of moving toward more and more goodness, just as we actively work on our own minds to move them toward wisdom and calm and kindness.

You’re not a superhero, but you have the heart of one

Being truly compassionate can sound like being a superhero. There’s even a name for this type of superhero, who is called a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is a being who, from the Buddhist perspective, dedicates all their infinite future lives wholly to benefitting others. They wish to attain Buddhahood and escape their own suffering, but only because, in that state, they could help others even more.

There are incredible tales of Bodhisattvas doing extreme acts of kindness, like a story the Buddha told of one of his past lives where he cut meat from his own body strip by strip to feed to a starving tigress so she could nurse her cubs.

Don’t do this at home. It’s worth a disclaimer at this point. I’m not ready for that level of compassion and you probably aren’t either. We should do as much as we can in the world. But if we go to sacrificial heroic extremes without the wisdom understanding the consequences, we could end up wasting our life instead of making the most of it.

And even if we acted to heroic excess like that, like those compassionate people who give away one of their kidneys to save a stranger’s life, realistically, we can’t actually take away everyone’s unhappiness and pain. You can only give away one kidney.

And if you’re married or have a long-time partner or children, or recalling your own family growing up, you know that, even if you want to, it’s sometimes difficult to help take away even small amounts of suffering from those closest to us. Sometimes we’re successful, but other times we try hard, and yet, through mistakes and misunderstandings, make things worse instead of better. Because our own mind is still troubled by misconceptions and confused emotions, we do and say things that end up hurting rather than helping.

So, while you don’t want to practice compassion selfishly as a wholly internal trip you do safely at home, still, compassion’s success isn’t measured by external results. It’s measured by how much it transforms you and opens your heart.

When asked about how to measure the success of meditation practice, Ven. Sangye Khadro, the author of my favorite book on meditation, How to Meditate, says that a good measure of success is that your relationships to the people around you get better.

This, for me, is a humbling reminder of the weakness of my own practice. I still have a long way to go to make the close relationship with my family and friends more beneficial and freer from deluded, transactional notions of this for that.

Practice on the cushion is what fuels effective action in our everyday lives. Many Buddhists continue their cushion practice into their daily lives, with short thoughts and prayers—not those hopes and prayers I was talking about before; a different type of hope and prayer!—that we constantly repeat when our mind has space: walking down the street, cooking, or at work; or in the midst of conflict or fear or pain. 

These are thoughts like, “May all beings be happy and free from suffering.” That’s the essential feeling behind a mantra like “Om Mani Padme Hum,” which you may have heard. It’s not a magical spell made of nonsense words that manipulate some alternate realm. It’s a concrete wish to take away others’ suffering and to give others all that they need.

How do we know compassion works to make you happy?

If we develop the wisdom to see clearly how things are—the suffering that we all experience, the natural goodness and changeability of our minds, cause & effect, the interdependent nature of reality—these become the basis for the compassionate wish to alleviate others’ suffering. Compassion infuses all those other thoughts to make all our actions truly skillful. 

And I say this not from having realized compassion in any way, but by having seen it in my teachers.

When you look at a being like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, even in a video, you can first of all see how happy and peaceful and joyful he is. And it’s also abundantly clear to see that his joy and calm come from his immense care and concern for everyone. Having dedicated his life to all humanity, the Dalai Lama’s every waking action serve this higher cause.

The Dalai Lama achieved his mental state through cultivating compassion. And each morning he renews that commitment with a prayer by Shantideva that ends, “For as long as space remains / For as long as sentient beings remain / So shall I too remain / To dispel the miseries of the world.”

Cultivating the thought that I will take away all beings’ suffering by myself alone doesn’t make that impossible wish come true. But it does create the cause for you to become the most effective, wise, active cause of diminishing the world’s suffering that you can possibly be.

How to practice compassion

Compassion, in its precise definition of wanting to take away others’ suffering is an easy-to-remember practice that we’ll do together in a guided meditation next week. In this compassion meditation practice, you visualize yourself, people close to you, strangers, and then your enemies. At each step, you empathize with their pains, whatever they are. And then you sincerely wish to take them away. 

This wish can be combined with forms of visualization, offering in your imagination the specific objects and qualities that each person needs.

There’s also a more expansive definition of compassion, encompassing a broad portfolio of practices that are associated with altruism. We’ve done some of these already in recent episodes. We practiced equanimity, equalizing our feelings for others. We practiced love, wishing others happiness

And we also got a glimpse of the powerful teaching of Tonglen, or “taking and giving.” Tonglen combines the breath with an imagined taking on of others’ suffering and giving them all that they need from our own store of wealth and good qualities. 

Compassion opens our hearts. It helps us stay present, connected, and even joyful in our daily life. And compassion stirs us to action to concretely help those who are suffering around us.

Self-compassion is another practice that we’ll dedicate a whole episode to later. Because it’s impossible to have genuine compassion for others, even those close to you, if you don’t feel compassion for yourself. So self-compassion is the first part of next week’s meditation.

And then, because we’re so visual, because we have bodies and we love art and movies, visualization can help in all these variants of compassion. Visualizing certain types of bodies and energy and even different ways of seeing the world around us; these visualization practices aren’t far out fantasies or tools of religious devotion. Instead, visualization provides concrete, skillful mental objects as focal points for developing the qualities that we aspire to in ourselves.

I’m looking forward to sharing more of these other techniques for cultivating compassion over the coming weeks. Please come back next week to try a simple, but profound compassion practice that’s easy to remember, yet powerful in extending our compassion to drive us to engaged, compassionate action.

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Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Mastering by Christian Parry
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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