What Is Compassion?

Posted November 25, 2014
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What is Compassion?

Compassion, like many ideas / words, is a definition in progress. I like to take the time to read, listen and then define terms for myself. It helps me not only to remember what they mean, but gives me a way to apply them to my life. Often, I take other’s definitions and reconstruct them in order to better understand their meaning. None of what I come up with is my own. Instead, I am adding another voice to the long and web-like conversation of humanity. Paul Gilbert and the Dalai Lama were influential in the way I formulated my definition. I like to define compassion as the noticing of another's suffering and seeing it as one's own with the desire to alleviate it. This isn’t sympathy, which implies an interference or discomfort with the process of another’s suffering. This is twofold, in that it points not only to  discomfort with another, it delves into discomfort with one's own own suffering.  Sympathy also implies attaching to the person or object of suffering in a way that is ultimately not helpful. Compassion isn’t pity, which implies looking down at someone or feeling superior. Compassion is an eye-to-eye meeting with someone squarely where they are at, a recognition that we all suffer, an ability to take on and transform that suffering as if it were our own and putting forth a skillful effort to alleviate it.

How do I notice another’s suffering?

I see someone in a moment that I often find myself in and connect with that moment. I feel a tug or arising sensation as they look down, appear afraid or appear uncertain, angry, mean or sad. Sometimes they say something and it cuts right through my own delusion in such a way, that I completely open up to their (also my) experience. It is one of those simultaneous their / my experiences. Sometimes I really have to work at noticing suffering if it is someone with which I struggle. When I struggle with someone, I often find that their suffering is an obstacle so closely allied with one of my own that I am so afraid to dredge up, it turns into a form of dislike for the other person. Sometimes this is a pretty strong feeling of pushing outward. This pushing outward is a clever mechanism of self-distraction. Sometimes I have to call on my awareness and reflect back and forth at myself for a while. Many times I have to dive right in and feel compassion for myself.

How do I see another’s suffering as my own?

I have pain and difficulty too. I suffer too.  This doesn't mean that I feel someone else's pain and get so carried away with it that I am unable to function.  Richard Davidson, in one of my class lectures at the Nalanda Institute suggested that identifying with another's suffering in such a way is empathy or empathy gone awry. Davidson stated that empathy may be a gateway to compassion, but one needs to step away from the complete identification with another's suffering .  I have to be able to recognize my own suffering in some way during this process. I may not have done something or acted in a way that is exactly like the person I am faced with, but I bet I am able to see when I fall into a similar realm of suffering. Perhaps if I had been in the same biopsychosocial circumstances as they find themselves I would have acted in a similar way. Maybe I’ve acted in a similar way to a lesser degree, but causing no less harm. It really doesn’t matter whether or not I’ve acted in the same fashion, because I have experienced suffering. The Buddhists break suffering down into three forms; the suffering of suffering, suffering of change and conditioning or all-pervasive suffering. I won’t go into the specifics of this right now, but am putting it here in case you want to explore further. I am going to summarize this by saying that it is almost as if another’s suffering is my own, in such a way that it is not a stretch to relate to it in this way. 

How do I alleviate another’s suffering?

The first step in all of this is to work on alleviating my own suffering to a degree that I am equipped to assist others. That doesn’t mean that I have to be perfect and completely free of all complications. Often in reaching out to another I am taking care of my suffering. This the means that I am not acting from a place of my own obstacles and  unaware of my own suffering. I am aware of and do not contribute to suffering when I am attempting to alleviate it. I keep awareness of my own suffering active as I deal with another. I have to hold the sufferings of both at the same time. I may have to bounce back to myself and to you and then back to myself.  It is noticing the discomfort of both and acting from a place that steps in and cuts right through. This helps me to bravely say the words that meet the moment. This may mean asking, “Are you suffering?” or “I see you going inside yourself. What is that experience like?” It may just mean a kind look or gentle nod. It may mean briefly attending to myself in the situation so I do not contribute more to the overall suffering that is going on.

Compassion is a powerful transformative tool that begins with self- compassion. There are practices and ways to access compassion that I will be adding to my resources page in the future.


The Use Of Animal Imagery In Compassion Meditation

In this article I explain how I’ve taken deity meditation, used animal imagery and applied it to loving-kindness (metta) meditation.. Read more

Dream Body, Dream World

A guided meditation practice to transform the stress-reactive body-mind. Read more

The Book of Living

Ways we can prepare for death during our precious life. Read more

Mindfulness Group for At-Promise Youth

Practices for eliminating doubt and performance anxiety in at-promise youth. Read more

Breath, Body and Open Field

A meditation to help you let go and access deep acceptance. Read more


All blog posts here

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What is compassion? by Christine Heinisch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://twowingstherapy.com/blog/2014/10/what-is-compassion.  Please feel free to share and reference this work, but credit my name and link to my site. Thanks!

About the Author

Chris Heinisch is a counselor and psychotherapist in Tucson, Arizona. She integrates the practices and wisdom of Eastern traditions (primarily Buddhist) with Western Psychology. She is currently studying Contemplative Psychotherapy at the Nalanda Institute in NYC. Please visit her website at http://twowingstherapy.com for more information.




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December 1, 2014

Thanks Caila! It's pretty cool to see this in action in my work with kids. Sometimes I just let them know I notice their suffering and that they are trying and things seem to turn around pretty quickly for them.

Caila Lipovsky

November 25, 2014

Great article! It brought up a memory of seeing someone I knew who was clearly angry. She is a pretty young lady, and I responded internally with resentment. She was glaring and I was thinking she looked very mean. Then, I saw someone I admire who has a lot of power to be truly kind walk over and give this girl a hug. The girl's demeanor completely changed, she looked so grateful to be seen and treated with love and kindness. I wanted more of that compassion in my own experience. Thank you for publishing these ideas.

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