What is compassion?

Compassion, as a spiritual virtue, is something I’ve only ever aspired to, and not with much hope of being able to achieve it. As a spiritual concept, it comes up in many religions – Hindu, Jain and Buddhist thinking explores compassion as something to practice, while Judaism, Christianity and Islam tend to see it as the territory of God. Either way, it’s not easy work.

Compassion comes from the person feeling it. There are no transactions here, no earning the right to be treated compassionately. To be truly compassionate is not to judge. I tend to judge. It means what I do is better framed as kindness, or sympathy because it is partial and I know I cannot extend it to everyone. How you manifest your compassion may well depend on judgement, but the initial recognition of a fellow suffering human does not.

I would like to be able to see everyone as containing a sacred spark, as equally worthy, as all deserving love and compassion. I’ve thought about what kinds of qualities I would need to develop to move towards this state of being. It calls for a vast capacity to love and accept and to recognise our shared condition even in people who do the worst things. I feel very strongly that as soon as we’re talking about the limits of compassion, we aren’t actually talking about compassion any more.

As someone who isn’t compassionate, I am able and inclined to get angry about how I see this term used in some quarters. It is a popular word with people who wish to be seen as spiritual. Too easily, it becomes a demand for other people to appease them. Why are you not treating me with more compassion? It’s an easy knockback if, for example, you’ve just been called out for something. It tends to be people with privilege in the first place who feel entitled to demand compassion from others. It also tends to be people with privilege who practice compassion towards themselves – especially when someone has asked them to do something difficult, uncomfortable or otherwise unappealing to them. I can’t help you right now, I am practicing compassion towards myself.

Compassion towards self is such an attractive mask to slide over the face of total selfishness. It’s the mask that proclaims virtue while hiding the least attractive and least spiritual motives. These are people I usually fail to find compassion for.

I think compassion is something to aspire to. In the meantime, empathy is a good thing to try and develop. Sympathy can run too close to pity, but when we empathise we start to see how we could have ended up in the same place. How easy it is to fall through the gaps, or be led astray, or let the least helpful part of yourself grab the steering wheel. When we can see that we all have the scope to do both wonderful and terrible things, it is easier, I suspect, to cultivate compassion. Those times when we can’t do it will be able to teach us a lot about who and how we are, and what we fear in ourselves. It’s not people who have evolved beyond their worst impulses who may be best able to practice compassion. It may well be the people who have faced their own darkness so that they do not have to fear it in others. I’m not at all sure, but I think it’s worth pondering.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

4 responses to “What is compassion?

  • rpatrick

    Compassion is a perennial topic for me as well. Here’s my take, which is a sort of response to your “aspiring to” compassion. The older I get, the more I seem to notice this inner contrast as me as a human (and I think others as humans). We CLEARLY are hard wired for tribal identity and defense. Whatever “tribes” you identify with, we seem to be hardwired to get into defense mode in a fraction of a second if the tribe is attacked.

    But, we seem to also be hardwired for things that tend toward compassion: empathy, sympathy, tenderness, the ability to extend grace where it is otherwise not warranted, and so on. Sometimes they are in conflict. And this is where age might be a friend: we seem to be able to transcend the walls that tribalism creates and begin to see that “those guys over there” are a lot like “us.” Then, it’s easier to extend grace. It’s easier to act in compassion without–as you well note–judgments and conditions.

    I am grateful for your post today. It’s given me much to ponder.

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