‘being sensitive to the suffering of self and others with a deep commitment to try to prevent and relieve it.’
(Gilbert 2013: 265)
Compassion is a response to suffering. It is often regarded as a sensation that arises in us in response to an awareness of suffering, combined with a motivation to take some action. The suffering is often in others, but can also be in ourselves, hence self-compassion.
Suffering does not just include the big things in life, such as sickness and death, but can also relate to more subtle dissatisfactions that arise in everyday events, like losing a pen or banging an elbow.
Suffering, in this sense, is differentiated from pain. Pain arises from an event, such as the physical pain of injury or emotional pain of loss. We add suffering to this through our reaction to it. So, in the case of the pen, pain is the loss that has happened, whilst the suffering refers to the irritation, self-recrimination, guilt and so forth that we might put on ourselves as a result of the loss.
Compassion is a way for us to re-orient our minds and emotions to be more effective in dealing with suffering. This is about our feelings of compassion and action, rather than about changing another person who is suffering. It is taking some action, including internal action, that moderates our response to the suffering, maybe reducing the irritation, not blaming ourselves or alleviating our guilt of the lost pen.
In considering the act of compassion, usually several components are identified. Recognising that suffering is arising; taking a non-judgemental perspective; being conscious of the universal nature of suffering; being empathic or feeling for the sufferer; tolerating our own distress that might arise; moving to take action to relieve the suffering.
We can have compassion for people who are suffering even if we do not overtly like them, or if we do not agree with how they lead their lives. Compassion does not mean we have to agree with or approve of someone, just that we note their suffering and would like to alleviate it. We may find that taking a compassionate approach to someone we find difficult helps us deal with them, changing our internal world and perspective, maybe helping our behaviours and interaction. It can certainly remove some of our suffering.
In applying self-compassion, which is important in a number of aspects of our lives, one model devised by Kristin Neff suggests we can do three things. Firstly, we can show ourselves some self-kindness, rather than self-judgement, treating ourselves as we might treat a good friend. Secondly realise that suffering, the fact that we suffer and probably the causes, are normal and part of being human. Finally, we can be more mindful of what exactly is happening and not singling ourselves out and over identifying with the suffering or its cause (Neff 2018).
So, if we have an argument, the pain of the argument can still be there, but self-compassion can reduce the suffering, such as not repeatedly going over it, taking the feeling into the next task or putting our anger on another person. In this way it can be also easier to move on and become more engaged in the moment again.
Gilbert, Paul., Choden, (2013) Mindful Compassion: Using the Power of Mindfulness and Compassion to Transform our Lives . Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.