The Compassion Confusion

My definition of compassion is this: The right action at the right time in response to another’s suffering. It isn’t an emotional or logical or even personal thing. It’s not something one sits down and plans. It happens in an instant and is one of the most powerful ways to perceive the principle of interdependence.

What compassion is not.

Pity Compassion is not pity. The great Sufi woman saint Rabia al Adawiyya said “To pity is to despise.” Pity implies a sociological divide between the pitier and the pitied. The words “Oh those poor people.” carries with it the subtext “I’m glad I’m not one of THEM.” In the West, meaning developed countries, English speaking countries, rich countries or whatever the colloquial definition of West encompasses these days, pity has become synonymous with compassion. The images of the apparently pitiable are broadcast continuously and the commentary that accompanies them is meant to invoke the specific pity emotion. Emotions such as pity are based in that social portion of ego that helps to maintain the divide between people and reinforce the separateness of the individual. Pity is also not the same as empathy.

Enabling Helping and enabling are often confused with compassion. And in fact are often confused with each other. Helping is doing something for a person incapable of doing for themselves. Enabling is doing something that the person could and should be doing for themselves. Helping is kind of a subset of compassion. Enabling is just a mistake for everyone involved as it prolongs suffering and leads to co-dependency wherein both people suffer needlessly. Enabling is an insult to another’s capabilities and dignity and is only ego gratification for the need-to-be-needed type of individual.

Indulgence “But they really wanted it.” used as an excuse for indulging another or one’s self has nothing to do with compassion. Desire is endless. Indulgence of every desire or even whim only leads to an inflated sense of entitlement and false expectations that the world will provide everything just for the asking. It is a foundation for future suffering when many of the expectations turn to disappointment. And the having of a thing is very often not nearly as exciting as the desire and anticipation for that thing. The illusion of the benefits a thing will bring is quickly shattered when said benefits fail to appear.

Emotion Most emotion is closely tied to the fulfillment or lack of fulfillment of desires of the ego. And compassion being based on empathy, which is the setting aside of ego to experience another, is of a different order than most emotion.

Emotion is generally about attachment to situations and actions and the fruit of actions, all of which are used to maintain the ego, that sense of aloneness within the world and separation from the world. Anger, greed, fear, gratitude, envy, ecstasy, hate, pity, hysteria, grief, regret, excitement, sympathy, animosity, remorse, ardor, sorrow, impatience, disgust, longing and the thousands more descriptions of the more subtle emotional states all have roots in attachment. None of these arise without both some action and our interpretation of that action.  Our often socially programmed and subconsciously evoked response to the action and our particular interpretation of it is emotion. It is all filtered through these thoughts and interpretations before it is even expressed.

If it were not so then emotion would be universal in response to the same stimulus. Anyone who has traveled or experienced other cultures or even just paid careful attention to their own culture can realize this. For example, Why do some people cry at a movie and others feel no response and others still laugh at the same situation? Emotion is like a hook that catches the fish. In this case the fish is the individual ego. And the hook is attachment.

It is not possible to be without emotion as we are social beings and have been socialized and enculturated since birth to respond to a stimulus in a particular way. But to recognize the origin of emotions can help to untangle them from being unconcious conditioned responses. And from there one can begin to experience themselves and the world in a more authentic way. And from there actual compassion can arise.

To Be Dictated Doing something to someone for “their own good” ie “You need to do this and understand this” And I say doing it to rather than for deliberately. Telling someone something and helping them to discover it for themselves are two different things. One may see very clearly what may be an appropriate course of action for another and one may even coerce the other to follow that course. But at the end of the day if there is no understanding as to why it may have been appropriate, the situation is not resolved. With compassion the entirety of the individual is considered as well as their state of mind, emotion and being.

In Gary Snyder’s great article Buddhist Anarchism he states, “Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.” And without empathy and sensitivity for another there is no compassion.

Syrup Compassion is not syrup. To be kind, loving (metta) and compassionate does not always meant talking in calm tones, smiling idiotically and handing out flowers. These kinds of superficial gestures are hollow veneers designed to keep reality at bay. They are another costume of ego, based on desire to be perceived as “Buddhist” “compassionate” “enlightened” or whatever one’s current company deems the ideal aspiration for the group. Too often I have observed when this veneer is put to the test it falls apart completely and beneath is judgementalism, narrow-mindedness and a whole lot of denial about what an individual’s real state of being is. Syrupy expressions tend to come from a patronizing or even arrogant standpoint.


Empathy is the setting aside of ego to experience another. Compassion is the action resulting from the direct perception of the suffering of another. H.H Dalai Lama used the Tibetan phrase “shen dug ngal wa la mi so pa” which means “the inability to bear the sight of another’s suffering”. (Dalai Lama in “Ethics for the New Millenium) It is based on empathy and not pity. It arises from within spontaneously and isn’t evoked from without by manipulation. Compassion is a process and is more of a verb than a noun.

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