What is compassion?

What is compassion?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014 - 9:23pm.

One of the most frequent questions people ask me at the corner is What’s YOUR definition of compassion? I figure since people know that I ask others about compassion, a curiosity arises as to what my definition is. My concept of compassion has changed over the years because as I continue to ask people, I allow the experience to shape what I believe compassion to be. Here is what it was on June 9th, 2009, soon after I first started:

An instant, reactive, indiscriminate thought or feeling that leads to understanding, accepting, then taking action in accordance with positive life forces inside or outside of your own in order to allow and/or assist that force with its basic needs to exist harmoniously—all done with the intent and energy of loving kindness.

In forming my current definition of compassion, I read through the nearly ten thousand entries logged in my notebooks. I studied scientific research on the subject and read the insights of past and contemporary spiritual leaders. The learning experience was profound and, through this process, my concept evolved. A dear, wise friend of mine suggested I keep my own definition simple, so I looked at ways to make it as concise as possible. I narrowed my definition down to a short, two-word phrase. I also included four elements that were present in many of the notebook entries I read.

At the moment, I believe compassion to be recognizing essence.Recognition brings what was once part of the unknown (or unconscious) into our present awareness. To recognize something, is to acknowledge its existence in a way we may not have noticed it before. Essence is the set of core characteristics that defines something or someone. When we open ourselves to recognizing the true essence of someone in need, we are more likely to be led to a compassionate act. For example, the essence of being human—one of our core characteristics—is the need for food. Recognizing that we all need food is likely to lead to the compassionate act of giving food to someone who needs it. Love is another part of being human. Recognizing that the essence of being human is the need for love is likely to lead to the compassionate act of giving love.

Compassion is an act that takes place between two entities. It can be a compassionate act between two people, it can be a person acting compassionately toward an animal, or it can be a person acting compassionately toward the planet. Compassion can even be an internal act between our dark side and our better nature—acting compassionate toward ourselves. Regardless, it requires an understanding of a person’s or an animal’s or the planet’s or even our own essence, and a willingness to bring that essence into our present-moment awareness.

Compassion consists of 4 components: listening, acknowledging, mutual understanding, and, most importantly, action. Compared to when I began this journey four years ago, I now know how to listen compassionately. I listen now without judging, without labeling, and without the need to always provide feedback. Many times at the corner, someone will approach and need to talk and all I have to say is “Hello” at the beginning of our encounter, and “Enjoy the rest of the day” at the end. They just need to be listened to. I’ve also learned to include acknowledgment as an act of compassion because I believe a person is more apt to share deeper sentiments if he/she receives acknowledgment and attention. Listening and acknowledging are closely related and complement each other when one is being present for another, essential for compassion.

I believe in mutual understanding before acting compassionately. Without a true understanding of the need beforehand, there may be unintended consequences. An example might be one’s preparation of a meal for another. If a person cooks a hamburger for a vegetarian, then the act of giving is for naught. One cannot presume he or she knows what is best for another; that can be perceived as arrogance or pity. It is important to first establish mutual understanding (exceptions to this might be an adult to a child, or saving someone who is unconscious). Compassion without mutual understanding may lead to an imbalance of power, or dependency. True compassion must be an act of respect for another; without that, compassion is nothing more than pity. Mutual understanding between parties provides for a richer act of compassion.

Once mutual understanding is in place, compassion requires action to move from the shores of belief into the ocean of reality. One must move beyond contemplation, analysis, stargazing, or ideology, and turn them into motion—creating an act that helps to alleviate suffering. A thought without action leads to stagnation. Compassion is action.

These are my thoughts at the moment on what I believe compassion to be. As always I welcome the ideas from others in continuing to learn about compassion. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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