compassion

Compassion rising

2014 has been dubbed the "year of mindfulness", which means that the quality of compassion gets to share some airtime as well, thanks to a world in turmoil.

In a previous post, I discussed how compassion is not an emotion or mood, but a state of being that can be cultivated. Far from being a passive, nauseating, sickly-sweet demeanour, true compassion is synonymous with skillful action – action that is inspired from the largest and brutally honest perspective of reality.

The Buddha went so far as to say that the mind’s natural state is compassionate. A theory that has recently been confirmed by several psychologists and evolutionary scientists: our bodies and brains are wired to be good.

Studies have shown that compassionate people have stronger immune systems, higher energy levels and live longer, happier lives.

Despite the trance of “survival of the fittest” in our collective memory, it was Darwin himself among others who wrote extensively about the presence of compassion in primates, and how it contributed towards the survival of their communities and tribes.

If this is true i.e. if we are indeed wired to be good, then why is the world in the state that it is? And why are some of us able to show more compassion than others?

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.