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 is twofold, in that it points not only to discomfort with another, it delves into discomfort with one’s own own suffering.This isn’t sympathy, which implies an interference or discomfort with the process of another’s 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, a recognition that we all suffer, an ability to take on and transform that suffering as if it were our own and using 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?
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 trans-formative tool that begins with self- compassion. There are practices and ways to access compassion that I will be adding to my resourcespage in the future.