Compassion: it's not what you think

I’m crazy about the idea of compassion. Completely nuts.

However, prior to my love affair with it, I was just plain confused.

You see, I equated compassion with the warm fuzzy feeling in my body when I heard Mother Teresa-que stories of selfless action . Or the heartwrenching sensation in my chest as I watched innocent children turn into statistics of another senseless war.

Turns out those feelings were anything but!

Though compassion is used interchangably with “empathy” or “sympathy” or even “pity”, psychologist Paul Ekman clears the air in conversation with the Dalai Lama in his delightful book Emotional Awareness. He explains that when we see suffering, it can elicit one or more of the these responses:

1. Emotional Recognition: To know or recognize how another person is feeling.

2. Emotional Resonance: To actually feel what the other person is feeling.

Compassion, on the other hand, is simply the desire to relieve the suffering of another. It is not an emotion or mood, rather a state of being that can be cultivated. Once cultivated, it becomes an enduring feature of the person, as opposed to emotions that come and go.

Emotional Recognition does not always lead to Resonance. But both can, either independently or sequentially, lead to compassion.

Often, emotional resonance can lead to a feeling of overwhelm followed by hopelessness or discouragement or depression – even to the point of temporary distortion of our perception of reality. And this was exactly the trap I had been falling into, far from the road to compassion.

How then, do we avoid this pitfall and go about cultivating compassion? More on that in a future post.

For now, check out this talk by Zainab Salbi, president of Women for Women International, a non-profit that empowers women in conflict zones to get back on their feet. Zainab has a personal story that is sure to surprise you.

 Feeling compassionate? Sponsor and personally connect with a woman in a conflict zone via their website.