Compassion might seem like a straightforward term, but the further you dig, the more complicated it becomes.
Fortunately, with the help of professionals, I’ll help simplify the concept of compassion, including several different types, real-world examples, how it compares to empathy, and how you can practice compassion in your everyday life.
Let’s begin with definitions.
What Does it Mean to Have Compassion?
The Oxford Dictionary defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.”
According to Cory D Custer, co-founder at Compassion.work, empathy is compassion’s foundation, which relates to experiencing another person’s emotions as our own. “Yet,” she says, “compassion goes further and includes the motivation to help. Compassion equals empathy, plus action.”
In her mind, this makes compassion more than an emotion. “It is an activity,” she emphasizes.
Is Compassion an Emotion?
Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote provides a concise answer to this question:
“Compassion is a verb.”
In Cory’s mind, practicing compassion recognizes when human needs are not being met and then asks, ‘How can I help?’
“If we ask ourselves that question in response to a human (or non-human) need, we activate our compassion,” she says.
What are the Different Types of Compassion?
Sara Schairer, founder and Executive Director of Compassion It, explains there are two types of compassion:
- Compassion for self – Remaining gentle, kind, and understanding as you uncover your imperfections and learn to lessen their impact on your life.
- Compassion for others – Coming into contact with others’ suffering and being motivated to help without overwhelming yourself.
“Compassion includes empathy not only for others, but for yourself as well.”
Cory says that she likes to think of compassion in terms of hands, heart, and head. ‘Hands’ references taking physical action to alleviate suffering, which can be as simple as a hug or loving touch.
Related: What is Suffering in Buddhism?
‘Heart’ means that we keep our empathic floodgates open, allow ourselves to feel others’ suffering, and “participate as fully as we can in that experience.”
Finally, there will be instances when our empathy is blocked, or someone’s suffering is too overwhelming. In these cases, Cory advocates that we can “still use our heads to wish the other person well, send them good thoughts, good vibes, or good energy. However you want to think of it.”
What Are Some Common Examples of Compassion?
Any time you see another living creature that needs help, and you act accordingly, “that is compassion in my mind,” Cory says. “It’s important to highlight that compassionate acts can be very simple,” she emphasizes.
- Passing along a warm greeting or smiling at a stranger who seems to be having a bad day.
- Holding the door open for someone with their hands full.
- Not beating yourself up for failing or not meeting your expectations.
- Remaining present with a loved one as they experience their own suffering.
- Calling or writing someone out of the blue and letting them know you’re thinking of them.
Three Degrees of Compassionate Separation
Cory explains there is some evidence to suggest that compassion is contagious up to three degrees of separation (see here and here as examples), which could be an incredibly powerful force around the globe if everyone implemented it in their daily lives.
“If I witness someone acting compassionately on my way home from work, I’m more likely to act compassionately when I arrive and see my family,” she explains. “And in turn, they are more likely to act compassionately when they encounter others,” and so forth.
“Any time you see another living creature that needs help, and you act accordingly, you practice compassion, which doesn’t need to be complicated.”
What’s the Difference Between Compassion and Empathy?
While empathy is a part of compassion, they aren’t synonymous. “Empathy is feeling what another feels. But with compassion, you feel the other’s pain, and you are also motivated—and have the willingness—to take action,” Sara says.
Cory also outlines that individuals who deal with daily suffering can develop empathy fatigue, whereas she’s “seen studies suggesting this isn’t the case with compassion.”
Why? “Because it elicits action and activates the motivational parts of our brains,” she answers.
“Compassion motivates you—boosts your willingness—to take action on behalf of another’s suffering.”
How Can You Practice Compassion?
Compassion is one of our most basic human traits—something at which we can practice, train, and become better. And it’s simple!
In fact, Cory breaks the process down into two steps:
- Pay closer attention to others around you. Be mindful while in their presence and turn your attention in their direction as you go about your day. “You’ll see a lot of suffering, stress, struggle, sadness, and disappointment,” she laments.
- Develop the habit of asking yourself, ‘How can I help?’ Even if you can’t directly assist and only send positive thoughts their way, you’ll help train your compassion capacity and improve how you feel.
Sara adds that “you can practice compassion in day-to-day life by intentionally interacting with people who are outside your immediate social circle.” Compassion meditations, like this one, can also help you prepare for real-world suffering.
Related: What the Fuck is Meditation?
Furthermore, she says you can also “notice your self-talk throughout the day. When your inner critic chimes in, change it to a voice of kindness and encouragement.”
Flexing Your Compassion Muscles
At Compassion It, Sara explains they like to talk about compassion as a muscle. Each time you practice the skill or perform a ‘rep,’ whether in your mind or the real world, the stronger that power becomes.
Explained another way, Cory states that repeatedly calling to mind another person’s suffering and then directing positive, helpful thoughts toward them builds our capacity for other types of compassion (e.g., heart and hands noted above).
“If we practice it and allow it to happen naturally, which it often does, it becomes a simple, instinctual response to help others when sense they need it,” she says.
First, though, Sara emphasizes that “it’s important to begin by cultivating awareness. If you’re not present, you won’t recognize the suffering around you or within you.” Check out track three on Compassion It’s website for help cultivating this skill.
Related: What is Mindfulness? (pending publishing)
“Each time you practice compassion or perform a ‘rep,’ whether in your mind or out in the real world, the stronger the ‘muscle’ becomes.”
Why is it Important to Have Compassion for Yourself and Others?
Cory outlines that science suggests that compassion is beneficial to our physical, mental, emotional, and social wellbeing.
Furthermore, because we all rely on the caring, kindness, and generosity of others to exist, she believes that “compassion is the defining characteristic of our species, and how we survived and prospered.”
“Daily, compassion has the power to transform our health, our relationships, our institutions, and our world,” she adds.
Creating Bridges vs. Walls
Sara explains that from her perspective, compassion creates bridges—instead of walls—between people.
Related: What’s the Importance of Perspective? (pending publishing)
“I believe that compassion can solve the social issues of our world,” she says. If compassionate people influenced the larger systems that make up our society, “we could significantly lessen racism, poverty, civil unrest, climate change, and more.”
Compassion = Happiness
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”13th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso
According to a growing body of research, compassion for ourselves and others improves our wellbeing. Sara conveys that we feel more connected, less isolated, and a greater sense of purpose.
Suffering acts as “a sort of gateway, conduit, or bridge that connects us to our fellow human beings,” Cory adds.
“If we shut down our own suffering or too easily dismiss it as insignificant or inconsequential, we close an important path to real human connection—and even deeper parts of ourselves,” she emphasizes.
The Bottom Line: Compassion is Strength
Sara emphasizes that it’s easy to view compassion as ‘soft’ or a sign of weakness. However, the reality is that its expression takes courage, strength, and wisdom.
According to one of her favorite teachers, Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D., “compassion means having a strong back and soft front.”
In other words, compassion encourages us to face the world’s pain and suffering, “stand up to injustice, reach across the political aisle, listen to others without judgment, and help prevent us from becoming a doormat or wallowing in pity,” she says.
“Compassion has the power to transform our health, our relationships, our institutions, and our world,” Cory concludes. Together, we can grow into better parents, children, siblings, friends, teammates, and global citizens.