Struggling Toward Compassion

To heal the culture of violence and fear, we need to nourish a lively sensitivity to our common humanity. We’re all in this boat together. But our culture is not strong on empathy and compassion. It’s easier  — and more popular — to hate.  Easier to fear.

bullies felt others’ pain more, and were less able to deal with it

And easiest to turn away.  To distract or medicate ourselves, to cut ourselves off from suffering and from those who suffer.

What is compassion?

We don’t even really understand what compassion is. In this subject area, definitions vary, overlap and blur:  sympathy, empathy, compassion, pity, mercy….  But pity and mercy often include superiority over their recipient.  Sympathy is a general kind of agreement;  I can feel sympathy with a color or a theory.

Psychologist Edward Titchener coined the English word “empathy” in 1909, to translate the German term Einfühlung (“in-feeling”), which itself had just been invented. Since then philosophers, psychologists and linguists have been struggling for clarity on the concept.  A major contribution came in the early 1990s: Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti found physical evidence of the operation of empathy in the brain. Richard Restak describes the process:

When we watch another person move, our observations of their movement activates in our own brain the same areas that are involved when we make that movement. This innate tendency for imitation was first observed in macaque monkeys where “mirror neurons” in the monkey’s prefrontal cortex respond both when the monkey grasps a peanut and when it watches another monkey grasp it. Mirror neurons are also active in our brains.

If you observe my hand reaching for a cup of tea the motor cortex in your brain will become slightly active in the same areas you would use if you reached for the cup of tea yourself. Further, if you observe my lips as I savor the tea, the area of your brain corresponding to lip movements will fire as well. Of course that doesn’t mean you can taste my tea but it does mean that I am directly affecting your brain as you watch me drinking it. …

A similar process takes place in regard to emotions. We relate to other people’s emotions by unconsciously simulating in our own brain the same activity that takes place when we experience those same emotions.

As a result of this progress in our understanding, I think now it’s useful to define empathy as the mind/body’s faculty of feeling the same emotions another person feels.  Both unpleasant emotions and pleasant ones. Besides the brain, empathy also affects functions like heartbeat and sweating.

Newborns cry when another infant cries; at 18 months toddlers will act to comfort others in obvious distress. Empathy is a sensibility, a sense, a mode of perception.  It’s innate, but training can sharpen it.

Before 1909, “sympathy” sometimes expressed what I’m defining as “empathy.” But now we can distinguish the two.  When we sympathize, we may appreciate another’s feelings without personally feeling them. With sympathy and no empathy, we can be more easily misguided. People sense that, and dislike receiving only sympathy.

Compassion is a response to suffering. Probably it most often develops out of  empathy; certainly empathy facilitates compassion.  But once empathy has taught us compassion, I think we can also choose compassion without that immediate sense of others’ pain. More proactive than a sense, compassion is an attitude, a direction the heart orients itself in, an act of will, a choice. Philosopher and social critic Jeremy Rifkin, in his book Empathic Civilization, calls it the “action component” of the “empathic process.”

Compassion means…

  • Being open to others’ experience, being able to appreciate how things are for them. Even if we dislike the people.  Even if they dislike us.
  • Awareness of suffering, our own and others’; coming to terms with it.
  • The desire to alleviate suffering.

Compassion does not mean…

  • Excusing perpetrators from responsibility for their actions, or from facing the consequences.
  • Accepting hurtful behavior, or rationalizations for it.
  • Tolerating inappropriate behavior.

Compassion sets appropriate limits;  says “no” as a loving gift.

Compassion knows that violence breeds violence.  Out of resentment for injustices and abuses visited upon them, people perpetrate similar harm; nations lash back in another war; groups who feel oppressed retaliate with terrorism.  Compassion interrupts this vicious cycle. Compassion focuses on the essential humanity we all share.  As Rifkin observes in Empathic Civilization:

Although life as it’s lived on the ground, close to home, is peppered with suffering, stresses, injustices, and foul play, it is, for the most part, lived out in hundreds of small acts of kindness and generosity. Comfort and compassion between people creates goodwill, establishes the bonds of sociality, and gives joy to people’s lives. Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is our core nature. (p.10)

According to Buddhist teachers, compassion makes us more resilient, promoting equanimity.1 Western scientists are beginning to agree;  an initial study suggests compassion may reduce the impact of stress — both psychological and physical.  Compassion gives us true happiness, with a heart grounded in peace and joy.  As the Dalai Lama famously remarked,  “If  you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Twisted empathy

This capacity of one brain to sense events in another, to mirror it, results for most people in caring, in concern for the other.  However in some people the process is skewed.  At the University of Chicago, neuroscientist Jean Decety and colleagues studied the brain activity of teenaged boys with a history of bullying. 2 When images of other people getting hurt were shown to the boys, their brains responded with activity in the same areas, as if they themselves were hurt.  Just as the brains of non-bullies did — except the bullies’ brains responded more in those areas than non-bullies did.

At the same time, bullies’ brains did not respond in other areas where non-bullies’ brains did:  areas associated with regulation of unpleasant feelings.  The bullies felt others’ pain more, and were less able to deal with it.

How did the bullies’ brains get like this?  Can we correct this “dysfunction in neural circuitry?”  Prevent it?


1 For information on lojong, the Tibetan Buddhist compassion meditation:

  • Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, by Pema Chödrön
  • Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion, by the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) and Paul Ekman

2Atypical empathic responses in adolescents with aggressive conduct disorder: a functional MRI investigation.  The authors’ pre-publication manuscript is available at the NIH PubMed Central free archive;  the paper’s final edited form was published in Biological Psychology Volume 80, Issue 2, February 2009, Pages 203-211. (doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2008.09.004)

4 thoughts on “Struggling Toward Compassion

  1. I think of empathy as: “it takes one to know one.”
    I think compassion has a component of a loving neutrality. “I wish you healing, but I won’t jump in the soup with you in order to be compassionate.”

    I’ll have to re-read Pema Chödrön.

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