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
~ The Buddha
Whenever there is a disaster in the world, natural or otherwise, it does a curious thing – it brings out the best in us.
All of us stop for a moment, don’t we, and feel a mixture of gratitude that we and our loved ones are safe, and sorrow for those suffering from the earthquake, tsunami, bushfire, flood or, in the case of Haiti and the American eastern seaboard, a hurricane called Sandy.New York workers prepare for the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy It’s then that our natural compassion comes to the fore. And yet, curiously, compassion, the virtue of empathy for the suffering of others, is not necessarily as readily available to us at other times.
In our ordinary, everyday lives it seems – on the face of it – that we have less need of compassion than at those times of crisis, be it family, community, or world-wide.
The etymology of compassion is Latin, meaning co-suffering; whereas empathy is the more simple attribute of understanding, compassion contains the desire to stop the other person’s suffering.
Deepak Chopra writes in his book Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul of the Tibetan Buddhist monks who developed ‘compassionate brains’ as the result of practicing a meditation on compassion, thereby transforming a spiritual quality into physical manifestation, erasing the split between body and soul.Compassion: a Victorian firefighter cares for a koala left homeless by bushfires. Photo by Russell Vickery via smh.com.au.
But why are some people more compassionate than others? Why is it that psychopaths allegedly have no compassion, and are able to inflict cruelty without even the comprehension of what they are doing?
Chopra wonders whether even psychopaths might be brought to understand the nature of compassion through a change of brain activity.
To become compassionate, or more compassionate takes practice …as does every emotion, both good and bad. It’s not good enough to just think about being compassionate, or even learn about it, it’s about somehow rewiring the brain so you walk in other people’s shoes; and again growth is exponential, as we begin to feel and practice compassion in one area of our lives, it begins to flow into other areas.
In Hinduism compassion is called daya, and is one of the three central virtues, along with charity and self-control. Vasudeva Datta, a 16th century Vaishnava holy man prayed to Krishna to deliver “all conditioned souls” because his heart “breaks to see the sufferings.”
In Judaism, God is known as the Compassionate and invoked as the Father of Compassion, and in Buddhism compassion, or Karuna is the transformative heart of his teachings, both for the self, and others.
Or as the Dalai Lama has said: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
How do you practice something you can’t see? It’s not like riding a bicycle exactly, but curiously the steps are very much the same. You choose to be genuinely interested in compassion, you pursue your interest spontaneously – choosing for instance to feel compassion instead of critical towards someone whom you believe has slighted or behaved badly towards you. You stick with the practice until you get good at.
One of the ways to cultivate compassion is using it to defuse anger, which is considered a low-level emotion, and usually disguises fear, and one of the very best ways to cultivate it, is to try feeling compassionate for yourself – which, when you stop and think about it is much easier said than done.
In fact, it’s downright difficult to be compassionate about what may seem afterwards to be obvious mistakes we’ve made, and yet if we can’t feel true compassion towards ourselves how can we feel it towards others?
Children, of course, can swing between compassion and sympathy, to cruelty and scorn in a millisecond, but as we grow up, our ability to be compassionate is often diminished by what we perceive to be condemnation towards us, and by the time we are adults, our natural compassion has got buried under a ton of beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.
But when one of the largest cyclonic wind systems on record has caused sixty deaths in Haiti before it even reached its destination of the Eastern States of America, then for most of us compassion becomes a natural response – and thank goodness for that.
The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.
~ Thomas Merton