Compassion motivates people to go out of their way to help the physical, mental or emotional pains of another and themselves. Compassion is often regarded as having sensitivity, an emotional aspect to suffering, though when based on cerebral notions such as fairness, justice, and interdependence, it may be considered rational in nature and its application understood as an activity also based on sound judgment. There is also an aspect of equal dimension, such that individual's compassion is often given a property of "depth", "vigour", or "passion". The etymology of "compassion" is Latin, meaning "co-suffering." Compassion involves "feeling for another" and is a precursor to empathy, the "feeling as another" capacity for better person centered acts of active compassion; in common parlance active compassion is the desire to alleviate another's suffering.
Compassion involves allowing ourselves to be moved by suffering, and experiencing the motivation to help alleviate and prevent it. An act of compassion is defined by its helpfulness. Qualities of compassion are patience and wisdom; kindness and perseverance; warmth and resolve. It is often, though not inevitably, the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism. Expression of compassion is prone to be hierarchical, paternalistic and controlling in responses. Difference between sympathy and compassion is that the former responds to suffering with sorrow and concern while the latter responds with warmth and care.
The English noun compassion, meaning to love together with, comes from Latin. Its prefix com- comes directly from com, an archaic version of the Latin preposition and affix cum (= with); the -passion segment is derived from passus, past participle of the deponent verb patior, patī, passus sum. Compassion is thus related in origin, form and meaning to the English noun patient (= one who suffers), from patiens, present participle of the same patior, and is akin to the Greek verb πάσχειν (= paskhein, to suffer) and to its cognate noun πάθος (= pathos). Ranked a great virtue in numerous philosophies, compassion is considered in almost all the major religious traditions as among the greatest of virtues.
Theoretical perspectives of compassion have been developed through the years, the following three proposed perspectives show contrasts in their evolution and approaches to compassion.
- Compassion is simply a variation of love or sadness, not a distinct emotion.
- From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, Compassion can be viewed as a distinct emotional state, which can be differentiated from distress, sadness, and love.
- Compassion as a synonym of empathic distress, which is characterized by the feeling of distress in connection with another person's suffering. This perspective of compassion is based on the finding that people sometimes emulate and feel the emotions of people around them.
The more one person knows about the human condition and the associated experiences the more vivid the route to identification with suffering becomes. Identifying with another person is an essential process for human beings, it is commonly seen throughout the world as people adapt and change with new styles of clothing, language, behavior, etc., which is even illustrated by infants who begin to mirror the facial expressions and body movements of their mother as early as the first days of their lives. Personality psychology agrees that people are inherently different and distinct from one another, which leads to the conclusion that human suffering is always individual and unique. Suffering can result from psychological, social, and physical trauma and it happens in acute forms as often as chronically. Due to the inherent differences in people's personalities some may define their early stages of suffering to their external circumstances and those life events being quiet or not discussed. The later stages may involve the person expressing their victimization and searching for help. Suffering has been defined as the perception of a person's impending destruction or loss of integrity, which continues until the threat is vanished or the person's integrity can be restored. The importance of identifying with others for compassion is contrasted by the negative physical and psychological effects of abandonment. Compassion is often a characteristic element of democratic societies. Compassion is recognized through identifying with other people, the knowledge of human behavior, the perception of suffering, transfer of feelings, knowledge of goal and purpose changes in sufferers, and leads to the absence of the suffering from the group.
The compassion process is highly related to identifying with the other person because sympathizing with others is possible among people from other countries, cultures, locations, etc. A possible source of this process of identifying with others comes from a universal category called "Spirit." Toward the late 1970s, very different cultures and nations around the world took a turn to religious fundamentalism, which has occasionally been attributed to "Spirit". The role of compassion as a factor contributing to individual or societal behavior has been the topic of continuous debate. In contrast to the process of identifying with other people, a complete absence of compassion may require ignoring or disapproving identification with other people or groups. Earlier studies established the links between interpersonal violence and cruelty which leads to indifference. This concept has been illustrated throughout history: The Holocaust, Genocide, European colonization of the Americas, etc. The seemingly essential step in these atrocities could be the defining of the victims as "not human" or "not us." The atrocities committed throughout human history have only been relieved through the presence of compassion.
Compassion may have the ability to induce feelings of kindness and forgiveness, which could give people the ability to stop situations that have the potential to be distressing and occasionally lead to violence.
Compassion has become associated with and researched in the fields of positive psychology and social psychology. The Dalai Lama once said that "compassion is a necessity, not a luxury" and that "it is a question of human survival". Compassion is a process of connecting by identifying with another person. This identification with others through compassion can lead to increased motivation to do something in an effort to relieve the suffering of others.
Compassion is an evolved function from the harmony of a three grid internal system: contentment-and-peace system, goals-and-drives system and threat-and-safety system. Paul Gilbert defines these collectively as necessary regulated systems for compassion. In examination of the motivated regulation of compassion in the context of large-scale crises, such as natural disasters and genocides, much research has established that people tend to feel more compassion for single identifiable victims than large masses of victims (the Identifiable victim effect). It is found that people only show less compassion for many victims than for single victims of disasters when they expect to incur a financial cost upon helping. This collapse of compassion depends on having the motivation and ability to regulate emotions. In laboratory research, psychologists are exploring how concerns about becoming emotionally exhausted may motivate people to curb their compassion for—and dehumanize—members of stigmatized social groups, such as homeless individuals and drug addicts.
Compassion consists of three major requirements: People must feel that troubles that evoke their feelings are serious, the understanding that sufferers' troubles are not self-inflicted, and ability to picture oneself with the same problems in a non-blaming and non-shaming manner.
In a 2009 small fMRI experiment, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and colleagues at the Brain and Creativity Institute studied strong feelings of compassion for social and physical pain in others. Both feelings involved an expected change in activity in the anterior insula, anterior cingulate, hypothalamus, and midbrain, but they also found a previously undescribed pattern of cortical activity on the posterior medial surface of each brain hemisphere, a region involved in the default mode of brain function, and implicated in self-related processes. Compassion for social pain in others was associated with strong activation in the interoceptive, inferior/posterior portion of this region, while compassion for physical pain in others involved heightened activity in the exteroceptive, superior/anterior portion. Compassion for social pain activated this superior/anterior section, to a lesser extent. Activity in the anterior insula related to compassion for social pain peaked later and endured longer than that associated with compassion for physical pain. Compassionate emotions in relation to others has effects on the prefrontal cortex, inferior frontal cortex, and the midbrain. Feelings and acts of compassion have been found to simulate areas known to regulate homeostasis, such as insular cortex and hypothalamus.
In one study conducted by Jill Rilling and Gregory Berns, neuroscientists at Emory University, subjects’ brain activity was recorded while they helped someone in need. It was found that while the subjects were performing compassionate acts the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate regions of the brain were activated, the same areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. This research sheds light on how acting on compassion induces a positive feeling in people and how humans are innately wired to want to help the suffering.
Compassion is one of the most important attributes for physicians practicing medical services. It has been suggested that felt compassion brings about the desire to do something to help the sufferer. That desire to be helpful is not compassion, but it does suggest that compassion is similar to other emotions by motivating behaviors to reduce the tension brought on by the emotion. Physicians generally identify their central duties as the responsibility to put the patient's interests first, including the duty not to harm, deliver proper care, and maintain confidentiality. Compassion is seen in each of those duties because of its direct relation to the recognition and treatment of suffering. Physicians who use compassion understand the effects of sickness and suffering on human behavior. Compassion may be closely related to love and the emotions evoked in both. This is illustrated by the relationship between patients and physicians in medical institutions. The relationship between suffering patients and their care-givers provides evidence that compassion is a social emotion, which is highly related to closeness between individuals.
According to Figley, individuals with a higher capacity or responsibility to empathize with others may be at risk for "compassion fatigue" or stress, which is related to professionals and individuals who spend a significant amount of time responding to information related to suffering. However, newer research by Singer and Ricard suggests that it is lack of suitable distress tolerance which gets people fatigued in compassion activities. Research suggests that practice of nonjudgmental compassion can prevent fatigue and burnout.
Self-compassion is a process of self kindness and accepting suffering as a quality of being human. It has positive effects on subjective happiness, optimism, wisdom, curiosity, agreeableness, and extroversion. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer have identified that there are three levels of activities that thwart self-compassion and they are self-criticism, self-isolation and self-absorption, they equate this to fight, flight and freeze responses. It is identified that people who lack of life skill equanimity that is akin with distress tolerance are prone to such spontaneous responses. Certain activities may increase feelings of and readiness to practice self-compassion; some of these activities include creating a loving-kindness rituals, practicing empathy, practice random acts of warmth and goodwill like tonglen, etc.
For increasing compassion in the workplace to self and others authentic leadership centered on humanism and nourishing quality interconnectedness are considered as the key. Judith Jordan's concept of self-empathy is similar to self-compassion, it implies the capacity to notice, care and respond towards the ones own felt needs. The strategies of self care involve valuing oneself, thinking about one's ideations of needs compassionately, and connecting with others in order to conversely experience renewal, support and validation. Research indicates that self-compassionate individuals experience greater psychological health than those who lack self-compassion.
Historical and spirito-religious views
The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers distrusted (feeling) compassion. In their view, reason alone was the proper guide to conduct. They regarded compassion (a virtue) as an effect, neither admirable nor contemptible. Compassion historically is considered as a passion, Justitia is blindfolded because her virtue is dispassion and not compassion.
In classical literature of Hinduism, compassion is a virtue with many shades, each shade explained by different terms. Three most common terms are daya (दया), karuna (करुणा), and anukampa (अनुकम्पा). Other words related to compassion in Hinduism include karunya, ghrina, kripa, and anukrosha. Some of these words are used interchangeably among the schools of Hinduism to explain the concept of compassion, its sources, its consequences, and its nature. The virtue of compassion to all living beings, claim Gandhi and others, is a central concept in Hindu philosophy.
Daya is defined by Padma Purana as the virtuous desire to mitigate the sorrow and difficulties of others by putting forth whatever effort necessary. Matsya Purana describes daya as the value that treats all living beings (including human beings) as one's own self, wanting the welfare and good of the other living being. Such compassion, claims Matsya Purana, is one of necessary paths to being happy. Ekadashi Tattvam explains daya is treating a stranger, a relative, a friend and a foe as one's own self; it argues that compassion is that state when one sees all living beings as part of one's own self, and when everyone's suffering is seen as one's own suffering. Compassion to all living beings, including to those who are strangers and those who are foes, is seen as a noble virtue. Karuna, another word for compassion in Hindu philosophy, means placing one's mind in other's favor, thereby seeking to understand the other from their perspective. Anukampa, yet another word for compassion, refers to one's state after one has observed and understood the pain and suffering in other. In Mahabharata, Indra praises Yudhishthira for his anukrosha — compassion, sympathy — for all creatures. Tulsidas contrasts daya (compassion) with abhiman (arrogance, contempt of others), claiming compassion is a source of dharmic life, while arrogance a source of sin. Daya (compassion) is not kripa (pity) in Hinduism, or feeling sorry for the sufferer, because that is marred with condescension; compassion is feeling one with the sufferer. Compassion is the basis for ahimsa, a core virtue in Hindu philosophy.
Compassion in Hinduism is discussed as an absolute and relative concept. There are two forms of compassion: one for those who suffer even though they have done nothing wrong and one for those who suffer because they did something wrong. Absolute compassion applies to both, while relative compassion addresses the difference between the former and the latter. An example of the latter include those who plead guilty or are convicted of a crime such as murder; in these cases, the virtue of compassion must be balanced with the virtue of justice.
The classical literature of Hinduism exists in many Indian languages. For example, Tirukkuṛaḷ, written between 200 BC and AD 400, and sometimes called the Tamil Veda, is a cherished classic on Hinduism written in a South Indian language. It dedicates Chapter 25 of Book 1 to compassion, further dedicating separate chapters each for the resulting values of compassion, chiefly, vegetarianism or veganism (Chapter 26), doing no harm (Chapter 32), non-killing (Chapter 33), possession of kindness (Chapter 8), dreading evil deeds (Chapter 21), benignity (Chapter 58), the right scepter (Chapter 55), and absence of terrorism (Chapter 57), to name a few.
Compassion for all life, human and non-human, is central to the Jain tradition. Though all life is considered sacred, human life is deemed the highest form of earthly existence. To kill any person, no matter their crime, is considered unimaginably abhorrent. It is the only substantial religious tradition that requires both monks and laity to be vegetarian. It is suggested that certain strains of the Hindu tradition became vegetarian due to strong Jain influences. The Jain tradition's stance on nonviolence, however, goes far beyond vegetarianism. Jains refuse food obtained with unnecessary cruelty. Many practice veganism. Jains run animal shelters all over India. The Lal Mandir, a prominent Jain temple in Delhi, is known for the Jain Birds Hospital in a second building behind the main temple.
In the Jewish tradition, God is the Compassionate and is invoked as the Father of Compassion: hence Raḥmana or Compassionate becomes the usual designation for His revealed word. (Compare, below, the frequent use of raḥman in the Quran). Sorrow and pity for one in distress, creating a desire to relieve it, is a feeling ascribed alike to man and God: in Biblical Hebrew, ("riḥam," from "reḥem," the mother, womb), "to pity" or "to show mercy" in view of the sufferer's helplessness, hence also "to forgive" (Hab. iii. 2), "to forbear" (Ex. ii. 6; I Sam. xv. 3; Jer. xv. 15, xxi. 7). The Rabbis speak of the "thirteen attributes of compassion." The Biblical conception of compassion is the feeling of the parent for the child. Hence the prophet's appeal in confirmation of his trust in God invokes the feeling of a mother for her offspring (Isa. xlix. 15).
A classic articulation of the Golden Rule (see above) came from the first century Rabbi Hillel the Elder. Renowned in the Jewish tradition as a sage and a scholar, he is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud and, as such, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. Asked for a summary of the Jewish religion in the "while standing on one leg" meaning in the most concise terms, Hillel stated: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. The rest is the explanation; go and learn." Post 9/11, the words of Rabbi Hillel are frequently quoted in public lectures and interviews around the world by the prominent writer on comparative religion Karen Armstrong.
Many Jewish sources speak of the importance of compassion for animals. Significant rabbis who have done so include Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv, and Rabbi Moshe Cordovero.
The first of what in English are called the Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering or dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or stress). Dukkha is identified as one of the three distinguishing characteristics of all conditioned existence. It arises as a consequence of the failure to adapt to change or anicca (the second characteristic) and the insubstantiality, lack of fixed identity, the horrendous lack of certainty of anatta (the third characteristic) to which all this constant change in turn gives rise. Compassion made possible by observation and accurate perception is the appropriate practical response. The ultimate and earnest wish, manifest in the Buddha, both as archetype and as historical entity, is to relieve the suffering of all living beings everywhere.
The Dalai Lama has said, "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." The American monk Bhikkhu Bodhi states that compassion "supplies the complement to loving-kindness: whereas loving-kindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings. Like metta, compassion arises by entering into the subjectivity of others, by sharing their interiority in a deep and total way. It springs up by considering that all beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering, yet despite their wishes continue to be harassed by pain, fear, sorrow, and other forms of dukkha."
The Christian Bible's Second Epistle to the Corinthians is but one place where God is spoken of as the "Father of compassion" and the "God of all comfort." It reads as follows: 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort." Jesus embodies for Christians, the very essence of compassion and relational care. Christ challenges Christians to forsake their own desires and to act compassionately towards others, particularly those in need or distress. Most significantly, he demonstrated compassion to those his society had condemned - tax collectors, prostitutes and criminals.
Conversely, a 2012 study of the historical Jesus has claimed that the founder of Christianity sought to elevate Judaic compassion as the supreme human virtue, capable of reducing suffering and fulfilling our God-ordained purpose of transforming the world into something more worthy of its creator.
In the Muslim tradition, foremost among God's attributes are mercy and compassion or, in the canonical language of Arabic, Rahman and Rahim. Each of the 114 chapters of the Quran, with one exception, begins with the verse, "In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful."
Certainly a Messenger has come to you from among yourselves; grievous to him is your falling into distress, excessively solicitous respecting you; to the believers (he is) compassionate.
The Arabic word for compassion is rahmah. As a cultural influence, its roots abound in the Quran. A good Muslim is to commence each day, each prayer and each significant action by invoking Allah the Merciful and Compassionate, i.e., by reciting Bism-i-llah a-Rahman-i-Rahim. The womb and family ties are characterized by compassion and named after the exalted attribute of Allah "Al-Rahim" (The Compassionate).
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- TED Prize winner Karen Armstrong's video lecture on compassion
- Mirrored emotion Jean Decety, University of Chicago
- Compassion Is Weaved Throughout Our Nervous System, Researchers Have Found (December 2016). Discusses some of the work of Dacher Keltner as well as other researchers
- Daniel Goleman, psychologist & author of Emotional Intelligence, video lecture on compassion
- Dalai Lama on compassion, Rice University, May 2007.
- Professor Robert Thurman: Compassion is feeling the feelings of others