Compassion: A (Better) Definition

This is yet another one of those topics I’m guided to write about that I have no idea where to start. So I’ll do what I often suggest to you—“start somewhere, anywhere”—and see what journey my Muse has for me this week. . . .

The Oxford dictionary definition of “compassion” is sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition is the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. Some synonyms: understanding, empathy, commiseration, care.

This time I’m actually going to disagree with the official definitions (oh dear, is that even permissible???). I think they’re too narrow, a bit misleading, and not rich enough. Instead, I’d like to string together some of the words and synonyms, and replace some words. This is how I got to what I think is a more descriptive and workable definition:

I started by thinking about what do I mean when I say, “I feel compassion for [her/him/them]”? Does it mean I feel sorry for them? No, I think that’s pity—it feels condescending to me, and with a dash of self-centered “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Or I wish I could do something to help them? Maybe there is but if the situation is part of their Path and soul learning, I can provide support but it’s not really appropriate for me to “alleviate” or “fix” it for them. Or I understand and commiserate with what they must be feeling? That feels a bit more like it. But not completely.

How about what I think compassion isn’t? I do not think it’s the same as empathy. To empathize means not only to understand another’s feelings, but rather to go much further and actually feel what the other is feeling. For me, that doesn’t work in a definition of or synonym for compassion.

What are some situations in which I would feel compassion?

  • One situation is easy to identify: when another Being is experiencing misfortunes and suffering.
  • Another situation is less obvious and more challenging: when another Being is “acting out,” behaving badly because of their own emotional pain, but their actions result in suffering for other Beings. (But to clarify, I’m not talking here about significant underlying psychopathology like sociopaths or psychopaths.)
  • And finally, closer to home, compassion for Self when we experience embarrassment or shame because of something we are, do, or say.

So given all of this, I developed what I think is a better definition of compassion:

understanding and relating to another’s misfortunes and suffering, and feeling sincere concern for their well being and welfare

But why did I mention “workable” as part of my criteria for this definition? Because I think compassion actually serves several purposes:

  • “ . . . understanding and relating to” reminds us of our Oneness—what happens to one of us, happens to all of us.
  • “ . . . feeling sincere concern” prompts us to support others on their Path by sending them prayers or healing Light/energy; AND it may lead us to action or our calling to alleviate the difficult situation in general, e.g., food insecurity or homelessness; AND it can lead us to forgiveness (a guidepost on our Path to Oneness) for those “acting out” Beings: “I understand they’re behaving badly because of their own emotional turmoil and pain. And I forgive them for their actions.”

With respect to someone who is behaving badly maybe because of underlying pain, it seems reasonable to assume that there’s a reason or source of their pain. For example, I actually feel some compassion for that “Idiot” political figure I sometimes refer to in light of the recent “tell all” book by his niece, a trained psychotherapist, who claims that his father was a sociopath and very hard on his children. I don’t think that means we disregard that leader’s responsibility for the consequences of his actions now, or that he shouldn’t be held accountable for them. He should. But I can feel compassion and “Love the sinner, hate the sins.” (Well, maybe I can’t feel love for him—yet. But I don’t have to come from red hot hatred either. And I can send him healing Light or say prayers for him.)

Likewise maybe it’s useful to identify a reason or source for those things we don’t “like” about ourselves, or things we say or do that we judge to be “bad” or wrong—things that elicit embarrassment or shame. Identifying a reason or source can help us to feel compassion for ourselves, gaining some soul learning, and potentially remediating that something. For example, I think my temper, that is sometimes embarrassing to me, often springs from a very deep sense of justice and injustice. That’s a worthy and commendable trait. But how I implement that trait is a choice I can make—for better or ill.

Lastly, and most important, I think compassion starts with ourselves: self compassion leads to self love which enables authentic compassion and unconditional love for others. And thus, Oneness.

So let’s go from there . . .

1. Experience how compassion feels:
* Think of someone who is experiencing a difficult, painful situation.
* Think of their pain and suffering, and feel how “your heart goes out to them.”

2. Now feel that same compassion for yourself.
* Think of something you don’t “like” about yourself, or something you’ve done or said that causes you to feel embarrassment or shame. (No need to dwell on it, just bring it to mind.)
* Think about what might be the source of that something. Is it from your childhood, like a coping mechanism that helped you deal with a particular situation? A “good” trait that’s being manifested in a manner that doesn’t serve you? An (arbitrary!) societal/religious standard you believe you fail to meet? Something else?
* In light of this source for that something, feel compassion for yourself as you did above for another person. Let “your heart go out to” yourself.
* Is this something you can remediate or redirect?

3. Practice feeling more compassion for yourself and others.

A dear, much beloved friend told me she wanted to incorporate the guideposts to Oneness that I’ve written about (forgiveness and trust) into an art project, and asked if she had missed any others. And I realized that I’ve been leaving off an important word in my references to the guideposts: “primary,” indicating that there are others. And that got me thinking that compassion is also a guidepost on our Path to Oneness. Another important scenic vista for us to explore along our Path.

Are there others? I honestly don’t know—yet. Stay tuned!

P.S. For some reason, writing this post was especially challenging for me. I just couldn’t seem to get the ideas to hang together. And I delayed publishing as I revised it over and over again. Until I realized that, as usual, maybe it hits a little too close to home. And that, instead of beating myself up—for not being “perfect” and writing the perfect post (the text feels a bit “preachy” and didactic to me), rather I needed to feel compassion for myself struggling to write about this topic, and yet persevering through the struggle. But maybe preachy and didactic is how I needed to write it, and how I and some of you need to hear it? Maybe this reinforces the concept of feeling compassion for ourselves first? Maybe it’s time to stop beating ourselves up, and start feeling more compassion for ourselves? I don’t know. What do you think?

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