By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW
“Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good
move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the
pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called
compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed.”
“Compassion occurs only between equals.”
The Dalai Lama
Finding the Right Words to Describe Compassion
I found that I could not write about compassion without first having just the right definition of what compassion is. In order to feel grounded in my writing, I needed to find the exact words. I propose that we define compassion as being “together with suffering.” If we refer to the Latin roots of “com” meaning “with” we come up with the concept of “co-suffering” or “suffering with.” I like the emphasis on the word “with.” When we feel compassion we are joined together with the one who is suffering.
This is what ultimately distinguishes compassion from sympathy. With sympathy we are aware of the suffering of the other and feel bad for them, but there is not the same sense of joining with. In fact, sympathy seems to emphasize the gulf between the one who is suffering and the other, as if the sympathetic observer is looking down on the other from a more comfortable or superior position. There is the feeling: “There but for the grace of God go I!” Most of us would not want the sympathy of others, whereas I imagine that compassion would be universally welcomed.
Of the positive spiritual emotions (including awe, faith, love, compassion, joy and gratitude), compassion is the one that reminds us that spirituality is not just about valuing or encouraging positive emotional states. Compassion is the opposite; even though it is possible to alleviate suffering through compassion, we only achieve this by seeking out and joining with the difficult, painful, or vulnerable place, both theirs and our own.
The Healing Power of Compassion
The paradox is that even though compassion is joining with suffering, compassion is not an experience of suffering. It may be more accurate to think of compassion as including both co-suffering and co-passion, with co-passion representing the more complete range of emotions that can be released in the presence of loving compassion. Bringing in compassion makes it possible to transcend suffering and is associated with feelings of safety, intimacy, connection, love and belonging.
The Buddha quote is a tribute to the healing power of compassion; it tells us that compassion can literally crush and destroy the pain of others. The source of its power is that it is a heartfelt experience. As the Buddha says, compassion is “that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others.” To the extent that compassion comes from the heart, it offers a special kind of shelter to the distressed, and possibly even an embrace. This is the most powerful form of compassion–when we feel met at our place of greatest pain and suffering with a heartfelt embrace.
Why do our hearts respond to the suffering of others? I believe, at some gut level, that we know that the pain of the other is somehow the same as our pain, even though we may it experience it differently. In fact, it is not just the pain of the two of us, but some even bigger, more universal experience of pain or rawness or tenderness that is part of our shared humanity. If we are to connect with another person at the depths of our being, then this connection must include the sensitivity and vulnerability that seem to reside within us at these deepest levels.
Compassion Motivates Us to Reach Out
Unlike empathy, which can be felt at some distance, the word “compassion” implies a more passionate response that includes an active desire to be involved. If we are sitting home in the comfort of our living rooms, we might feel compassion, but we cannot offer the shelter or the embrace that the Buddha quote references unless we interact in some way with those who are suffering. Compassion makes us want to reach out.
In the Buddha quote, the action that is described is that of joining with or connecting. This is a different emphasis than what might come to mind when we think of compassion for the poor or for people who are sick or starving. In these examples, our desire to reach out may involve taking actions to address the source of the suffering. Our compassion might inspire us to write a check to a charity or to volunteer our time in a third world country to work directly with the poor to help improve their living conditions.
Yet when it comes to psychotherapy, it is very important not to confuse acts to alleviate suffering (such as giving to charity or providing food to the hungry) with the experience of being sheltered in the compassionate embrace. When it comes to psychological or emotional suffering, the irony is that the goal of alleviating suffering by fixing or eliminating it directly is often not the right approach and, in fact, is often exactly the wrong approach. If we remember that compassion is about being together with suffering, then that is a completely different goal than attempting to fix or eliminate the suffering, as noble as one’s intentions may be.
When Fixing Interferes with Compassion
A classic example of how “fixing” can be counterproductive is that of a typical type of male-female communication. The wife comes home from the office upset about something that happened at work, and the husband goes into brainstorming mode, doing his best to come up with a solution that will help his wife feel better. He offers a suggestion, “What if you told your boss. . . .” Yet much to his dismay, rather than calming down, she becomes increasingly annoyed and agitated. She may even appear angry at him, leading him to exclaim, “But I’m only trying to help!”
She is frustrated because, in this example, she wants compassion as opposed to a solution. She wants to be joined in her suffering–for her husband to validate her feelings and welcome her suffering self. Referencing the Buddha quote, she wants to feel that her husband’s heart is moved by her pain. She wants to experience the shelter of his compassion and to have the sense that her husband is embracing her in her time of distress. As the quote tells us, this is where the power of compassion lies. This is how compassion can crush and destroy the pain of her suffering.
How many husbands (or wives, for that matter) can overcome the natural desire to try to fix the problem and say instead, “I can see why you are upset. This is difficult. I can relate to what you are going through. I’m so glad that you shared this with me rather than just keeping it to yourself.” Just as this couple may eventually work together to fix the problem and find a solution, problem solving in this example will not work until they first join together in a compassionate stance.