DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

7May/10Off

Self-Help and Selfishness, Part 4: A Postscript On Compassion

In the interest of clarity, I want to add a brief note summarizing what I'm saying in this series.

I believe there are two basic ways to think about compassion.  The first is to see it as a way of acting.  If you take certain actions in the world, in other words, that makes you a compassionate person.

People, of course, have vastly different ideas about which behaviors are compassionate and which aren't.  Some think of compassion in terms of individual acts, such as giving to a person begging on the street.  To others, compassion has more to do with a certain distribution of resources in society -- if we work toward a nation where people have roughly equal incomes, perhaps, we are compassionate people.

The second way of thinking about compassion is to see it as an emotion, or a sensation we experience in the body.  For me, when I am feeling compassion, I experience a warm, open sensation in my heart area.  Some might describe this in more mystical terms as a sense of "union with all that is."

Most People See It As A Behavior

It seems clear that, in Western culture at least, people usually take the first perspective -- that you are compassionate so long as you behave a certain way.  It doesn't matter how you feel while you are doing the act.  If you give to a charity, but only so that your name appears on the charity's website, you are being compassionate nonetheless.

I think this perspective is one reason why, in the West, we don't tend to see practices for cultivating a felt sense of compassion as particularly important.  Why bother doing practices like Buddhist loving-kindness meditation, we might think, when we can go into the world and actually help people?

I think the trouble with this perspective is that it renders the concept of compassion vulnerable to abuse.  It enables people who don't actually experience the felt sense of compassion to use the ideal of compassion as a weapon against others, for personal gain.

The Consequences

Look at typical political debates, for example.  Each side accuses the other, in venomous and belittling terms, of lacking compassion, honesty, morality and so on.  Ask yourself:  would they make such accusations against each other if they actually experienced compassion as a feeling -- that sense of warmth and openness in the heart I described?

On a larger scale, many political and religious ideologies have claimed to be rooted in compassion.  Christianity is said to be based on the compassionate teachings of Jesus.  Marx claimed that communism was a compassionate political philosophy.  And yet, of course, people have committed atrocities in the name of both worldviews.

Would these abuses have occurred if the people responsible had genuinely experienced the feeling of compassion, rather than simply believing in the abstract ideal?  (I don't mean to pick on Christianity or communism per se -- I think any doctrine or philosophy, in the hands of someone who isn't actually feeling compassion, can be used to justify destructive behavior.)

In other words, when we're in touch with the felt sense of compassion -- not just the philosophical abstraction -- we become far less inclined to hurt others.  This is why I think practices that help us actually experience the sensation of compassion are so important.

There are many practices aimed at this, and different approaches work better for different people.  In my own case, I know that heart-opening exercises in yoga are particularly helpful.  But the point is that these practices, far from being forms of "woo-woo navel gazing," are actually key to creating the kind of world many of us desire.

Other Posts In This Series: