Compassion is one of the qualities that draws people to Buddhism. The wish to free others from suffering, is how the texts define it. Compassion is a heartfelt outflowing of loving kindness, a phrase constantly used by the Dalai Lama to describe the essence of Buddhist teachings.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Tibetan Buddhist group I belong to here in Perth, Australia, as well as those I know in other parts of the world, attract many people from the caring professions. There’s always a disproportionate number of doctors, nurses, vets, physiotherapists, acupuncturists, and psychologists, as well as teachers, HR professionals and advocates for the vulnerable, human or animal. I remember one meditation retreat I went on, of the 40 or so people attending, 15 were psychologists or worked in some aspect of mental health care. Hardly representative of the overall population!
In any such group, there’s a question which almost inevitably arises: how do you cope, trying to help those who are enduring intense suffering, without being overwhelmed yourself? If you’re working day after day with severely disabled people who will never get better, taking care of an elderly parent with dementia, or in an animal refuge dealing with a never-ending stream of frightened and abused animals, how do you stay mentally afloat?
On a recent retreat at our Buddhist centre, over the lunch table a therapist told us how she’d confided, to a visiting lama, her fears about burn out. The distress she encountered, day in day out, had been leading her to a state of overwhelming hopelessness. How was it possible, she asked, to wade through so much sadness without drowning?
His answer had surprised her. With a twinkle in his eye he had advised her to be like a garbage bin. Let people off-load all their misery and unhappiness, he said. Then as soon as they go, unfasten the bottom of the garbage bin and let it all fall out.
She initially thought that sounded almost callous. Like you didn’t really care. But as she reflected on the advice, it began to make more sense.
Here it’s helpful to consider the three terms, sympathy, empathy and compassion. These words are sometimes described as close cousins, but their meanings are quite different. Sympathy is when you understand what someone else is feeling. Empathy is when you feel as they do. Compassion is your willingness to relieve their suffering.
The distinction between empathy and compassion, in particular, may not be a subject we’ve thought about very much. I hadn’t until recently. But it’s well worth pausing to, because the more we consider the two, the clearer we perceive the profound difference. And if, like the therapist, we are at risk of empathetic distress, the more self-evident our route to freedom becomes.
Empathy is what happens when we experience another person’s emotions as if they were our own. When they feel relief, joy or elation, we do too. When they feel depressed, ditto. Neuroscientists tell us that, with empathy, the same parts of our brain are activated as if we were going through the same thing as the other person. Their feelings become ours.
Is it any surprise that if we’re surrounded by the chronically miserable, desperate, or anxious, as empaths we are going to suffer from their torment? But in so doing, we face exhaustion, maybe the impulse to flee, and ultimately perhaps even to lash out at the source of our vicariously induced distress.
Compassion, by contrast, comes from a very different place. Our wish to help the other person is motivated by love, which in Buddhism is defined as the wish to give happiness to others. We understand their suffering because we have suffered too. And based on that empathetic foundation, our wish is to help them get out of their pit, to whatever extent that may be possible. We are not taking on their pain as our own. In fact our experience of reality is ideally one of boundless peace and wellbeing.
As benevolent and calmly objective carers, we can offer far more than if we are caught up in empathetic emotion. Interestingly, this is something that seems to come with medical training. I have no doubt that the medics and psychs who come to our Buddhist centre are compassionate people, but I also know from observation over the years that, in a crisis, they keep their heads. The ability of someone to emote is quite different from their ability to take compassionate action. Emoting may very well be an obstacle!
Neuroscience shows that very different networks of the brain are activated when we focus on the wish to benefit someone else, versus empathising with their suffering. Ground-breaking work by Dr. Richard J. Davison of the University of Wisconsin-Madison using an fMRI machine, showed that when we focus our compassionate attention on the wellbeing of others, we ourselves are likely to experience a state of profound wellbeing.
Two caring people, in other words, may be working in similar circumstances helping others, and while one of them faces despair and exhaustion, the other thrives. The difference could be empathy versus compassion. So, how to shift gears from one to the other?
Self-awareness lies at the heart of this paradox. Simply becoming clear about the difference between empathy, compassion, and how they function, can help us reflect on our own mind management if we feel overwhelmed.
Mindfulness, that time-honoured Buddhist practice, is another helpful tool. In a calm and reflective state we may have decided to practice compassion rather than empathy, but back in the real world it’s all too easy for our good intentions to evaporate into irrelevance as well-worn mental habits take hold. By cultivating mindfulness of our own thoughts, which I sometimes think of as ‘the lama in my mind,’ we have a better chance of catching ourselves before we’ve spent too long in a state of unchecked empathy and shifting instead to a place of compassion.
The basis of all healing – wholeness - of mind and body is meditation. The better acquainted we are with the true nature of our own mind, the more we identify with that, rather than the thoughts and emotions constantly passing through it. In such a state, not only do love and compassion arise quite effortlessly, so too does peace, clarity and insight. We have let go of our usual sense of self, and see all things for the temporary, subjective and illusion-like phenomena that they really are.
For me, one of the most inspiring aspects of Tibetan Buddhism is that in addition to insights and practices, we also live in the presence of those who embody such wisdoms. I am often struck by the fact that the Dalai Lama was forced to flee into exile from Tibet in 1959 as a young man, narrowly evading capture by the ruthless Red Army who were pursuing him. In the name of the Cultural Revolution, ninety percent of all Tibet’s monasteries and nunneries were destroyed, their residents murdered, treasured libraries burned to the ground, and genocide inflicted on the Tibetan people.
His Holiness has been able to do little about all this, besides raising international awareness for the Tibetan cause and caring for his people from neighbouring India. Committed to meeting all Tibetans who successfully flee through the forbidding mountains to freedom, he continues to be deeply moved by the tragic stories of loss and disaster suffered by his people. This has been his ongoing experience for the past sixty years.
If there were ever causes for a person to feel defeat, despair and empathetic distress, it would be these. And yet that is self-evidently not the case. Rather, His Holiness is a beacon of hope and inspiration to millions of people, whatever their religion or lack of one. Such is his power to communicate benevolent compassion that even in a crowded sports arena of tens of thousands of people, a heartfelt response may be felt even by those in the furthest back stalls.
While never undervaluing the importance of sympathy or empathy, our true power to help others arises from compassion. As the Dalai Lama shows, even in the midst of hopelessness and horror, it is possible to live with lightness, humour and benevolent wellbeing.
When we are familiar with the true nature of our consciousness as boundless and peaceful, we may feel a more heartfelt resonance with that ultimate statement of compassion, expressed by Shantideva with such transcendent beauty:
For as long as space endures
And for as long as living beings remain
Until then may I, too, abide
To dispel the misery of the world.
(From: A Guide to the Bodhisattava’s Way of Life)
I discovered a very helpful seven minute video on the difference between empathy on compassion on BBC reels. I highly recommend it. You can watch it here.
Quite separately, the Jamyang London Buddhist Centre is launching an e-Learning program this month, with a course on the intersection between Buddhism and Quantum Science. If this is a subject that intrigues you, find out more and watch a short trailer about it here.
Interesting. So the emptying the garbage can seems to be part of or practice for letting go, as we need to when our time comes and the ground luminosity dawns! If we can’t let go of other people’s problems in this life, what chance do we have of abandoning our old habits and moving towards enlightenment when the brief opportunity is afforded us as we move between bardos!
Thank you, again, David -- you’ve hit upon life themes that totally ring bells for me! No surprise. It better be that way in this dance we create together!
I was fortunate to grow up with parents who strive to live loving kindness with head-heart-hands. And for my mom, a “deep thinker”, sympathy-empathy, the overt and subtle differences in theory and practice were a Life consideration. So, in the last weeks of her life when asked what she had determined was the “most important”, she responded: to try always to act out of love -- “...and, oh, just to be kind!”
For twenty years I had the personally deeply affecting opportunity to share /“teach” “The Etiquette of Kindness” with @3-9th grade students in public and private schools -- always as a gift from me to them as far as monetary considerations, but each encounter was pure Gift to me.
With considerations always if adapting according to age, one of the things that I adored bringing was the entomology/morphology of key words we use in our relationships with others, especially “com-passion”, “com-munity”, “com-municate”... all the ways we express our relationships to “Other”. Vitality and continuum of “I-Thou” with “the magic” happening in the “empty” space between, where love happens. No matter the ages and the variations I witnessed the students being affirmed & catching fire with joy. Humbling and moving for me, that’s for sure.
So! It all continues. Here you (& HHC!) are, giving from your heart and meditations...from your teachers and gurus...simply, kindly helping me and others on our way in the principle of Clear Light. No matter the details of time-place-individuals...I consider it a dance of loving kindness and gratitude. Gassho.