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The Confusion Behind Compassion

· Compassion

The Latin root of compassion means "to suffer with." It implies that we share this experience with each other. Most of us have our own personal understanding of what compassion means. We have the capacity to both give and receive compassion. Many of the major religious traditions consider compassion as a virtuous quality deemed morally good. To some extent, we have all been influenced by major religions, philosophies, religious and spiritual figures, and their traditions and doctrines. It's a part of our collective history as human beings. Compassion is recorded in religious, spiritual, and philosophical doctrines and teachings as a way to relieve our collective suffering. Despite all of this, I think it is safe to say that compassion is still a highly misunderstood concept.

There are so many conflicting ideas, definitions, and theories about what compassion actually means. Researchers who study compassion have not even reached consensus on how to define or measure it, and it's not difficult to understand why. There are so many specialized fields of study that have differing perspectives on compassion and are intertwined with religious, spiritual, and philosophical undertones. The underlying reason we research compassion depends on the discipline or field of study, and there are many: psychology, religion, theology, history, humanities, sociology, law, anthropology, archaeology, neuroscience, neuropsychology, social work, medicine, nursing, neurobiology, business, etc. If the hoped-for outcome of research is to elevate humanity and to elevate our collective understanding, we first need to come to a collective agreement on what compassion actually is.

Some refer to compassion as a mental state or virtuous quality that can only come about through spiritual and contemplative practices that are rooted in eastern philosophies such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Some refer to compassion as the supreme human virtue. Some believe that compassion arises out of the practice of mindfulness meditation and can be learned. Some believe that compassion is something we can teach and train in order to cultivate greater compassion in our society. Some equate empathy, or the ability to feel what others feel, with compassion. Some believe that in order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves. Some believe that compassion is action. Regardless of what we believe, it's evident that compassion is a necessity in this world. It's just not clear that we are all talking about the same thing, nor is it clear why the world at times appears to be so lacking in humanity.

These days, it might seem to many that human beings are inherently selfish, egotistical, unkind, destructive, and warring. Science tells us otherwise. Dacher Keltner at the University of California argues that compassion is a natural, automatic, and instinctual response to ease the suffering of others. Research tells us that compassion is innate, biological, and has evolutionary origins. It doesn't support the belief that a human being is hardwired for violence and aggression. Nor does it support the belief that human beings need to do anything to become compassionate. It suggests that our true nature is one of compassion.

If it is true that we are compassionate by nature, then compassion, at its most basic, has little to do with anything other than our ability to ease each other's suffering. The Information Age has brought with it much confusion, not only because we are inundated with information and misinformation, but also because there are so many differing views and definitions of compassion. We have intellectualized the experience of compassion. If you have to think about whether or not or even how to respond to the suffering of others, it is no longer compassion. It Is simply an intellectual exercise instead of a lived experience. Thinking about compassion does not create the experience of compassion any more than thinking about love. It's a felt experience. It is the connection between human beings.

Meditation is not a pre-requisite to compassion. Despite its many benefits and supporting research suggesting it can help to cultivate feelings of compassion, meditation is not a universal practice -- only 8% of Americans meditate. Even when we are young, we are compassionate without ever practicing mindfulness or meditation. It isn't about dogma or doctrine, as people from all walks of life are compassionate. It isn't about forgiveness, or about saving or rescuing others. It isn't about understanding those who are the cause of our suffering, as it is felt in response to one who is suffering. It isn't a virtue unto itself, nor is it an individual trait without the collective realization that we are all connected and have the capacity as human beings to ease suffering. It isn't about feeling the pain of another. It's about letting your heart respond to that pain. It is simply a heartfelt response that allows each of us to ease each other's suffering in this world. Humanity by definition means to be humane, kind, and compassionate. In this sense, at its most basic, it is our shared humanity as human beings, regardless of what we believe as individuals. At some point, we have to find a way to bridge the gap between theory and experience.

We are affected by suffering because it is a felt experience. When we are moved by suffering, we do something to ease it. So why is there still so much suffering in this world? Does it mean that we are not collectively moved to ease the suffering of others? Does it mean that we have become desensitized to, or overwhelmed by, suffering? Does it mean that we think about it and then decide not to respond? Whatever the reason, if we don't collectively understand that compassion is our true nature, we will not be able to collectively and genuinely respond to suffering with compassion. Do we need more proof that there is suffering in the world? Do we need more proof that the world is sorely in need of compassionate responses?

How do we move from confusion and apathy to a collective understanding and care about the suffering of others? We need proof that compassion comes from the heart, not the mind. Why? Because then we might see how much easier it is to respond to the suffering of others without fear; without judgment, without stress or tension; without thinking about whether or not or how to respond; and ultimately, without denying our heart's response. The lived experience of compassion is the proof. When we respond with compassion, we all feel better. The universal experience of compassion comes from the heart, not the mind. It is the heart that eases our suffering. We share this in common with the whole of humanity.

Copyright © 2017. Sylvia Carlson. All Rights Reserved.

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