What is compassion?

Compassion: the ability to see the suffering of another being and the desire to relieve that suffering.

Compassion is much easier to practice with family or loved ones – people close to us, than it is with strangers. But what is needed for the future of our species, is compassion for all beings. Compassion means that we also recognise the fundamental interconnectedness of all things; that all beings want to be happy and avoid suffering; that all beings should have the opportunity to grow, to flourish – to realise their full potential.

With family and friends empathy can give rise to compassion, but with a stranger or someone for whom you feel a sense of repulsion, things are more complicated. Compassion does not always arise naturally in these situations. Evolution has made us naturally egocentric. (The focus is on me and mine.) Therefore, compassion must be worked at, developed and practiced. Just look around you. Most of the serious problems that face our species (and many other species) can be attributed to our lack of compassion. In other words, an ignorant egocentric vision of life exacerbated by our toxic consumerist society, accelerated by social media, and poor education.  Compassion can be thought of as a move to the next level, a vital step for the survival and flourishing of our species (and many other species). Compassion is not a luxury but vital if we are to have a future.

Talking about the survival of species, all sounds a bit lofty and detached, so how does this translate to everyday life? We should act with an attitude of compassion toward all beings and relieve suffering wherever we can. “Hah!” you think. “That simply is not realistic; you don’t know my neighbour, my boss, my mother/father, my colleague.” Compassion starts with the idea that all beings want to be happy and free of suffering. Anyone who acts harmfully towards another does so from their own pain. Think of your own experience when your heart is at peace; you wish only the best for others. It is only when you are in pain that you act to inflict pain on others.

You might think, “Well, some people are just bad”. This is not the case. Imagine a child just one year old, full of wonder, curiosity, vulnerable and dependent. We were all that child once. Even that “bad” person in your life was once an innocent and happy baby.  What happened to make us or that person the adults we are now?  

When we look at life from this perspective, we realise that each of us is largely the result of our circumstances and experiences and how we responded to them. As a result, each of us lives in our own little “theatre production”. Most of the time things are not personal. For example, an angry person’s default position is anger. It might be with you right at this moment, but if it is not with you, it will be with someone else. In other words, it isn’t personal; that person is living in their own little theatre of hell.

What we can do for this person might be very limited or even zero, but at least will not add to their suffering by getting angry ourselves (also creating for ourselves needless, pointless suffering).

Compassion does not relieve anyone of responsibility for their actions. For example, being sent to jail for serous crime. Compassion means a focus on rehabilitation rather than on retribution. Countries that have adopted this approach have achieved outstanding positive results. (Norway is a good example.)

In a recent retreat people shared stories of how the kindness and compassion of another person had a profound impact on their lives. What became clear was that often the compassionate acts were simple but the effects were profound, often life-changing.

We all make a difference in this world whether we like it or not. Sometimes we will never get to see the difference we make. Acting with compassion means that we are more likely to make a good difference whether we get to see the results or not.

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