A couple of times people have contacted me saying that self-compassion is not possible. Both times they’ve quoted dictionary definitions that present compassion as something that’s inherently directed toward others. For example:
com·pas·sion n. Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. [Emphasis added]
And the etymology of compassion — “[to be] with suffering” — has also been cited as a reason for rejecting the notion of self-compassion, because that’s taken to suggest that we be with the suffering of others.
But 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.
And in any event dictionaries are necessarily a simplification of how language is actually used, and it’s not always the case that definitions correspond to reality. Having said that, though, the Oxford English dictionary actually has an entry for self-compassion, which should lay the dictionary argument to rest:
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]
As you’ll see, the term self-compassion goes back at least to 1654. I’ve also found an example of the term from 1677, where it appears in Richard Allestree’s The Art of Contentment:
If they chance but to miÃ…Â¿s a meal, they are ready to cry out, their knees are weak thro fasting, yet they can without regret, or any Ã…Â¿elf-compaÃ…Â¿Ã…Â¿ion, macerate and cruciate themÃ…Â¿elves with anxious cares and vexations.
The argument that’s put forward in support of the compassion being inherently directed at others seems to rest on the assumption that the self is a unified and unitary thing, that therefore cannot relate to itself. But common-sense and experience show that we do in fact relate to ourselves all the time. We can have anger toward ourselves; we can have love toward ourselves. We can have hatred toward ourselves; we can have compassion toward ourselves.
An awareness of neuroscience helps us here as well. The human mind is not a unified entity. The brain has evolved in fits and starts, and isn’t “designed” like a building 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 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.
And this brings up a deeper level of understanding of suffering and compassion: the experience of stress arises, and yet it’s not right to say that there is a self who experiences that suffering, although it’s also incorrect to say that there’s no self to experience that suffering!
Because the human brain is not a unified entity, the human mind is not a unified entity, and so there is no unified “self” to experience suffering. Suffering is experienced. That’s all. Who experiences the suffering? Well, as soon as we ask that question we have assumed that there is a “who” doing the experiencing. And the Buddha was encouraging us to drop that assumption: “Both formerly and now, it is only suffering that I describe, and the cessation of suffering.”
The Buddha also made a very interesting statement in talking about how he, as an enlightened being, didn’t think in terms of there being a thing that is experienced or a person who does the experiencing:
When cognizing what is to be cognized, he doesn’t construe a [thing that is] cognized … He doesn’t construe a cognizer.
So if we apply that to suffering, then there is an experiencing of suffering, but we should drop the notion that “I” am suffering. There’s just the experiencing, with no thought of “a self.” And in responding to suffering, there’s similarly a response, without any assumption that there is a self to do any responding, or other selves to respond to. There’s simply a perception of suffering, and a spontaneous response of compassion. Now it doesn’t matter whether this suffering is experienced “internally” or whether it’s experienced “externally.” There’s just this perception of suffering, and the spontaneous response of compassion.
So it doesn’t matter whether the suffering that we’re responding to is “our” suffering or the suffering of another. The suffering is experienced, and compassion arises. If suffering arises externally or internally, the most fitting response is compassion.
In fact, to single out “our” suffering as not capable of being responded to with compassion, or not worthy of being responded to with compassion, is an example of the very obsession with self that the Buddha was encouraging us to abandon.
The Diamond Sutra took this idea, which is implicit in the Buddha’s teachings (he really didn’t like talking about “being and non-being”) and ran with it:
“…all living beings will eventually be led by me to the final Nirvana, the final ending of the cycle of birth and death. And when this unfathomable, infinite number of living beings have all been liberated, in truth not even a single being has actually been liberated.
“Why Subhuti? Because if a disciple still clings to the arbitrary illusions of form or phenomena such as an ego, a personality, a self, a separate person, or a universal self existing eternally, then that person is not an authentic disciple.”
Ironically, it’s only through dropping the notion of self and other, through dropping the notion of “beings,” that we can be truly compassionate. When we truly realize that there is no one to have compassion, no one to have compassion for, then stable unconditioned compassion can arise.
So in a sense, there is no one to have compassion, no one to have compassion for. Yet suffering arises, and so does compassion, and when we’re awakened we’ll finally drop this troubling obsession about who is experiencing pain and who has compassion. It all simply happens, and that’s enough.