Compassion has been a core virtue espoused by most religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions for millennia. However, in the last couple decades it has received more focus due to the Dalai Lama, whose Buddhist lineage holds compassion as central, and to Karen Armstrong, who made compassion the focus of her Ted Award.
After reading about compassion, attending conferences focused on compassion and empathy, participating in a weeklong program on compassion through the Institute of Compassionate Presence, and working diligently to become more compassionate in my own life, I wrote an essay about compassion for A World Book of Values, which was published in late 2013. Below is an excerpt:
Compassion appears to grow out of a worldview in which all life is an interconnected whole. When part of the whole suffers, and I’ve done all I can to relieve or alleviate that suffering, I show compassion when I don’t withdraw, but still hold a space of loving presence and kindness. The word itself means to ‘be with’ (com) another in the suffering or pain (passion) the other is experiencing.
To do that, I must learn how to ‘walk in the shoes’, ‘see through the eyes’, or ‘feel from the heart’ of another, which is the core of empathy. However, I think compassion calls us beyond empathy to a place of non-judgment, nonviolence, non-attachment, and an openness of heart that recognizes we’ve done all we can do, but we can’t turn away.
In her book Compassion, Christina Feldman says, “The ultimate journey and skill of a human being is to discover how encompassing our hearts can be.” That is challenging, not easy.
I have signed the Charter for Compassion, which Karen Armstrong and other global leaders composed, and I follow with great interest the work of the Compassionate Action Network (CAN). My son and daughter-in-law live in Seattle, Washington, which has been recognized as a Compassionate City. Some universities have become Compassionate Universities. What I like about these initiatives is that the local people create their plan based on core principles outlined by CAN. That seems empowering.
Recently it has become possible to support the Charter by becoming a member. Not only does that help promote the Charter financially, but also it increases communication about work sponsored by the Charter and other contributions being made by people all over the world. I have become a member. If you are interested, go to the following link: http://charterforcompassion.org/civicrm/contribute/transact?reset=1&id=6.
My work in multifaith and diversity of belief and values compels me to see this movement toward compassionate action as something that transcends ideological and dogmatic difference. Karen Armstrong based the Charter on the Golden Rule, which calls people to NOT do to others what they do NOT want done to themselves. Though that sounds negative at first, it helps avoid making my desires the criteria for what I think you should want.
Finally, another aspect of compassion is the practice of lovingkindness – for self, for those we love, for those who are hard to love, for all living beings, and for those who have passed out of this physical realm. Even when we’re angry and/or have been harmed or disrespected, sending lovingkindness helps with healing ourselves and others. That is something our world certainly needs.