Compassion Is Our Innate Quality
Fossils show that about one million years ago our ancestors evolved into a species that looked after their old and diseased, as well as their young. This means that they were using caring motives in thoughtful and reflective ways, which is key to skillful compassion. However, the word “compassion” comes originally from the Latin word compati, which means “to suffer with.” This is not such a helpful definition because the key to compassion as we think of it today is not just suffering or even “suffering with,” but the motivation to relieve it and acquire the skills to do so. When we begin to look at the key qualities of compassion, science reveals a very hazy picture here.
In an effort to clarify the meaning of compassion, the American psychologist Jennifer Goetz and her colleagues recently attempted a major review of the meaning of the term “compassion” and its evolutionary origins and functions. Mostly, compassion is associated with words like “sympathy,” “empathy,” and “kindness.” Compassion has also been linked (quite incorrectly) to pity in some English dictionaries (and in some other languages as well), but compassion has nothing to do with pity, as this involves a sense of feeling sorry for and looking down on another person. So the word itself is tricky.
The simplest definition that emerges from traditional Buddhist thinking is compassion as “sensitivity to suffering in ourselves and others with a deep motivation and commitment to alleviate and prevent it.”
Two major thinkers in the area of compassion, Christina Feldman and Willem Kuyken, take into account Buddhist concepts of compassion as well as recent evolutionary thinking on compassion:
Compassion is the acknowledgment that not all pain can be “fixed” or “solved” but all suffering is made more approachable in a landscape of compassion.
Compassion is a multitextured response to pain, sorrow, and anguish. It includes kindness, empathy, generosity, and acceptance. The strands of courage, tolerance, and equanimity are equally woven into the cloth of compassion. Above all compassion is the capacity to be open to the reality of suffering and to aspire to its healing.
They then go on:
Compassion is an orientation of mind that recognizes pain and the universality of pain in human experience and the capacity to meet that pain with kindness, empathy, equanimity, and patience. While self-compassion orients to our own experience, compassion extends this orientation to others’ experience.
One of the symbols connected with compassion is that of a lotus flower growing out of the mud in a beautiful lake. According to the myth, the seed of compassion lies dormant beneath the mud of the lake. It may have lain there for an entire lifetime, completely hidden and ignored. It represents our capacity to transform our own lives and the lives of many others and have a huge impact on the world. The mud represents our darker side—all those difficult, troublesome desires and emotions that afflict us on a daily basis, such as anger, desire, jealousy, and pride. It also represents our tendencies toward selfishness and neurosis that limit and preoccupy us. This is the stuff that we may want to get rid of, but this is not so easy because these emotions are part of our evolved minds. The lake symbolizes the depths of the psyche and the surface of the lake, the boundary between our unconscious experience and our conscious lives.
Now, according to the myth, what activates the seed beneath the mud and starts the process of germination is the force of compassionate motivation, namely the wish to open our hearts to the suffering of ourselves and others, and to engage with this suffering. We need to be willing to go there to enable the seed to germinate. In fact, we can think of our minds as having many potential seeds that can be germinated by different social conditions and motives. We can grow the seeds of violence and tribal hatred, if we so choose. To do the opposite is our responsibility as human beings, as we wake up to the fact that our brains are much more malleable than we may have realized and we can make choices about what we want to cultivate in ourselves. In choosing to cultivate our compassionate selves, however, we begin the process of transforming our destructive emotions and, indeed, our lives.
In the beginning, perhaps all we might know is that we are suffering and that others are suffering too. But as soon as we choose to move toward the pain, not away from it, something is touched and begins to grow within us. According to the myth, the seedling of compassion, which is the lotus flower shoot, starts to sprout; and, as we continue to practice mindfulness and compassion, it grows and finally breaks the surface of the lake. Now, although it has grown out of the mud, at the point when it blooms and breaks the surface of the lake it is completely untainted by the mud, and symbolizes the mind that opens out to the world with love and compassion.
An important part of this myth is that the lotus flower cannot exist without the mud because the mud is the manure that feeds the plant and enables it to grow. Without suffering, there is nothing to be compassionate about. This allows us to step out of shame and avoidance and to see that the difficult parts of ourselves are the very manure of transformation; so we do not need to get rid of them (and nor can we), but we can acknowledge instead that they are a source of power. In this way we can see that the awakening of compassion can sometimes depend upon the dark and difficult parts of ourselves.
Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the mud is actually a source of gold. The so-called “negative” emotions of anger, anxiety, greed, and jealousy have their own innate wisdom energy. If we connect with this energy, then the emotion has the capacity to transform. For example, anger can propel us into negative images or even to lash out and hit someone who provokes our anger. But if we look at the anger directly, hold it within our awareness, and resist the pull toward action and projection, there is vitality and power within the emotion that can give us energy and clarity of mind. The wisdom aspect of anger is called mirror-like wisdom because it has the vividness and clarity to reflect what is arising within us, instead of being at the service of egocentric tendencies. It is like a bolt of lightning that lights up the night sky with vivid clarity. Similarly, in the case of desire, once the old-brain impulses of grasping and identification are held and understood, the energy of desire is freed up and reveals its essence to be the wisdom of discrimination, in which we are able to intelligently discriminate one thing from the next.
What is crucial here is our attitude—if we just mindlessly act out whatever anger or desirous impulses get triggered in us, they become mud; but if we look directly at these emotions and acknowledge their inner “gold,” then they have the capacity to transform and become the manure for the emerging lotus flower of compassion.
Consequently, compassion is born within the depths of our being. It arises as a deep stirring beneath the mud of our everyday mind. What stirs it is the force of motivation and commitment to engage with our pain and the pain of others. But while it is important to descend and make contact with the mud, it is also important to bear in mind that the key elements of compassion are the emotions of kindness and friendliness and the genuine desire to alleviate suffering. These arise from the sense that we are all in it together—and through acknowledging the links of affiliation to everything that lives.
Excerpt from the book “Mindful Compassion: how science of compassion can help you understand your emotions, live in the present, and connect deeply with others” by Paul Gilbert and Choden. New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2014.