“Every day, think as you wake up, ‘today I am fortunate to be alive; I have a precious human life; I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others; I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.’” ~Dalai Lama
What is compassion and what does it mean to be compassionate? I have been blessed to experience a deep sense of compassion from my friends, family and community over the last few years and even more so over the last few months. These last few months, I have been working on myself, creating a life that is compassionate both internally and externally to embrace love and contentment. This is by no means an easy task, but I am excited to grow into an even stronger, more adaptable person.
In September, I drove down to the family farm in Southwest Minnesota to visit my dad, brother, and his family. I make the journey about once a month and spend time playing with my brother’s children and connecting with my immediate family. This particular trip was after my August meltdown and recovery vacation that led me to rebuild my personal life and career. I was praying the previous month about what I should do with my studio and with my life. I was recovering but felt emotionally drained and confused about my next steps.
This visit was short, but I concentrated my time with my brother’s children. His middle daughter, Quinn, is a sweet intellectual six-year-old who brought to light what compassion is.
My dad and I were babysitting while my brother and sister-in-law attended a wedding in town. We made some art projects, and then the evening started to wind down. Quinn and I headed up to her bedroom and snuggled into bed. We talked about her animal pillow that I was coveting, because it was so soft. She said that I should have one to sleep with at home. Then our talks evolved into how she was feeling hurt by some events that happened in school during the week and how her older sister is loud and disruptive.
After a pause, Quinn looked at me and asked, catching me a bit off guard, “How are you and your boyfriend doing?” I thought she had forgotten about him. After all, she met him once in April when we retrieved my motorcycle from my dad’s house. I replied, “Oh Quinn, we broke up.” She looked up at the ceiling and paused…
“Oh, That is so sad…” she whispered followed by a long pause. She looked at me and continued, “Who broke up with whom? Did you break up with him, or did he break up with you?”
“He broke up with me,” I replied, now with tears running down my face.
“Oh…” She paused to think for awhile before elaborating. “Well, I think men are sometimes like fish.” I looked at her as she lay beside me calculating what to say in her head. “You catch them for awhile and sometimes they get away.”
She had captivated me with her process, and I was curious of what she was going to say next. She looked me straight in the eyes and smiled, “But then sometimes you catch them again. Maybe he got away—and maybe you’ll catch him again.” I couldn’t believe the wisdom from such a small person. It was extremely appropriate, relevant, and her timing was impeccable. Then Quinn turned towards me, smirking with a grin that only she could do.
“And if not, you have us.”
At this point I was laughing with tears running down my face. “Oh, Quinn.” I gave her a bear hug and thanked God for both the sign I was asking for and the blessing of this very special child.
Compassion rides the fine line with empathy and sympathy, and yet they are often used interchangeably. However, they are very different.
Years ago in Vermont during my Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy training, we worked on empathy and holding space for our clients to have their own experiences rather than telling them what to do. The power of this practice has carried into the way that I teach and into my personal, intimate relationships. The power that empathy and compassion holds is the key to deeper and more fulfilling relationships. To practice it on a daily basis takes personal work and understanding that there is a difference between the three: sympathy, empathy, and compassion.
“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.” ~Dr Brené Brown
And now it comes time to fully embrace the practices that will bring me contentment. This leads to a whole-hearted life, a deeper connection with people around me, and devoted relationships. I am aware that if I want to grow in love and peace, I will need to work to develop a deep sense of loving kindness and compassion for myself. I will then be able to come from a place of authenticity to be there for others. I feel that I have always been a compassionate person and have worked considerably on my listening skills over the years. I was lacking in compassion until I learned how to accept it from others. When empathy is genuine, the practice will deepen and enrich the relationship with another person. Compassion literally means “to suffer together.”
The pathway to compassionate is a conscious self-examination, knowing that challenges happen and life experiences play into our perception of others. Cultivating compassion provides a foundation to influence both how we engage in our relationships with others and what boundaries we have in those relationships. The structures of any relationship are established early and are formed by our ideas, expectations and assumptions of the individual and what they bring.
I would like to take a closer look at sympathy, empathy and compassion.
Sympathy means you feel sorry for and understand what the person is feeling. It is a natural feeling that you care for another and can emotionally connect with their suffering. You are not feeling that person’s actual pain, but you are aware of their suffering. I would argue that we cannot truly have the same experience as another even if the situations and challenges are the same, because our perspectives and adaptations, coping mechanisms, and abilities are different. But with sympathy one is not experiencing the pain for himself or herself. There is a some emotional distance. Sometimes sympathy can start to lean toward pity. Pity is an emotion that can lead to dehumanization and minimizing a person’s experience.
An example of sympathy would be when my mom and grandma passed away last year. People came to the wake and funerals to support my family and me. They may not be able to feel our pain and loss, but they can use their foundational skills to understand that my family and I were grieving the losses. They would say, “I am so sorry for your loss,” and “I am sad that you have had so much pain in your life.” They may not be able to physically feel our pain, but they can understand that we were in mourning.
“Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us… Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.” ~Brené Brown
Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling, walking in another’s shoes. Empathy is deeper than sympathy and is an indirect experience. These skills can be learned, but to cognitively understand another person’s perspective, one must experience the emotions without judgment and without inserting bits from his or her own experience. It is not only experiencing the emotions but recognizing shared experiences as human beings and to acknowledge that we all feel fear, grief, and experience loss and pain. You do not need to have the exact same experiences, but you do need to have the ability to imagine how they must be feeling in their situations in a non-judgmental way. It is a peer-to-peer experience.
If you someone experiencing great sadness, you have the ability to understand what sadness is and even experience it to some extent. You may feel similar in your body, mind, and heart. This has a genuine connection to the person that is suffering. But be wise with your own emotions! You might feel like you are riding their emotional roller coaster or it may bring up deep emotions in you. Discern what is yours and what is the other’s, lest this create a false sense of sadness within yourself and rendering any help from you useless.
Learning to be empathetic allows you to be tuned into another person’s emotional experience. It takes practice and courage to do this. One way to start becoming more empathetic is to receive it from another person. You will understand what a gift it is. Also remember that empathy isn’t only suitable for unpleasant feelings; it can be used to witness joy, peace, and love, too. For example: when someone is smiling and they walk down the street, does it make you smile as well?
“When we have feelings of caring or love for other people, we feel better,” clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., tells The Huffington Post. “We all think we want to be loved, but what actually feels good to us is feeling loving—and part of what makes us feel more love for other people is doing kind, compassionate things for them.”
Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another. This is love in action and seeing the larger picture. Compassion literally means “to suffer with.” Empathy is the ability to experience some of the feelings of pain, loss and suffering that another person is feeling. Compassion is converting that feeling into action. The practice of living a compassionate life can be learned. Often we think of this as something that some special people are born with. First, we must change habits and perspectives and then make it a daily practice to be determined so that we can experience compassion for ourselves and then spread the love to others.
“Highly sensitive people are too often perceived as weaklings or damaged goods. To feel intensely is not a symptom of weakness; it is the trademark of the truly alive and compassionate. It is not the empath who is broken; it is society that has become dysfunctional and emotionally disabled. There is no shame in expressing your authentic feelings. Those who are at times described as being a ‘hot mess’ or having ‘too many issues’ are the very fabric of what keeps the dream alive for a more caring, humane world. Never be ashamed to let your tears shine a light in this world.” ~Anthon St. Maarten
There are many different ways to show compassion for others. Quinn was showing her version of compassion that night lying in her bed. The important thing is that it comes from your heart and the secret is to ignore the differences and find commonalities to help relate to what someone else is going through.
When you’re compassionate, you are not pushing suffering aside. You are not allowing yourself to feel overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not ignorant that suffering doesn’t exist. Instead, you can stay present with suffering. This is the same for self-compassion. And awareness is the first step on the journey of compassion.
The Dalai Lama captures the truth that happiness depends completely on you. The way that you thrive in life may not just be up to you but in your ability to give and receive in your relationships with others.
The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”