As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I feel it is important to define what we mean by compassion.
Most definitions of compassion include some notion of suffering, i.e. compassion is to “suffer with” another. It seems to me then, that we first need to define suffering. In certain Western cultures, we tend to think of suffering as a really big incident or something of huge import. So people who are starving in the Third World, persons whose loved one dies unexpectedly, or some loss of life or home in a flood, fire, earthquake, or hurricane; these are the people who suffer.
But what about daily life for us? Don’t we suffer and need compassion? I think we need a broader definition of suffering to extend compassion in our daily lives. Buddhists use the term. “dukkha” which describes “…anything on a scale from small annoyances to serious diseases…anything that fosters a separate sense of self and suppresses our natural tendency to be one with the Ultimate.” Yes, there are degrees of suffering but “it occurs because life involves change and decay, loss, disappointment and impermanence.” Simply put dukkha means “suffering, unsatisfactoriness, frustration, and disappointment.” This description of suffering/dukkha explains suffering in the context of contemplative compassion for me.
I will leave you with 2 of my favorite descriptions of compassion:
Jim Finley, Ph.D. mystic, author, and psychologist, defines compassion this way, “Compassion is that love that recognizes and goes forth to identify with the preciousness of all that is lost and broken within ourselves and others.”
Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., creator of Compassion-Focused Therapy, defines it this way, “being sensitive to the suffering of self and others with a deep commitment to prevent and relieve it.” Paul Gilbert’s thinking “is based on an “evolutionary neuroscience approach.” This is helpful for our purposes in that he describes behavior which requires a number of different competencies and attributes which can be developed and practiced in relationship to others. Although it is focused predominantly on the ego-self, there is much there for the contemplative compassion seeker.
Finally, a definition of suffering/dukkha is essential to how I define compassion, that is, compassion is tender, courageous, and wise. We will explore tender, courageous, and wise in next week’s blog.
 Miller, J.P. (2016) Julian and the Buddha, Common points along the way. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, page 126
 Miller, J.P. p. 234
 Finley, J. (2004) Christian Meditation. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, Harper-Collins Publishers, p.279.
 Gilbert, P. and Choden (2014) Mindful Compassion. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., p. 1.
 Gilbert, P. (2009) The Compassionate Mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., p. 193.
One thought on “What is Compassion and What is Suffering?”
Thanks! Curiosity enough I never thought of compassion as intrinsically tied to suffering, but I guess it is. Many who I treat with compassion are not suffering like my abundantly joyful 2 year old grandson. However in reality we make compassion central to our interactions with him in order to give him as much joy (aka absence of sorrow as possible).
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