Compassion - The Critical Skill Necessary to Save Lives

By Teresa Cowan Jones, January 2015 (this is an article Teresa wrote after a mass shooting)
Image by James Chan from Pixabay

HandsLooking deeply into the conflict, inequity, violence and war that pervade our shared world, from Ferguson to Pakistan to Paris, we can see the inability to understand — and feel with — the one seen as “other.” The inability to recognize the suffering of others and our common human nature underlies violence and precludes the respect for human life, especially in the heat of conflict. Whether it’s white officers and black men, Taliban extremists and Pakistani schoolchildren, or religious extremists and satirical journalists — the honed skill of compassion would have saved lives.

It has become necessary to collectively understand the nature of compassion, the critical role it plays in sustainability, and methods of cultivating this vital aptitude. 

Charles Darwin is hardly known for his work on compassion as an evolutionary skill, yet there it is, squarely critical in the fourth chapter of his Descent of Man as both an instinctual and adaptive capacity. He thought compassion was the highest moral achievement, required for society to continue, and that it could unfold to include “all sentient beings.”

Compassion could be the most important human capacity contributing to the sustainability of our planet.

To grasp this deceptively simple concept, it is critical that we abandon any romantic notion of the word compassion and recognize it as the awareness of another’s suffering and the will to act to relieve that suffering, according to Stanford University’s Center for Altruism and Compassion and Emory University’s Center for Compassion Research .

Understood in this way, it can also be recognized as a meta-skill, a primal capacity that enables us to use our other skills. For instance, if we are compassionate, we are thereby enabled to adopt another’s point of view, behave in a civil manner and treat others with empathy and respect.

The power of compassion can be understood when we look at the current research on its personal benefits, which is more than compelling- it can be downright invigorating and hopeful.

Personal benefits include greater happiness, health and even longevity. Because compassion lowers stress hormones that can overwhelm the thinking brain, compassion allows us to make better decisions and take constructive action, which can override the “fight or flight” impulse in the heat of the moment.

Given this evidence of its import, how do we build the capacity for compassion?

While it is commonly thought to be a matter of sheer volition and willpower, compassion is actually a capacity that is developed like any other- through practice, particularly contemplative practices.

Such reflective practices are no longer only the sole purview of religion, although all wisdom traditions have taught contemplative practices for millennia. Science has now caught up with spiritual truth, or at least the connection between these two spheres of inquiry has become more obvious.

Thanks to the evolution of brain scan technology and peer-reviewed research articles in the last decade, we now know much more about the steadying effect of contemplation on the brain.

Perhaps this is why it has been shown in research that meditation lowers the rate of violent crimes in the geographic area of the meditators and decreases substance addiction and rate of recidivism in prison populations.

Perhaps future research will show that it is the consciousness created by contemplative practice to which Einstein was referring when he suggested that a different consciousness was needed to solve modern challenges.

We can all walk this path of compassion together. The first step is to drop the idea that compassion is simply a warm, fuzzy feeling that can be willed into being by the sheer power of volition and at best leads to charity or pity. Let’s recognize its robust power as an innate human capacity that can be developed with intentional, contemplative practice over time.

Join Teresa for her Course that starts August 26. Learn more and register here: Where (and how) the Compassion Movement Gathers: Creating Sacred Space in Local Communities to nurture the heart

Teresa Jones
Teresa Cowan Jones, M.Div., is an executive and life coach, the Executive Director of the Breakthrough Leadership Institute and a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. Co-founder of Sacred Space, she is also an ordained minister who upholds the vision of spiritual capital driving social change. She can be reached at .

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