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What is Compassion?

Updated: May 2

The word “compassion” is glibly bandied about these days by politicians, religious leaders, and in our daily discourse. We are told we should “have compassion” for the poor, soldiers in war, our physically and mentally ailing family members, and anyone else who appears to be suffering. If we work in fields where we deal with groups and individuals where people have been the victims of sexual violence, abuse, or other assaults on the body, mind and spirit, we feel the pressure to respond “compassionately.” This circle of compassion can include the perpetrators in our midst.

Despite the ubiquity of this calling in our daily life, compassion may be one of the most misunderstood words in our lexicon of caring. I know this personally, as I was often confused myself about what compassion meant in terms of action and attitude. I still struggle with it as I swing across the spectrum of human emotions from frustration to acceptance, anger to love. Yet at the same time, I believe after years of working on my own healing, I have come to understand compassion a little bit more deeply, with a little bit more wisdom than in years past.

When most of us think of compassion, whether we are aware of it or not, we probably draw upon images of Christ, Ghandi, the Dalai Lama, or any number of saints in the panapoly of human religions that are important to us. The qualities that we are told these beings hold include the ability to love unconditionally and to pour out unstintingly this profound acceptance of others such that when in their presence, we may feel enveloped in a blanket of peace.

I myself experienced this many years ago when I attended an evening lecture by the Dalai Lama in New York City. As the crowd poured out of the doors of St. John’s Cathedral, I suddenly felt awash in waves of pure bliss that could only be described as pure love for everyone and everything. These feelings came unbidden and then stayed with me for days afterwards. They mirrored what I experienced as the Dalai Lama’s incredible aura of joy, acceptance, and gratitude. Due to these qualities coupled with a sharp intellect and wisdom forged from great suffering, he is arguably one of the greatest spiritual teachers and political leaders of our time.

However, in contrast to what I perceived as the Dalai Lama’s ability to hold this great container of love in the midst of incredible earthly challenges, the reality of my messy human life was that no matter how hard I tried to be compassionate towards others, I often found myself failing. Or at least I judged myself as a failure. In that very judgment was the kernel of what blocked me from true compassion.

I must tell a personal story as a case in point. My mother was incredibly bright, intellectually sophisticated, creative, and at times, loving. She was also emotionally unpredictable, often cold, harsh, angry, and abusive of others, particularly her three children. In the last 10 years of her life, as she devolved into deeper levels of paranoia, despair, and addiction to narcotics, she battered her children unmercifully with her demands for and expectations of “unconditional love” coupled with financial, physical and emotional “support.” She used the word “compassion” liberally to describe how she wanted to be treated by others. Her invocation of this word came directly out of long years’ reading of Buddhist and other spiritual texts on the qualities of compassion. Therefore, as her loving daughter who for a long time believed unquestioningly in my mother’s self-defined brilliance and spiritual authority, her use of the word rang in my ears as truth.

The catch-22 for me was believing that compassion was coupled with “unconditonal”: unconditional help to others in need. I did not think to factor myself into the equation, beating myself up when my mother would tell me that I had failed. Failure in this case was that “unconditional” to her meant on her terms. When I got angry or frustrated with her, I thought I was being the opposite of compassionate. Eventually, through working out healthier boundaries and expectations of myself, I was able to understand that I had compassion for her suffering, but that this did not mean I should give in to her every demand. I also had compassion for the bind I was in and how natural it is to feel many conflicting emotions, from love to hatred in such situations.

In a recent MettaKnowledge workshop on Compassion Fatigue, one participant kept asking the question: “But does having compassion mean that somehow we fail if we don’t feel unconditionally accepting of another?” This is an excellent question, as it points to the core confusion about compassion. I experience compassion as a quality of heartfulness. It informs my response to my own and others’ suffering. Compassion is thus a constant. I make a commitment to doing my best to respond to my own pain and suffering with patience and caring, not with punishment and hatred.

Life is undeniably messy and often difficult. We are often judgmental, angry, hurt, depressed, confused, and rageful. We often make mistakes. Compassion embraces all human experience with a quality of softness and acceptance, not with the hard edge of judgment, recrimination and shame. When we choose to allow our experience to be what it is and not to judge ourselves so harshly, then whatever emotion or reaction is arising in the moment will pass through far more quickly. This does not mean that we do not speak out against oppression and injustice towards ourselves or others. Nor does it mean we do not defend ourselves if we are physically attacked. What it does do is enable us to have these experiences in a larger container so we do not become so depleted. When we are overly angry or feel judgment, we see this as information about our condition and perhaps as a need to step back, speak up or take some other action to take care of ourself.

To this end, compassion must begin first with ourselves. If we are beating up on ourselves and constantly judging our mistakes and challenges in black and white terms, right or wrong, good or bad, we are draining our precious life force and blocking the energy of the heart. The heart in its natural state and the organ that holds the container of love in all of us will automatically respond with softness to these difficulties and will metabolize them into deeper and deeper levels of acceptance of the complexities of life. It will enable us to see the abused child in the perpetrator of sexual violence and will allow us to work with him or her with more caring even if we know what he or she did was wrong. It will eventually lead us into living with love as a constant force in our lives–even in the midst of struggle and pain. It thus mitigates suffering. At its most expansive, compassion can enable us in moments to hold all of humanity’s pain in our hearts and to feel and incredible sense of wonder at the great mystery and creative potential of life. From here, we feel empowered to do anything.

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