Understanding Empathy and Compassion

Category: Buddhist Path | Love & Compassion Meditation | Mind Trainer Articles | Popular

Compassion should not be confused with empathy

Compassion is a multidimensional process with four key components

Compassion is the heartfelt wish to help others become free of their suffering. In Buddhist teachings on the Four Immeasurable qualities, compassion is the wish that everyone be relieved of suffering and the causes of suffering. Its twin sister, lovingkindness, is the wish to see everybody happy and endowed with the causes of happiness. And, of course, these two—lovingkindness and compassion—cannot be separated.

The English word “compassion” comes from the Latin word compati, which means “to suffer with.” In the Tibetan language, the same word, literally translated, means “noble heart” and “best or highest state of mind.” Both of these definitions are correct. It shows us that compassion is a complex state of mind. We could talk about it in terms of four aspects:

• a cognitive aspect
• an emotive aspect
• an aspirational aspect
• and a proactive aspect

The cognitive aspect means we are able to recognize and relate to suffering because we have experienced it. Through mindfulness meditation and our intention to be of benefit, our awareness of suffering increases and we can discern more subtle levels of suffering. That’s the cognitive part.

Then we have the emotional part, which means we are touched by the suffering we see. And we also “suffer with,” to a certain degree. Normally we talk about this in terms of empathy. Empathy is natural; it is hardwired into us. It doesn’t take training for us to resonate with somebody or with another being, such as an animal; we naturally experience distress when we see them in pain. So that’s the emotive or affective emotional part.

The next part is also very important: the aspirational part. Here we react to others’ suffering with the wish to respond. We want to help. And this is also something natural, but the aspiration will be stronger or less strong depending on how much training we put into it.

And finally there is the proactive part, which involves going beyond our boundaries and really doing something for the other person or animal. Sometimes direct action is not possible, but what is always possible is to formulate a wish, an aspiration. It’s like a heartfelt energy that we can channel towards a positive result.

Compassion vs. empathy

People often talk about compassion burnout or compassion fatigue. If we look closer at the complex mental state that we call compassion, however, we will see that there is no real compassion burnout. What does happen is empathy burnout, which means that the second component of compassion, the emotional component, is being overemphasized.

If we get stuck in feeling other people’s suffering, after a while it may become unbearable; it’s just too much and we feel we need to shut down. This is especially common in the caring professions—the suffering that is witnessed is just too overwhelming and it’s hard to avoid burnout. In truth, though, compassion fatigue is not really possible because an essential part of the compassionate mind state is the aspiration to take the empathic energy that is present—the sense of being touched by and feeling with—and channeling it into something constructive. That’s the fundamental difference between empathy and compassion.

Sometimes we can help in a real way. But even if we cannot, at least we can always make wishes—and wishes create positive energy. This positive energy actually benefits us personally because it inspires hope and joy. That’s why it is sometimes said that that training in compassion, or simply generating compassion, is the best-kept secret to happiness. The first person who benefits from our compassion—when it genuine—is us.

Compassion vs. pity

At first glance, it may seem that pity and compassion are more or less the same, but there is a clear difference. The basis of compassion is an understanding of human nature in terms of all of us being the same. How? We are the same in that we all have the same aspirations. We all long for happiness and fulfillment in our lives, and we want to avoid pain. And when we think about it deeply, we recognize that everyone functions in the same way—people and animals alike—yet we are more or less skillful in pursuing our objectives. Once we’ve understood that we’re all in the same boat, we automatically respect one another more.

Sometimes there’s a thought that “so-and-so is suffering, but it’s actually his or her own fault,” as if they somehow deserve it. Thoughts like this arise from a position of us being up here thinking about the suffering person down there, which can only happen when we forget that we are fundamentally the same because our most basic goals are the same. An essential difference between genuine compassion and pity is that as a compassionate person, we feel connected on the same level.

Why should we think about compassion and try to understand it? Although caring for others is hard-wired into us human beings, we are usually only in touch with a very small portion of our compassionate nature, thereby depriving us of the tremendous inspiration and joy that compassion can give us. Understanding these four aspects—cognitive, emotive, aspirational, and proactive—is the first step towards exploring, deepening and expanding compassion. It will help us develop, in an intelligent way, the loving, caring, and fearless dimensions of our mind. Compassion has a very important wisdom aspect. There is also a whole dimension of compassion that grows as our understanding of how we and the world function grows deeper. Compassion can be expanded and developed. And that is the whole purpose of compassion training, which in turn brings tremendous inspiration, joy and meaning to our lives.

This article is excerpted from Julia Stenzel’s Mind Talks in our online meditation course Journey to Compassion Awakened Heart.

About the Author: Julia Stenzel

Julia Stenzel PhD is a long time meditation teacher who specializes in the benefits of compassion meditation
Julia Stenzel was born in the US and raised in Germany. She pursued her interest in meditation, compassion, and Buddhist philosophy through an extensive exploration of Eastern contemplative training and Western academics. Her personal practice and philosophical studies give Julia the means to transmit the profound tenets of compassion in an accessible way. She is an Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies at Kathmandu University’s Centre for Buddhist Studies. Learn more about Julia Stenzel here.

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