Why Compassion?

We talk a lot about compassion here at the Society. It’s even in our motto, “Happiness through compassion, reason, and practice.” Talking about compassion will generally get you positive response – everyone likes compassion. It sounds really nice. But there are some important things about compassion in a spiritual practice that get missed. One friend recently said she was in favor of being more compassionate and a more compassionate world, but didn’t understand what I meant by saying that compassion is the foundation of a spiritual practice or enlightenment. She wasn’t sure if that was really so.

That is, in fact, the case I have made – that compassion is not just a nice bit of icing on the cake. It is foundational to spiritual practice in the sense that it is at the core of all efforts to become wiser, to flourish, and to be more conscious. In short, compassion is not just something enlightened people will tend to be. Compassion is the key to enlightenment. I will try to explain why.

First it is important to describe what I mean by the word. Philosophies and traditions often use terms in ways that are more specific than the general or common usage of those same words. People generally think of compassion as “being nice” or “feeling empathy” for others, and possibly include the notion of acting to help others.

I’d like to invite you to unlearn a bit. Let’s wipe the slate clean of preconceptions about compassion for a moment. Let’s put away all notions of compassion as some kind of gushy feel-good or emotional outpouring. Even our own motto, separately mentioning “reason” and “compassion” may give the false impression of them as dual or two sides to a coin.

Now let’s think about wisdom. Wisdom is more than knowledge. It includes the attunement of our character, responses, and habits (our being) to the deeper realities of the world. This is a kind of knowledge that incorporates our feelings. Feelings are not emotions per se, but a wider group of motivating responses. Merely knowing something is one thing. But feeling the truth of it is a way of making it intuitive. It is the difference between reading about how to ride a bicycle and the visceral experience of riding, getting your balance, building muscle memory, and feeling first hand what the book describes. This is of what wisdom consists, but applied to life. It is this “skillful means” in facing the challenges of the world and our lives which many ancient practices, East and West, seek to help us develop.

How, then, do we move from mere teaching or intellect, to the intuitive? Inner transformation of this kind is not only possible, but extremely powerful. One way is through practice. That is, engaging in experiential events that develop habits of thought, widen our perspectives, keep reminding us of wisdom teachings, and so on. These can be elaborate multi-sensory rituals, art forms, or little simple things.

Now, when we look at the ‘wisdom teachings’ in those traditions where there is a great degree of useful insights relevant to naturalists, we see some common themes. Often, they seek to remind us of the things we overlook or forget about the world. We forget things like “what is in our control and what is not”. When asked, we can tell you, but we don’t actually think and feel that it is so. As such, our inner responses, emotions, and actions don’t therefore produce wise output naturally and without effort. That is something we can mold over time.

Other examples include forgetting about how interconnected and entangled people and events can be to one another; how things that seem permanent are not; how fleeting the present moment is; how short life is; and so on. Again, it all seems rudimentary when you think about it, but the vast majority of humans do not actually live as though these things are true. We therefore worry about things we can’t affect. Or, we are concerned about what people think about us without realizing how what seems like a lack of confidence can actually be focusing too much on self. These are just a few select examples, each of which may or may not apply to any given person.

But getting a very internalized, intuitive, grasp on this whole life thing is at the core of such practice. And, by “this whole life thing”, I mean that vast tapestry of causally interconnected, interdependent, ever-changing, impermanent, system. As we get to know it and feel the balance of it in our hands, put our feet on the pedals, and learn to trust our balance, real motion begins.

Now back to compassion.

The etymology of the word from Latin is, strictly speaking, “co-suffering”. But more broadly it means “feeling for another” or feeling as someone else feels. It is a kind of perception, or keen awareness to subtleties, but in human beings. To lack this would be somewhat analogous to autism. Imagine an autistic person who may have trouble intuitively grasping the facial expressions and emotions of others. Many such people learn over time to adapt. They have to remember to look at the face and then translate in their minds what different movements mean. Some become very functional, but internally it is somewhat like when we learn to speak a language and we are still translating in our head before speaking the words.

Feeling is not wishy-washy emotionalism or sentimentality. It is honing, over time, our perception and natural inclination to respond to the stimulus of others as though it were our own. What we are really doing is intuitively internalizing the truth – that we are all interconnected and affect one another in vast, complex, and subtle ways. The more that truth works its way into our consciousness, the more our perspectives shift, our value judgments evolve, and our impulses to action change. This is how we begin to migrate beyond the cage of our tiny confining ego.

To know we are all connected is intellect. But to feel it and to naturally think of and respond to the world in that way requires a deeper kind of shift. How we respond emotionally to our own needs and concerns become less and less divided from how we respond emotionally to those of all beings.

As a completely separate matter, such a perceptive person may indeed become emotionally crippled as the suffering of others becomes too much. But the world doesn’t need our sobbing – it needs our sober help. This is why such empathy must be matched with the ability deeply understand the source of pathos, be able to watch unconscious micro-judgments arise, and recognize how misjudgments lead to unhealthy emotion. This single paragraph will have to suffice here, but is another topic in its own right. Suffice it to say, as we get better at having wise and healthy emotional responses, that skill will work both for ourselves and on behalf of those who enter into the category of our expanded self.

But the important part is that, as we learn to balance and learn to go further and further, we literally raise our consciousness – we become more conscious of subtle truths about the world. This is why wisdom, understanding, enlightenment, and compassion are all intricately interlinked and necessarily include that enveloping and growing identification of self with the larger community and the cosmos with which it is interdependent. As we make that journey, the outward actions of compassion become less like a ‘do-gooder checklist’ or ethical prescription. They instead appear more and more to us as simply the only natural and sane response. There is great flourishing and joy on such a journey of connection because it includes the shedding away of so many sources of our own internal strife. This too is compassion.


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2 thoughts on “Why Compassion?”

  1. If compassion is truly foundational to the ethical and spiritual life
    then it must be applicable in all cases and we should be able to infer
    prescriptions for action from it. In the parable of the Good Samaritan
    the traveller is vulnerable and in need and the Samaritan is in a
    position to help him as he is not vulnerable himself and he has resources
    to help. This is the paradigm case of compassion… one is in need and the
    other has the power and resources to assist. Compassion does not therefore
    apply to all ethical problems. For instance, what sense would it make to
    talk about a slave being compassionate towards his owner, or a soldier
    compassionate to his enemy. Compassion is an important value but there
    are other equally important values like fairness, rights, justice, truth.
    Moral and spiritual life cannot be boiled down to a single value.

  2. Hi Rob! 🙂
    I would agree that we can’t ignore or ‘boil down’ anything, removing attention to important values. As you suggest, these must be balanced against one another. But that is a different thing than noting a hierarchical or logical structure behind how these values come about and upon what prior principles they are based. When we ask, why are rights or justice or truth important, I would submit that if we didn’t have concern for others they would not be.

    Also, very importantly. I do not mean compassion as an outward action. “Being compassionate” doesn’t mean simply “being nice to” or “refraining from acting against” etc. It is an inward disposition – one that can be maintained even if it is necessary to act against the object of your compassion. A soldier may need to kill a combatant, or a person may need to harm someone to protect an innocent. But the difference of whether they do it with glee and bloodlust, or as a solemn act despite their care for those they act against, is incredibly significant. It impacts the kinds of mental habits one cultivates, which will affect flourishing.

    One of the reasons MLK was so important and effective, is because he is not merely a black hero. He is a hero to all of humanity, including whites. He would constantly refer to the harm that racists do to themselves in their hatred, and his hope was that one day they would be free of that self-inflicted suffering. He understood that vicious behavior harms the doer. His compassion for even his oppressor was not only possible, but an important component in being effective. So, I think int he most enlightened sense, there is no case that does not call for compassion – even if it may also call for very vigorous aggressive outward action.


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