What Does “Compassion” Mean Anyway?

This past weekend, Alice Robison and I facilitated a one day silent meditation retreat in Bozeman. We had mentioned the word “compassion” throughout the day, and in the closing circle of sharing questions and/or experiences, one participant asked: “So what does compassion mean anyway?” What a great question!! It got me thinking, why not write about it, what it means to me, and what others say about it.

In spiritual texts, Buddhist texts, prayers, meditations, and quotes the word “compassion” is mentioned many times over. Quotes such as:

“To love our enemy is impossible. The moment we understand our enemy, we feel compassion towards him/her, and he/she is no longer our enemy.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Living your life for others, cherishing them with loving kindness and compassion is the door to happiness, the door to enlightenment.”
The Door to Satisfaction (Lama Zopa Rinpoche)

They are beautiful quotes! But what does it mean to be compassionate or have loving kindness? And how do we cultivate compassion? So I looked it up in my dictionary at home: sympathy, pity. I knew this was not the spiritual definition of compassion, so I looked further. The on-line dictionary defines it as: Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. And according to Thomas Merton: Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.

So why is it not defined as “pity?” Because when we pity someone, there is a judgment behind it, meaning that we are in a “better situation” than they are, and that we don’t suffer as they do, like a “higher up” view. Beautifully said by Sogyal Rinpoche: “Compassion is a far greater and nobler thing than pity. Pity has its roots in fear and carries a sense of arrogance and condescension, sometimes even a smug feeling of “I’m glad it’s not me.” As Stephen Levine says: “When your fear touches someone’s pain it becomes pity; when your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion.” To train in compassion is to know that all beings are the same and suffer in similar ways, to honor all those who suffer, and to know that you are neither separate from nor superior to anyone.”

What compassion is trying to cultivate is that feeling from our heart of feeling for another, feeling their pain, sorrow, struggles, fears, and taking it a step further: the feeling that we want to help alleviate that suffering. In doing so, we realize and know that we are all connected, that everything is interdependent with each other, that my suffering is common to all of humanity, and taking the next step of helping alleviate it in some way, even if that’s a prayer to reach out to them in their situation. (This is what Loving Kindness meditation is.)

We can be compassionate towards ourselves as well. It is a gift we can give ourselves every day. We burnt something on the stove, we forget to call someone when we said we would, we broke up with our partner of 10 years, etc., we can be understanding of ourselves instead of beating ourselves up. It is seeing our humanness, and instead of judging it, we embrace it, and send love toward ourselves. And the more we can have compassion for ourselves, the more we can have compassion for others. 

So how do we cultivate compassion? How do we live from a compassionate place? Again, Sogyal Rinpoche has wise words to follow: “One technique for arousing compassion for a person who is suffering is to imagine one of your dearest friends, or someone you really love, in that person’s place. Imagine your brother or daughter or parent or best friend in the same kind of painful situation. Quite naturally your heart will open, and compassion will awaken in you: What more would you want than to free your loved one from his or her torment? Now take this compassion released in your heart and transfer it to the person who needs your help: You will find that your help is inspired more naturally and that you can direct it more easily.” 

Living from compassion means living from our hearts. Our hearts do not have room for pity, fear, or judgment. Our hearts are love, our hearts are kindness. It is one of the most beautiful parts of our humanness that continues to grow, expand, and give, if we allow it to be open to all that is possible. May your day be filled with compassion and love for yourself and all beings!

For an insightful read on the path of enlightenment through wisdom and compassion, click here. “Compassion and love are not mere luxuries. As the source both of inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.” ~The 14th Dalai Lama


Categories: Heart Centered Living

About the Author: Angela Patnode

My passion, my calling, is for you to be totally you. Through private coaching, in-depth retreats, and online group coaching programs, I help you tap into your intuition and clarify your desires and vision, I guide you to take active steps toward making your desires a reality.

2 comments to “What Does “Compassion” Mean Anyway?

  1. Nick

    I loved your article. It had very emotive language. I especially love this quote
    “Living from compassion means living from our hearts.” To me, Compassion is about taking notice of a very significant part of this world: Others. Those who understand the common method of life that no one lives rosily and problems are bound to hurt others; then will one gain the perception of compassion. I also wrote an article on compassion and I think you might enjoy it. I would also love your feedback. Please read.

    1. Angela Patnode

      Thanks for the comment Nick. Yes, when we look beyond ourselves we find compassion. When we relate to others’ pain and suffering, we find compassion. It’s an opening of our hearts – how beautiful! I enjoyed your article and the comment that “no one lives rosily” is true – we all suffer, and when we recognize and know this, we cultivate compassion. I’m not sure what you mean when you say “problems are bound to hurt others” – can you clarify this?

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