Compassion literally means to suffer with. It comes from the Latin root com, meaning with or together, and the root passio meaning suffering. So quite literally the meaning of the word compassion is to suffer with someone. In Buddhism the meaning of compassion is the same. However, it is important to note that in Buddhism compassion also requires equanimity or a balanced heart. This means that when practicing compassion we are not to become overwhelmed by someone’s suffering but rather to hold it with care and kindness. Suffering is not the quality of pity. The difference between pity and compassion is that when we pity someone we are feeling sorry for them. It contains in it an element of looking down upon the person who is suffering. Rather, with compassion we care for the persons suffering without being overwhelmed by it and without looking down on it.
Sharon Salzberg in her book Loving-Kindness tells a story about when she was teaching compassion practice in Russia. She was teaching through an interpreter because she did not speak the language. As her talk progressed she got the feeling that the word compassion was not translating properly to Russian. She asked the interpreter what he said when he translated the word compassion. He described it as a state of being absolutely overcome with someone’s suffering. So overcome that it is almost debilitating. Of course this was not what she was trying to convey, and had to work to communicate the Buddhist definition of compassion. She tried to explain that compassion is holding suffering with caring without being overcome with the agony of it.
Often when we first practice compassion we can be overcome by someone’s suffering or our own when we really take the time to reflect on it. At first it can be very difficult to have a balanced heart when reflecting on pain. However, with practice we can expand our capacity to hold suffering with compassion.
When I first started meeting with my meditation teacher I had a difficult time sitting in meditation for more than 20 minutes at a time. If I sat for 25 minutes I would be anxious for the last five. At first I tried to just notice the anxiety. I attempted to stay present for it as it overwhelmed me. I would find that my eyes would almost burst open when the timer went off because I was so uncomfortable by that time. When I told my meditation teacher about my experience she suggested that I try to respond to the anxiety with compassion. I went back to my meditation practice and I when I started to feel anxious I would repeat some compassion phrases for myself, saying “may I care about this suffering”. If the anxiety became too great I would open my eyes until I felt ready to try again. After a while of doing this I started to feel myself relax a bit. The anxiety was not so bad as when I was trying to bear down and feel it. Instead, using these tools helped me to hold the suffering with some balance. I was not so overcome by the suffering when I could offer my anxiety a word of caring.
How you practice compassion can change depending on the situation. Sometimes the compassionate thing is not to drown out the suffering by repeating phrases but just to listen to someone. It can be an act of great generosity and compassion just to listen to someone’s suffering.
At a meditation center that I went to some time ago there was a woman who came to the same weekly class as me who drove me crazy. Something about her set me completely on edge to the point where I cringed every time she spoke. I realized after a while that what drove me so crazy was that she was in pain and had a great deal of suffering but no capacity to be with it so she would spiritual bypass. I decided to start practicing compassion for her. At first every time she spoke I would repeat compassion phrases in my head so that I would not have to listen to her. Repeating phrases brought me some relief and I felt myself start to open to her a little bit.
After practicing like this for some months I noticed that I no longer cringed whenever she spoke. However, I started to think that drowning her voice out with my own in my head was not really an act of suffering with her. It was more an act of compassion to myself because it gave me the ability to hold my own annoyance without totally averting from it. I realized that if I wanted to truly open to her pain I should try to listen to her. From then on whenever she spoke I just listened to the words. My heart was much more open by that point. Of course I still noticed times of aversion and annoyance, and if I really needed to I would say some compassion phrases for myself, as a way of holding my feelings. This experience taught me how much compassion can change when we work with it.
The Goal of Compassion
The goal of compassion is not to drown out suffering with compassion phrases, but to be present for it and open to it without being overwhelmed. As we practice compassion we can see that we can open to pain and suffering without being totally sucked into it. There is a way for me to sit in meditation and notice my anxiety without gritting my teeth. There is also a way for me to listen to someone who annoys me without just saying compassion phrases in my head. In the end, we use something like phrases as a tool so that we become able to open to suffering. If we repeat the intention “may I care about suffering” enough times we will actually start to care about it.
Once we do find our heart is open we can respond to suffering as it arises with an open and balanced heart. We can suffer with someone, or our own pain, without being overwhelmed or aversion. Eventually we can see pain and our body will respond with almost an automatic feeling of openness and kindness.