How to have compassion

Compassion is essentially the wish that beings not suffer – from subtle physical and emotional discomfort to agony and anguish – combined with feelings of sympathetic concern.

You could have compassion for an individual (a friend in the hospital, a co-worker passed over for a promotion), groups of people (victims of crime, those displaced by a hurricane, refugee children), animals (your pet, livestock heading for the slaughterhouse), and yourself.

Compassion is not pity, agreement, or a waiving of your rights. You can have compassion for people who’ve wronged you while also insisting that they treat you better.

Compassion by itself opens your heart and nourishes people you care about. Those who receive your compassion are more likely to be patient, forgiving, and compassionate with you. Compassion reflects the wisdom that everything is related to everything else, and it naturally draws you into feeling more connected with all things.

Additionally, compassion can incline you to helpful action. For example, one study showed that motor circuits in the brain lit up when people were feeling compassionate, as if they were getting ready to do something about the suffering they were sensing.

How do we cultivate compassion?

Compassion is natural; you don’t have to force it; just open to the difficulty, the struggle, the stress, the impact of events, the sorrow and strain in the other person; open your heart, let yourself be moved, and let compassion flow through you.

Feel what compassion’s like in your body – in your chest, throat, and face. Sense the way it softens your thoughts, gentles your reactions. Know it so you can find your way back again.

Moments of compassion come in the flow of life – maybe a friend tells you about a loss, or you can see the hurt behind someone’s angry face, or a hungry child looks out at you from the pages of a newspaper.

Also, you can deliberately call in compassion a minute (or more), perhaps each day; here are a few suggestions:

  • Relax and tune into your body.
  • Remember the feeling of being with someone who cares about you.
  • Bring to mind someone it is easy to feel compassion for.
  • Perhaps put your compassion into words, softly heard in the back of your mind, such as: “May you not suffer . . . may this hard time pass . . . may things be alright for you.”
  • Expand your circle of compassion to include others; consider a benefactor (someone who has been kind to you), friend, neutral person, difficult person (a challenge, certainly), and yourself (sometimes the hardest person of all).
  • Going further, extend compassion to all the beings in your family . . . neighborhood . . . city . . . state . . . country . . . world. All beings, known or unknown, liked or disliked. Humans, animals, plants, even microbes. Beings great or small, in the air, on the ground, under water. Including all, omitting none.

Going through your day, open to compassion from time to time for people you don’t know: someone in a deli, a stranger on a bus, crowds moving down the sidewalk.

Let compassion settle into the background of your mind and body. As what you come from, woven into your gaze, words, and actions.

Omitting none.

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20 Comments. Leave new

  • Self-compassion???? That seems ludicrous to me. It’s not compassion if you’re doing it alone all by yourself. It’s something else – healing, nurturing, etc. Not compassion.

  • So, why does it sound ludicrous to you? Why can’t people have compassion for themselves? People can hate themselves, like themselves, love themselves — so why not have compassion for themselves when they’re suffering?

  • The normal use of the word ‘compassion’ implies the involvement of 2 people. The word means ‘feeling’ (passion) -‘with’ (com). As in ‘I feel YOUR pain.’ It does not mean “I feel MY pain.” There has to be another person involved. Feeling one’s own pain is an important step to healing but does not involve compassion.

    • It can be misleading to insist that the etymology of a word defines or exhausts its present meaning. Sure, com- means with and passion means suffering. But we can be with (our own) suffering.

      Having compassion is not, however, simply “feeling one’s own pain,” as you describe it. Of course we feel our pain, but how do we relate to that pain? Sometimes we are uncompassionate and judge ourselves, or feel that we’ve failed, or have aversion to the pain. Sometimes people get attached to suffering. Sometimes people wallow in pain. But we can also respond to our own pain just as we might with the pain that others feel — compassionately.

      The human mind is not a unified entity. The brain has evolved in fits and starts, and isn’t “designed” like a machine that’s been planned from the ground up, but is more like an old house that’s had extensions built over the years. So the brain functions as a set of modules with different functions, and they relate to each other. They even have to communicate with each other

      So one part of the brain may be generating feelings of anxiety, while another may be offering reassurance and comfort. One part of us is experiencing pain; another part is experiencing compassion toward that pain.

      I guess a familiarity with lovingkindness (metta) meditation or compassion (karuna) meditation helps with understanding this.

  • I think the word ‘compassion’ should not have been used. The better word is ‘lovingkindness’

    • The definition of “compassion” is “lovingkindness meets suffering.” So the word seems entirely appropriate in this context.

  • Here’s the dictionary definition which is very clear:

    • Interesting. But that’s a dictionary definition, not the dictionary definition. A dictionary merely describes how words are used. Since the English language is constantly evolving, dictionaries are in a constant process of trying to catch up, and new words (and new uses of words) are continually being added. No dictionary — even the best — contains every usage, even when those usages are quite common.

      The use of the term “self-compassion” is common. It’s now well attested in scientific literature. There is Neff’s 2003 paper, “The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion.” Leary & Adam’s “Promoting Self-compassionate Attitudes toward Eating Among Restrictive and Guilty Eaters,” etc, etc. The term is in use in the titles of books, and Google returns almost half a million results for the phrase.

      As dictionaries notice these changes, they’ll be updated. Or they will if they have room. The term is not going away. In fact it’s not even a new term, although it’s become more popular in recent years. And if you’re going to quote a dictionary, you really ought to quote the OED. It’s the only real dictionary, after all :)

      self-compassion n. compassion for oneself.
      a1634 G. Chapman Revenge for Honour (1654) ii. i. 202 Self-compassion, soothing us to faith Of what we wish should hap. [Oxford English Dictionary]

      It’s a useful term. It makes sense in terms of the etymology (being with our own suffering), it’s been around for well over 350 years, it fits both our subjective experience and the cognitive reality that our brains are modular — and it’s in the world’s most authoritative dictionary.

      Do you have any other arguments to use against the term “self-compassion”? I think we’ve pretty much covered everything. Of course you’re free not to like the usage, but I don’t think you’ve demonstrated any arguments that suggest that it is, as you put it, “ludicrous.” Personally, I think we should concentrate on eliminating “guesstimate,” “solopreneur,” and “mompreneur” from the English language :)

  • Dr Kristin Neff has her own website. too whic includes plenty of information, including a definition, which works for me.

    Even if we question the validity of a word it’s worth looking at and, in this case, practising with what’s described. The word is not the thing it describes – it simply points to it. We’re all free to choose whatever signpost will help us reach our destination, but the important thing about a signpost is the way it’s pointing.

    Critiquing the design, construction, stabilty or orientation of a signpost is useful, but it needn’t prevent us from using it to find our way :)

    • A good metaphor, although to be fair, I suppose some signposts point in directions that aren’t very useful…

  • Bodhipaksa: I agree with you – we have covered everything. Thanks for a stimulating discussion. I really enjoyed it.

    • I enjoyed it too — especially researching how old the expression “self-compassion” is. I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t a modern coinage.


  • Kevin FitzMaurice
    October 17, 2011 8:39 pm

    Alison Moore, not sure you are familiar with General Semantics, but your comment does fit well with that useful and important theory. For instance, the founder, Alfred Korzybski, said, “The thought is not the thing.” This is more interesting when you learn that, the Eastern philosopher, J. Krishnamurti also said, “The thought is not thing,” and “The description is not the described,” many times. Your signpost analogy came to me first from Zen sayings. The one that comes to mind is, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.”

    I would like to make one point about self-compassion. There is a danger. The danger is ego-compassion. Ego-compassion will strengthen ego. Ego-compassion disguised as self-compassion is common. One easy way out of the dilemma is to focus on the pain and not the imaginary experiencer of the pain. Compassion for the suffering, not the object imagined to be suffering. Self as object or thing is self-defeating in that it focuses you on images, concepts, and constructs as if they were the actual being self. You then become lost in the ego games of pride and shame.

  • Those are good points, Kevin. I’d say the thing is not to identify with either the pain or the compassion. Both are simply manifesting phenomena, without owners.

  • When I was studying the Dao De Ching recently I was stunned to learn that ancient Chinese philosophers made this same point that the thought is not the thing. They often referred to the thought as ‘naming.’

    • In the Vedic culture that the Buddha lived in, it was believed that there was a close correspondence between thoughts (words) and reality, to the extent that you could manipulate reality with words — especially with mantras and dharanis. This current of thought is still going strong in New Age thinking, where many people believe that your thoughts create “your” reality (because of course they see reality as a personal experience and not as something objective), and that if you change your thinking (visualize that empty parking spot!) you will manipulate the outside world. Not that the Buddha seems to have believed anything like that. He was very much an individual.

  • Kevin FitzMaurice
    October 18, 2011 12:03 am

    For me, the “Tao Teh Ching” is the purest book ever written. I agree that Taoists, like Lao-Tzu and Chung-Tzu, regarded thought as only a pointer. If you have a direct quotation, then I have many translations of the Tao to look it up in, and would appreciate having the reference.

    The philosophical tradition for mistakenly regarding thought as the real or as the source for the real is known as Idealism. In philosophical circles, Idealism was defeated by Realism. Idealism is currently in fashion again under the guise of Postmodernism and Constructivism. And despite never being a secret, Idealism’s views are presented as hidden and new. The fact is, the views of Idealism are common to all primitive religions. Words were regarded as magic and causal by prehistoric and aboriginal peoples all over the world. In Hinduism, this view is known as maya, meaning delusion, illusion, or regarding dreams as reality. One must awaken from the sleep world of thought to the world of silence and emptiness.

  • Kevin – thanks for the lesson on Idealism – I was looking for a Western equivalent of the Taoist idea. Now I can look it up and see what Western philosophers have done with the concept. You wrote ‘Words were regarded as magic and causal’ and you could have added the most well-known example of this ‘primitive’ idea: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (I think that’s how it goes.)
    You also wrote: ‘One must awaken from the sleep world of thought to the world of silence and emptiness.’ The world is neither silent nor empty – these are descriptions that come from the point of view of delusion. The ‘world’ is just what it is. Nothing more. As Suzuki Roshi said: “The I is extra.”

  • ‘feeling’ (passion) -’with’ (com). As in ‘I feel YOUR pain.’ With pain does not only mean “I feel YOUR pain” .. with pain can also mean “I feel MY pain”

    • Yes indeed. I made that point a few comments back, but it probably gets lost in all the to-ing and fro-ing. It’s a valuable point, though, and thanks for reiterating it.

      Some of us have been having a great discussion about the relation between not-self (anatta) and the modular nature of our consciousness. It’s fascinating both to observe this internally and to see how it relates to the structure and functioning of the brain.


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