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Do you approach suffering with compassion? Do you offer compassion to your suffering partner? And to yourself?
In order to know if you approach suffering with compassion, I compare compassion with empathy because there is a BIG difference.
Beneath the smile and the coping mechanisms, most of us have worries, fears, regrets and other emotional and physical suffering. This is part of being human.
I often ask a couple, “Are you interested in learning what your partner is suffering?” Or, “Can you tell your partner what you are suffering?” There is a lot behind these questions. You can only answer with a “yes” if you have compassion. But if your compassion is on the low side, the part I am appealing to is very small. Yet compassion is very important because it leads the way to communicate meaningfully.
Maybe you are wary of showing compassion because you worry that you will be drawn into something that you can’t get out of! This, in fact, can be true – I’ll explain why shortly.
On the other hand, if you are worried that you are devoid of compassion, the good news is that compassion can be learned and developed.
Let me unpack the meaning of compassion and compare it with empathy.
Firstly, some definitions. Is there a difference between compassion and empathy? Yes! For the neuroscience of the difference, go to neuroscientist Olga Klimecki’s presentation at the Empathy and Compassion in Society conference.
Briefly, compassion is the ability to feel for another living being. The brain activity of compassion is in the pre-frontal cortex, in the areas of social activation and problem-solving. You can cultivate compassion by developing feelings of warmth, friendliness, kindliness and generosity towards any other person.
When you experience compassion you know very well what the other is suffering, but you can also be happy yourself. You stay in your own skin, so to speak. A shining example is the Dalai Lama. He invariably expresses happiness and joy while at the same time being very aware of the suffering of his people in Tibet, and indeed the whole world. In other words, when you experience compassion you can feel and express different, even contradictory, emotions at the same time.
Empathy is the ability to not only understand another’s feelings but also to become one with that person’s distress. That is, to put yourself in their shoes and actually feel what they’re going through in that situation. When you experience empathy, your brain lights up in exactly the same way as if you were suffering the pain yourself. When we experience empathy we say, “I can only be happy when you are happy.” Ultimately, this identification is draining, so you withdraw. You suffer empathetic overload.
Because differentiation enables you to see your partner clearly, aim to develop compassion, rather than empathy. The experience of empathy can veer too close to loss of personal boundaries, towards merging, symbiosis and loss of self. The goal is to feel for another, and simultaneously be aware of yourself – rather than becoming one with the distress of the other.
Someone falls into a pit – do you join them?
An example would be that you see that someone has fallen into a deep pit. Out of empathy, you jump into the pit too – you are right in there with them. You feel a heavy responsibility. You could even find that being empathetic is burdensome.
On the other hand, if you were acting from compassion, you would see the person in the pit and reach out to them, encouraging and settling them – from outside of the pit. You would be in the position to get assistance and make decisions from the safety that you yourself occupy. Thus you feel kinder and more eager to help.
Remember a few sentences ago that maybe you are wary of showing compassion because you will be drawn into something that you can’t get out of? Being drawn into the empathy-pit is indeed something you do not want to do. On the other hand, compassion serves you both well.
Buddhism and neuroscience.
Buddhism teaches compassion, where “feeling for, rather than feeling with” is the intention. You will remember that “feeling with” is what defines empathy.
Let’s see how this pans out in your relationship.
Firstly, what does a lack of compassion look like?
Here are some ideas:
Do you feel impatient when the conversation isn’t about you?
Maybe you find it difficult to listen to your partner as a separate person, especially if you are accustomed to perceiving things in reference to yourself.
Perhaps you are afraid that you will be drawn into your partner’s suffering, and be pulled down too!
Maybe you find it inconvenient when they actually need you, for instance, if they are sick.
Perhaps you take what your partner says personally as if they are attacking you. That’s not compassion.
Or even take offence easily. That’s not compassion either.
If you take things personally, you will likely imagine that your partner is blaming you for something, especially their suffering. You will hear that it is all your fault, even when that is not what they are saying. It will be very hard for your heart to be open to your partner if you feel that your primary task is to protect and defend yourself.
In other words, it will be hard for you to feel compassion for your partner.
If your capacity for compassion is very undeveloped you imagine that the purpose of your partner’s suffering is to make you uncomfortable.
The good news is that compassion is a skill that grows. You can learn to manage your own emotional reactions – usually anxiety – to your partner’s suffering, and simultaneously listen to what he or she is saying.
The skill of listening to your partner openly and at the same time managing your own emotions sets you up for good communication.
Yes, it really is possible to learn not to freak out when your partner expresses a conflicting point of view.
You can be engaged less with your perspective, and less devaluing of your partner’s perspective. For example, ask your partner, “Why is this so important to you?”.
Is there an upper limit to compassion?
As you further develop compassion you open to hearing the full expression of your partner’s opinions, suffering and feelings, without feeling diminished! (And without defending yourself!) That’s worth going for!
It will be a wonderful day when you are (both) actively and curiously interested in acquiring a greater understanding of each other. Or when you can ask questions to discover more depth of feeling in your partner. Or when you tend to their suffering, with warmth and caring. This is the level at which compassion is easy!
Does compassion have an upper limit? You will know that you are getting into the stratosphere of compassion when you experience and express compassion for divergent and paradoxical points of view. Furthermore, you can do this without compromising your own integrity, without feeling you have lost sight of yourself. Wow!
What about self-compassion, and receiving compassion from others?
Firstly, self-compassion. The Buddha has the first word here – he is talking about love and affection, but we can extend that to compassion as well:
“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.” [and compassion]. Buddha
Further, Dave Richo says “first of all, love yourself – that way, people who are not good for you will not be appealing”. Read more in “How to choose a compatible partner.”
And the Dalai Lama has the last word:
“If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others. You will not be able to love others. If you have no compassion for yourself then you are not capable of developing compassion for others.” Dalai Lama
How do you practice this essential compassion for yourself? Here are some hints:
1: Stop punishing yourself for your mistakes. You will be more likely to accept your partner’s shortcomings if you have already accepted your own.
2: See your own failures, challenges and disappointments as the raw material for growth. This is compassion in action.
3: Practice gratitude. The practice of gratitude, as I wrote in the Insight “10:1 ratio of gratitude to complaints for successful communication” rewires your brain. That is, you benefit from expressing gratitude.
4: Express the most generous perspective you can find, in every situation. Interpret your partner’s action in the most kind way. For example, instead of imagining that your partner is intentionally rejecting you, can you see that they have had a really hard day. A generous perspective is a way of expressing compassion.
Lastly, what about receiving compassion from others, specifically your partner?
Unless your partner knows you really well, they are not going to pick up when you need their compassion. Your partner might be preoccupied, busy. So, folks, it’s up to you to tell your partner what you are experiencing, what you are suffering. Then they can practice compassion.
Then your part is to receive the compassion, to drink it in, to allow it to penetrate your defences and to melt into your bones. Receiving compassion is often more difficult than giving it.
So, I ask again, “Do you know if your partner is suffering?”Or, “Does your partner know what you are suffering?”
If you or your partner are suffering in an extreme way, you might find the Dark Night of the Soul helpful.
Copyright © Kaye Gersch 2017