Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What is Compassion?

Recently, a woman I met told me about her daughter who is living in South America. Her daughter is being threatened by a powerful crime family for setting up a business in their geographic area. The mother said, “I just told her, when the universe knocks you around it’s because you need to be knocked around. It’s to make you stronger for something coming down the road. You have to take it!”

I wanted to argue with the ideas implicit in her statements –that the universe is deliberately harsh and punishing, that human beings only learn and become strong from hardship and, by inference, that helping others might interfere with the difficulties they “need.” But I could feel my reactivity, and I was guessing this wasn’t about rational arguments. Eventually, as judgement gave way to inquiry, I wondered what had prompted the woman’s comment to her daughter. Was she distancing herself from her daughter’s difficult and dangerous situation? Was she trying to move away from her fear for her daughter? Maybe she’s afraid her worry will swallow her whole. Her daughter is a long way away. There’s little she can do to help her. Or maybe it’s how she’s made sense of the difficulties in her own life- by taking the meaning she’s made of her own hardships and turning it into the causal reason for why these difficulties were “needed.”

We all do what we can to cope with challenges, to lower our anxiety to a point where we can function (which is why James Hollis’ idea that maturity means increasing our capacity to tolerate anxiety is so challenging.) Compassion can be difficult because being with suffering often does increase our anxiety. It’s not just about being kind, although when we’re compassionate, kindness comes easily. It’s not about rescuing, although certainly being compassionate prompts us to offer what help we can when others are in need and we have something to offer.

Compassion comes from the Latin com- to be with, and passion- suffering. To be compassionate is to be with another’s or our own suffering. To be with suffering, to feel its raw edges, its jagged breathing, its sobbing gulps for air- this is hard. To hold ourselves or another, without words, without explanations or justification. To match our breath to the breath of the one who suffers beside us or within us. To sit close and rock as they rock because the movement soothes. That’s compassion, and that can be difficult, particularly when we love the one who is suffering.

I think of my own sons and how I would feel if they were thousands of miles away in a dangerous situation. And it’s almost too much to be with this woman or the many other mothers and fathers in the world whose sons and daughters are in danger, to allow myself to be touched by their anxiety, to have my anxiety for our children stirred, to understand why this woman might have made a response that sounded harsh to me.

I sit and imagine our hearts breathing together. This meditation does not replace offering practical help where I am able. Practical help can be compassion in action. Still, I think the "being with" helps too. I have faith that this willingness can ease the suffering a little.


  1. I love the word compassion, perhaps because it contains the word passion in it and that word leads me to the heart. Our open hearts allow us to sit with suffering, to feel it, and to ameliorate it with our deep love. Sitting together, our hearts breathing together, we find peace more readily because the power of our collection of our hearts compassion lightens the world, lessens the suffering. Thank you for the invitation to breath heartfelt compassion with one another.

  2. So interesting. I contemplated my answer to your post yesterday about how we have been effected by the Haiti tragedy. And felt pretty terrible all day over the honest answer to the question - which was that I have not been effected at all. If asked whether I am concerned or care, I could assuredly say "yes" but on an emotional level I just wasn't feeling anything. I was so embarrassed by what I considered a "socially unacceptable" response that I didn't post it.
    I spent the day conflicted because I desire to be honestly and authentically compassionate - but I'm not. This coming from someone who would most likely be described as "kind" by the people who know me. I was very disappointed in myself and, of course, spent plenty of time compiling all of my "reasons". But in the end they were all irrelevant.
    I don't know how to feel suffering I have never experienced. I avoid anxiety and suffering so I'm not sure how to open the door. I wrote in my journal yesterday that these are my brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers on this planet with me and I am so apologetic that I can't "feel" with them. And yet, I cry while writing this post because it makes me so sad!

    Is this something we can learn? Is it something we evolve into?

    Oriah, thanks again for the insight and the call for reflection. It's humbling!


  3. To know how to 'be with' or practice compassion is a challenge for me because I haven't learned to do it with and for myself very well. Thank you for the simple reminder of "breathe" and be with it.

  4. Robin, I deeply appreciate your honesty. Perhaps the place to begin (and we are always beginning) is, as Philomene suggests, with ourselves. Where do you judge yourself, beat yourself up? What happens if you sit with that judgement and wonder about the fear that drives it? And then. . . when the fear is clearer and you have softened your heart just a little to that fear, perhaps you can expand and feel how others share that same fear- and feel how that can cause suffering for them as well. It is a work in progress- but the starting point always has to be in honesty with ourselves- and in this you are shining today.

  5. thanks for this post, i've been struggling with my awekening and was moved to your site and of course the answer was there. my lesson now is learning compassion so what you said really hit a cord. thank you for your words, you have been such a great teacher in my journey and i am so grateful for your sharings/teachings and i am so inspired by your humility.

  6. When I was going through such a hard time with deaths 3 men (grandfather who raised me, father, other grandfather as well as my husband having surgery which brought up many other issues for me on top of the ones death brought a coworker was able to "be with me completely" I was so on edge feeling so many feelings and not sure what to do with them we went on a hike and talked about the river and life and being human and he was "with me completely" it was amazing to feel so "GOT" we had a few more hikes over last summer and each time he was "with me" he was able to listen and let me babble as it felt to me which enabled me to sort through so much I am SO GRATEFUL for that for him being able to do that for me but GUILTY that it was not my husband though he is an amazing man and by being honest (getting past my fear) with him telling him what I was able to get from my coworker and how much I needed him to help me sort through my thoughts and that I really appreciated what I had with my husband and loved him and also wanted what he was able to give me it was just that he was not in the space to give me what my coworker could my husband and I worked out some issues and connected more- then i found a book about emotional affairs and panicked again but I really really reaaly looked at what I want and I want to be with my husband and I want to be able to learn from my coworker how to "be with people " I really feel my coworker is helping me on my path and I really feel in my heart I can love my husband and be with him and still stay friends with my coworker. I can only hope I am right. I am compassionate towards my husband and how difficult it is for him for me to continue this friendship and sit with his discomfort and so far we are making it work. I love him very much. He is amazing. I have two coworkers who justlost pets and was able to "sit with one of them" let them feel thier pain and not try to stop it or fix it they were very grateful it is so hard to do but so soo what people need I belive

  7. robin I share your feelings I dont watch news but my grandmother sits in front of the TV all day and shares the stories and I hear them at work. I have not felt as much as I think I should feel. I have often wondered this same thing when I am saddened to tears and deep grief for my pets when they die but when I see a animal on the side of the road I am sad yes but the intensity is not there. When it is far away some how it is too easy to not feel attached. I dont like this it goes against what I want so desperately to believe- that we are all connected --how can I believe that when I feel differently for different people

  8. Thank you, Robin, for your honesty. With the Haiti catastrophe, I have the problem that I can't stand any more all the reports on TV. I see all the misery and I am upset by the helplessness of the organisations. All the good food waiting there that cannot be distributed, the starving people, and now another earthquake destroying what had endured the first one. I turn down the radio when it is news time, and I switch on the TV set somewhat later to miss the Haiti news that come first. I am ashamed of myself, but I have to care for myself. I have given some money and I can't do anything more from my place. I just have to sit and pray and try not to think why such desasters are occurring, because there is no answer that gives a quick solution.

  9. No human being will experience each and every kind of suffering and anxiety that humankind has endured since the beginning. Yet firsthand experience is not a requisit for compassion, but rather being present and being there "with" the suffereing person either face to face or in spirit. Learning to travel along the journey with others, and ourselves, is just like living; it is a lifelong journey indeed.

    Thanks Oriah and others who have been so open in their comments.

  10. For me the biggest part is learning to live knowing that I cannot be the savior, that I need to surrender. I still have that going where I want to do it all, be the one that can solve everything. Just being with someone in pain (especially a loved one), and being a sounding board, a company, is difficult, yet, I realize, the most effective way to actually help sometimes.

    I feel for this woman, that is a difficult situation.

    So glad you are blogging Oriah :)

  11. Such great reflections on where we do or do not "feel" compassion. In the medicine wheel teachings I use compassion is actually not a feeling, it's a state of consciousness, an awareness that on some level every other is another myself, mirroring our common human journey. We, quite naturally, feel a common link with some suffering and not as much with others, determined in part by the nature of the suffering, our own experience and our own lives at the moment. In the story I told I spent time finding a way to connect on a feeling level to the woman's statement to her daughter not because I didn't feel anything but because I felt judgemental. Healthy compassion doesn't negate boundaries. While I may sit with a friend who has lost a parent, and even relate to this if my parent has died (or is close to death) my friend's experience of loss is hers, not mine- and I am not likely to be helpful if that boundary blurs. So where we do not "feel" it, it may be enough just to remember that we are all in the same soup so to speak,and to give what we attention we can. I may do a prayer for the Haitians in the morning, not feeling very connected to their suffering at the moment- and then, encounter someone who has a more personal connection to the devastation there later in my day and simply listen to them with an open heart. This is compassion.

  12. We live in a world of mass global communication where we have access to events throughout the world, sometimes as they are happening. It is often overwhelming to me to learn of such events ether in the country in which I live or in anoher. Only when I can put a face, a voice, or a personal story to an event can I feel something deep inside open to their suffering.
    I remember that when 9/11 occurred I was numb without feeling for a couple of days, then one evening on the news I heard a story of a woman who had lost her husband, and I finally was able to experience the emotions that allowed me to acknowledge the compassion that had been there all along.
    However, when it comes to a specific event I wonder if we do not express compassion because of fear, fear from a past experience that causes us to distance ourselves, or fear that something may be required of us.
    I agree that compassion is not an emotion but experiencing it can open up many emotions. It does not always call us to action, but often moves us to involvement. However, I think the times when we can only sit with this awareness is the most difficult.
    Perhaps the mother in the story that Oriah told felt she was powerless to do so she refused to be.
    One my favorite books is about a simple woman who lived in the southwestern United States a generation before me. She had a deep awareness of the connection to the earth and people. She said believed that everything around us "...take into themselves what we give off and give it out again."

  13. I love this..."be with" is crucial in so many areas of our lives and especially in suffering. So often we're encouraged to "rise above" and "be strong" when the truest strength is to simply be with our suffering (and those of others) with courage - the kind of courage that wants to learn, that comforts, that does not deny the range of emotions and doubts involved in our suffering, the kind of courage that does not insist on a denial of the very fact of our suffering. It gives us the strength to find a level of grace we would not otherwise experience. Thank you for this profound reminder. Your words are such strength to my world.

  14. God is spoken of as the "Father of compassion" and the "God of all comfort" I believe that part of our humaness is to forsake our own desires and to act compassionately towards others, particularly those in need or distress. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a good exaple of compassion.I beleive compassion can also just to be with someone in their sorrow, despair, greiving...etc.
    For example in my own life if someone is feeling sad...the best I can do is usually to give them a hug to let them know I care and to let them express their sadness. It amazing what a hug can do to make us feel loved and accepted....Denise