If you could name one thing (a being, person, animal, place, memory, vision, energy), that embodies what compassion means to you, what would it be?
Research around compassion and the effects of compassion in personal and professional environments is a relatively new area. Compassion is often paired and partnered with other words and meanings, for example:
Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor, Educational Psychology Dept., University of Texas at Austin, has conducted extensive research on compassion (her work can be explored in further detail here), fundamentally defining compassion into three elements:
- Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment
- Common humanity vs. Isolation
- Mindfulness vs. Over-identification
But what is compassion in its entirety, in it’s own essence, feeling and understanding? What defines the energy of compassion?
What Is Compassion, Actually?
It’s interesting to look at the definition of compassion in both Eastern and Western cultures to gather a broader view on the meaning of compassion in different settings.
Western Dictionary Definitions of Compassion:
sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it
a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them
Compassion is a feeling of pity, sympathy, and understanding for someone who is suffering
a strong feeling of sympathy for people or animals who are suffering and a desire to help them
In all of these dictionary references, the word compassion is a noun. And, in all these definitions, compassion is directed outwards towards something other than oneself.
Eastern Definitions of Compassion
“Compassion is a verb”
- Tich Naht Hanh
(Further reading on his compassion practice here)
“Compassion is actually quite a common occurrence in human beings. You don’t have to look very far for it — that feeling that you love something or someone in such a way that your sense of your own well-being is transcended.”
(You can watch his talk on compassion here)
“Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.”
(More on Buddist teachings from the Dalai Lama here)
In these Eastern teaching definitions, compassion is defined in an objective way and addresses compassion to more than others or having compassion for someone or something else.
Considering What Compassion Means To You
Considering the existing understandings of compassion, we can start to re-think the meaning and find our own understanding that we can integrate into our lives from a deeper awareness of what compassion looks and feels like for ourselves.
Compassion as a state of being, a state of awareness, holds a very special moment for an individual, humanity and the earth simultaneously. It might be that when you are compassionate towards one of these three, the other two are also touched with this same state of being.
A Practice of Compassion In Daily Life
Whether compassion is a noun or a verb, whether it’s something you are, or how you act, compassion is found in the moments after receiving and before reacting, to yourself or to something else. To choose compassion in any situation creates an opportunity to learn, heal and connect with yourself, others or the environment and world around you.
Compassionate perspectives, states or acts in daily life could be considered in a why, what and how method. This enables a simple framework and practice when we feel we are in need of compassion, or wish to invite in compassion:
1. WHY: Look Past The Words And Into The Emotion
Holding compassion in a situation requires an understanding of why a situation has occurred or is being experienced. The story of what has happened is the narrative, but the root of the triggers exist within the emotions that come up within the experience, not the words themselves.
One way to practice this is to look at what emotions are present – for example fear, anger or grief, and look towards these emotions with acceptance and awareness without placing judgment within the words or narrative of the story.
2. WHAT: Consider a Birds-Eye-View Perspective
Inviting compassion into any situation unconditionally asks us to shift our perspective so we see all the moving parts of what is happening at the same time without attaching any judgement or single perspectives. To instill compassion into the whole moment, it requires us to see the whole. One way to practice this is through a visualization exercise:
Imagine stepping out of your physical body, and floating up towards the sky as if you were a bird flying high, and looking at the overall picture. Ask, is everyone/everything experiencing the same emotion/s? Would all elements retell the story in the same way, or a different way? Are all the perspectives sharing the same values, languages, cultures, understandings? Is it true that all of these different aspects are happening at the same time, and to each are they true simultaneously, without labelling ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?
Witnessing the whole without judgement opens up what exists in the whole, allowing for authentic expression at the same time as giving your-self your own room for what is true for you.
3. HOW: Powerfully, Gently
Science tells us that in adults 95% of our behaviour is driven from subconscious programming, patterns that we were taught and learnt. These learned behaviours, patterns and ways of using our minds are powerful only when we are not aware of how they are affecting the appearance and experience of our inner and outer worlds.
By gently questioning “Why am I thinking this?”, “Why do I feel this way about that thing”, “How do I truly feel about this?”, we open up other perspectives which allows us to tap into our voice, our inner knowing and knowledge. Gently, without judgement or wanting to change something for changes sake, gives space for small, simple shifts in perspective to happen without overwhelm or a pressure to do something in any given moment. This gentle approach fuels a powerful change in itself to engage in more compassionate connection, communication, understanding and awareness.
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