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What is compassion?

Compassion is not about excusing bad behavior or being able to fix all the problems in the world.

Compassion unfolds in response to distress, pain or suffering. Suffering here refers to anything that doesn’t feel “right”. For example, anything that feels uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult, uneasy. Clearly, body and mental pain cause suffering, but things in our daily life also can bring a sense of dissatisfaction, distress, grief, misery.For example, we suffer when we’re stuck in traffic, having a difficult exchange with someone or feeling tired and depleted. Therefore, compassion is something we can apply in our daily lives.

Compassion begins with the recognition of suffering, which gives rise to feelings of concern and empathy. This, in turn, motivates the willingness to take action to relieve that suffering. At different times, and in different situations, different parts of this process (awareness, feelings, empathy, action) may be most available and/or most skillful.

Compassion is not the same as empathy, altruism or pity.

Through empathy, we may come to understand or feel moved by the emotions of another person, not only suffering or sorrow, but also cheerfulness, pride or anger. In contrast, compassion is a specific response to suffering and involves wanting to alleviate this suffering.

Altruism can be prompted by feelings of compassion, but can also originate from wanting to mitigate guilt or out of a sense of obligation or as a means to getting social recognition.

And finally, compassion is not the same as pity. Although the dictionary defines pity as a synonym of compassion, pity is in general felt as derogatory, people don’t like to be pitied. When we pity someone we stand in a position of superiority looking mercifully down at them, regarding them as inferior and/or weak. As such, they are undeserving of any wish or effort to alleviate or mitigate their suffering.