Unlike the taking on of negative emotions that can happen with empathy, compassion, properly understood, is a genuine and loving wish of well-being for someone who is suffering.
Last week I wrote about how the band Coldplay leverages its platform for good. Shortly after the piece was posted, I came across this powerful video of one of the concert’s sign language interpreters performing the song Fix You. The video shows how the band and its wonderful staff aim to ensure that everyone feels a strong connection to the music. As the video concluded, I was reminded of my own experience at that show listening to that very song. I wondered what the experience would be like if I were hearing impaired. And then, without thinking, I watched the video again. But this time I turned the sound off. This simple change had a profound impact on my ability to connect with those who lack the ability to hear. At that moment, I realized how much I take for granted the gift of my own hearing.
Empathy, the capacity to understand and experience what others feel, is a vital human skill. Empathy allows us to understand others. It is what connects human beings meaningfully to others. And yet, empathy has its downsides. For some, it can be overwhelming, resulting in taking on the negative emotions of another person. The ensuing flood of emotions such as anger, shame, and fear can leave one incapacitated. This is the main criticism of empathy – emotional contagion, empathy’s unintended by-product, can hinder effective moral and ethical action.
The Buddhist traditions offer a helpful distinction. Compassion, or karuna, is the desire to alleviate suffering. Unlike the taking on of negative emotions that can happen with empathy, compassion, properly understood, is a genuine and loving wish of well-being for someone who is suffering. In this sense, compassion is experienced as an almost infinite supply of positive feelings directed towards those in distress. And, as such, the number of people to whom compassion may be extended is similarly unlimited. Closely related to compassion is sympathetic joy, or mudita, which refers to the pleasure that comes from delighting in the well-being of others. Both compassion and sympathetic joy can be cultivated through the practice of metta, or loving-kindness meditation.
As I reflect on that moment of watching the sign language interpreter, I believe I was experiencing compassion. I was not overcome with sadness for those who are hearing impaired. Or guilt that I am able to hear. Rather, I was flooded by the genuine desire for those at the concert to experience the show as fully as possible and a warm feeling of appreciation for the interpreter who was making that possible. As a result, everyone’s feelings of joy and connection – mine and others – were amplified. This is the power of compassion.
If you’re interested in cultivating compassion, loving-kindness meditation, or metta, is a beautiful practice. I highly recommend Sam Harris’s app Waking Up. Here you can try out his introductory 12-minute metta meditation for free.