Think about compassion and it conjures up a myriad of contradictory (and potentially erroneous) images, concepts and definition. The world that we live in and the situations we confront on a daily basis have a penchant for inundating our minds with concepts like:
- An emotional state triggered by recognizing and acknowledging unfortunate situations/events surrounding us and/or around us
- Feeling a sense of grief for the problems suffered by others
- A compelling emotional urge to ‘suffer with others’
- A random act of kindness motivated by the intent to help others to elevate ourselves emotionally or psychologically
While these definitions do accommodate some degree of truth about the essence of compassion, they subtly enslave you with a misleading notion that compassion needs us to feel miserable about the misery of others.
Profound as it may sound; does this approach really help anyone if all it manages to produce is a half-baked emotional cauldron?
While the intent of making someone feel better does arise out of benevolence, it can also be motivated by a rather imbecile or a myopic viewpoint – that the reason we respond to any given situation with sadness, obsequiousness or anguish is guided by our subtly-disguised desire to stop experiencing these unpleasant emotions.
The fact remains that our mind is smart enough to hold an external situation responsible for our own misery, which renders us incapable of extricating ourselves from unpleasant emotions like guilt and remorse. Blinded by our own distorted judgments, we often push ourselves to feel good about ourselves by enforcing the desired change upon others. While doing that, we run the risk of imposing our assumptions and thoughts on others.
This inexorably leads to inflated egos, a misplaced sense of respect and a deep-rooted lack of acceptance of others for who they are, not who we want them to be.
Against this backdrop, we may want to broaden the horizons of our understanding of compassion, which in essence can be encapsulated by a strong desire to remove suffering/pain, combined with the intent to go ahead and DO SOMETHING about it without elevating ourselves to any pedestal.
Is compassion merely an emotional expression?
Well, that could lie in the realm of conjecture.
Buddhist practitioners for instance, opine that compassion is much more than an emotion and has little to do with feelings like pity or sorrow because they are regarded as staunch opponents of compassion. They even affirm that compassion is not confined to an extension of empathy/altruism, though these concepts are not necessarily mutually-exclusive.
Compassion is much more similar to love because like love, it is not merely an emotion.
It is a deliberate, conscious decision that impels you to act with no selfish motivation, without having to drive home a point.
While empathy is more about our ability to understand (or feel) the emotional state of another person, compassion ensues when those thoughts/emotions are strongly backed by a compelling desire to step out and help.
On the other hand, altruism could be defined as a charitable behavior usually driven by kindness and benevolence, although it is entirely possible to feel those emotions without acting upon them! Also, altruism may not always be motivated by genuine compassion.
So the next time you come across a poor, miserable person on the street or meet someone in distress and feel sad about it, that is empathy at best, and not compassion. If however, you are driven to go beyond that stage of emotional sadness to actually do something about it, you’re much closer to being compassionate.
Think about that effortless, instinctive feeling that you as a parent feel to help your kid in trouble, or the deep sense of anguish that an adult feels for their child suffering from a terminal disease. No effort is necessitated or even desirable to feel those mnemonic of emotions because they all come naturally to you. That’s compassion for you.
Practical application: If you see someone hungry, get them food or encourage them to feed themselves and quickly move on. If someone wants to vent, sit down with them and listen quietly carefully without even attempting to judge them, thereby sending an implicit message of acceptance.
And that random act of benevolence or kindness can sow the seeds of the elusive changes that we yearn to experience both within us, and around us.
If you express your wiliness to accept them unconditionally, they may start to accept themselves. This can nurture the seed of change that can bring in life-altering transformations. Compassion accompanies the nourishment of acceptance and love to a particular situation sans personal judgments.
While scientific research about the physical and mental benefits of compassion is only in its nascent stages, there have been a few studies which suggest that it can impart practical benefits. Here are some discoveries.
- Compassion is known to release 100% more DHEA hormone, which fights the aging process, and 23% less cortisol, which is the stress hormone.
- It also helps in activating pleasure receptors.
- Compassion can also cut down the risk of heart problems by heightening positive effects of Vagus Nerve which slows down our heart rate.
- It is also known to improve the immune system.
- Brain scans demonstrate that those who consciously embed compassion in their lifestyle remain less negative about what’s wrong in their lives and choose to live happier lives
- Compassion helps us create and nourish better relationships without any concealed rancor.
The good news- We all have it in us
Thankfully, compassion is not that elusive personal trait that is exclusive to great mortals with unparalleled ethical beliefs. Anybody can cultivate the undeniably uplifting “little voices” in our heads that encourage us to take that extra step. We all have it in us and can do catapult it to a different level, one step at a time.
Furthermore, compassion can also be boosted through targeted exercises. There are a number of compassion training programs that revel how one can enhance compassion in themselves and others. In essence, you just need to open yourself up to these inner voices and let them dictate your actions without undergoing self-induced ignominy or excessive analysis.
A key step in the cultivation of compassion is to sincerely reflect on the fact that we are all just the same when it comes to pain, emotions and suffering. That someone you see suffer badly today can very well be you tomorrow who might be seen by someone as them. In other words, all the people are just another you, albeit in different shapes and forms.
When you start seeing ‘you’ in others, compassion no longer remains an onerous responsibility because you would look to resolving ‘your’ problems. It is important that this shift in perspective is not driven by selfish motives, but by a better understanding of the universal spiritual truth that deep down, we are all the same. That’s when the concept of paying it forward starts making a lot of sense.
Misconceptions and barriers
Some section of rationalists dismisses compassion as a crutch for the weak, whiners and complainers, in absolute incongruence with the world that we live in. That however, is far from truth because we all know that some of the most compassionate people the world has seen have been uncompromising, ethical, genuine and proactive.
Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and many others were truly compassionate people who went beyond feeling sorry for others and had the courage to act upon their emotional response. That’s what we may want to aspire for, everyday of our lives.
A major barrier to compassion is our notions on how this world and the people living in it should be. Our desires and attachment to these beliefs about how ‘things should be’ can entrap us into flawed ideas about compassion. We expect our own preconceived vision to manifest in what we witness as reactions. When it colludes with situations replete with contradictions and conflicts, disappointments are inevitable.
Therefore, the key to removing this barrier is to recognize the fact that compassion, much like charity, begins at home (self, in this case). Exercise self-compassion and begin by accepting yourself unconditionally. Don’t be too harsh on yourself. You cannot be a savior of this world if you cannot help yourself.
That by no means implies that we should do our bit making this world a better place. Far from that; this approach actually better equips us to take on the suffering in this world by understanding our inner desires and realizing that a happier, contended you would do a much better job with the other you.
Compassion – an unending goal
Ideally, the endeavor is to attain a level of compassion that puts us in another person’s shoes in the truest sense of the word. When that happens, we actually wouldn’t mind exchanging or joy for their misery.
A level so sublime that we wish we are able to share their sufferings till the point that they are completely eradicated, allowing us to experience unbridled happiness through the joy of sharing and caring that is bereft of emotionally shallow notions. Compassion is not something that is done by someone else and not you. It is to be practiced first at home and then, elsewhere.
A tough task yes, but eminently possible. It all starts with you being the focal point, gradually bringing it to them, eventually culminating in us. That perhaps is the gateway to a world that we all desire to be a part of.