Discovering Inner Compassion
Competence and compassion are the two most important aspects of our professional life. We would contend that compassion needs to be valued at least as much as competence in our work and in education.
There are many reasons why we find it difficult to be compassionate in our job; often there is not enough time to respond to competing demands, we have to concentrate on our tasks, we feel too exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally to give any more. Then there are the negative feelings that block out compassion. Being clear about what we mean by compassion can help us to understand how it can be an integral part of our work. This will help us to be caring in our work, without suffering compassion fatigue and emotional burnout.
Our own negative feelings, such as anger, hatred and jealousy, can prevent us showing our compassion. By understanding those feelings and how they affect us, we can release them and allow ourselves to be more compassionate. Compassion can be compared to the sun; it is always there but sometimes it cannot shine through because of the clouds. The clouds are the negativity that hides our true nature of compassion.
To really understand compassion, we have to experience it for ourselves. We can observe and admire others; we can even acknowledge that we have behaved compassionately on some occasions, but how do we develop the virtue of compassion inside us? If we can find a place of inner silence where we can slow down our thoughts and touch our deepest nature, we will discover that it is peaceful and compassionate. This is the source of our compassion and the more we experience it the more it will become part of our actions. Meditation reminds us that we are compassionate at our core.
Most people can remember a compassionate act. It may be an everyday situation or something that stands out as very special. Examples may be sitting holding the hand of a distressed relative or friend, or simply smiling and being positive. Reflecting on such acts helps us to identify the qualities of compassion that a person may express, such as patience, tolerance, generosity and calmness. By thinking about acts of compassion and the people that perform them, we can begin to get a sense of what compassion means and, with further reflection, how we have shown these same qualities ourselves.
We all use words in different ways to describe how we feel and what we mean, and the meaning can change in different settings. We need to come to some understanding of the word compassion, redefining it for ourselves. Compassion can mean simply kindness; it can mean patience, generosity, respect and understanding. Compassion is unconditional love.
When we try to describe compassion, it is worth looking at the words sympathy, empathy and interpathy.
Showing sympathy towards another person's suffering is acknowledging their suffering, for example, 'I am sorry that you have hurt yourself'. We recognize that they are injured or ill without really engaging at a feeling level.
Empathy is when we literally share a feeling with someone, we walk in their shoes, for example, 'I feel really upset that you are so depressed about losing your job'. This can bring great comfort to the person we are empathizing with, but the comfort to them can be at our expense and leave us feeling emotionally drained or sad. If we identify too closely with them, it can also make it difficult for us to help them.
An expansion of empathy is a word called interpathy where we relate to another's suffering although we may not understand why they are suffering. This may be because they are from a different culture or because their feelings may seem inappropriate given the situation, but we are curious, we try to understand.
Compassion is all these words -- sympathy, empathy, interpathy - yet it is more and it is less. We acknowledge someone's sorrow, we sense how they feel, we try to understand how it affects them, yet with compassion we do not become emotionally involved. We are engaged yet detached. We are standing back and looking on with kindness. By showing compassion in this way, it allows us to be compassionate without suffering from compassion fatigue or emotional burnout.