Home ContentThe Compassionate Life

The Compassionate Life

Published : June 09, 2017

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. ~ The Dalai Lama

By Serena Nathan

From time to time we hear of unimaginable sadness, pain and loss.  None of us remain untouched by it, just as none of us remain untouched by joy and happiness.  While responding to others’ joy is often spontaneous, responding to great pain, whether physical or emotional, is often more complicated.  To flourish means to embrace all that life offers; the wonder, the challenges, the delight and the sorrow.  Learning to accept and sit with the delight, as well as the sadness in others, rounds us into gentler, stronger, wiser women, flourishing through life’s ups…and downs.

We are partly drawn to our friend who is suffering and partly repelled; perhaps frightened of not knowing how to support her, afraid of saying ‘the wrong thing’, perhaps even wanting to hide an unpleasant feeling of schadenfreude; relief that it is someone else going through this pain.

The slings and arrows of misfortune do get flung at us all - regardless of age, financial position, how well or poorly we eat - if not today then one day.  Tomorrow, next year.  Some arrows are small, annoying little pings, others are massive, stainless steel barbs that cause great damage.

”We will be called upon to act,” says writer, Nancy Rigg, who lost her fiancé in a flooded LA river in 1980, and has since dedicated her life and career to helping others through grief and trauma and helped institute swift water response programs throughout the world.  

“I say 'act' rather than 'react', because living a life of compassion, focussing on loving and kindness, is a means to prepare us to act, rather than merely react.  To act with intent.  To act with compassion,” she says.

Compassion is a word that gets bandied around a lot.  It is a combination of two words; co, meaning together, and passion, meaning strong feeling.  What it doesn’t mean (and often gets confused with) is sympathy.

To look at the difference between ‘compassion’ and ‘sympathy, let’s say you have just separated from your husband.  You call two friends.

The first, Sophie, is sympathetic.  She tells you how sorry she is, that as awful as you must feel, it happens to nearly one in two people these days.  Sophie tells you that if there’s anything she can do, to please let her know, that she knows someone who got divorced last year and is doing fabulously.  She tells you she always thought your husband was “a bit dodgy underneath it all.”  Sophie repeats again the offer of ‘something; anything’ you need, tells you that she doesn’t know how she would cope at all if she and John were separating and says she has to go in order to get dinner prepared.

None of that seems unreasonable.  It is a sympathetic response to a crisis.  You call the second friend, Louisa.

Louisa is compassionate:  She asks how you and your husband are doing with all that you’re going through, and lets you know that she feels very sad for you.  She waits for you to find the words you want to say about where you are in this crisis and listens carefully to you.  Louisa offers no advice.  She lets you know that she is always available to listen and is there a time that you would like her to come and hang out with you?  She waits for you to be the one to end the call and asks if you’d like to meet for lunch in a few days' time to talk again.


Can you see the difference of how you feel in the two similar, yet quite different responses?


Anyone (and this is most of us) who has been through a trauma or crisis know the differences here.  Sophie’s sympathetic response is kind in its own way.  Sympathy, however, has undertones of pity.  And pity is something that never fits comfortably.  To be pitied is to be reminded that you are in a place that is frightening and uncertain.  It smacks of “Thank the Lord it’s not me…”.  Pity makes the pitier feel better and the pitied one feel bad….pitiable.

Cynthia Wall (counsellor and author of The Courage to Trust) sees sympathy as a kind of shield, allowing us to separate from others’ pain by placing us away from it.  She writes that sympathy ‘means that suffering is viewed as a tragedy beyond bearing…sometimes it is denied or minimised.’

When comparisons are brought in (“oh I know how you feel, my dog died last year and it was terrible”) or advice about how to feel (“oh, you poor thing; try not to let it get to you”) it means the person offering the sympathetic words can separate from the person in pain, remove themselves a little from it all.  It “prevents the giver from entering into a shared state,” says Wall.

Compassion, on the other hand, requires us to open our heart to the pain of another and share it, even if that causes us great discomfort.  It doesn’t mean knowing ‘what to say’; it means having the courage to say nothing, let silence become its own communication.  This way the giver is able to keep their heart and mind open to what the sufferer could need.

“Often the most loving thing we can do when a friend is in pain is to share the pain – to be there even when we have nothing to offer except our presence and even when being there is painful to ourselves.” ~ M  Scott Peck, American Psychiatrist, Writer

When someone is facing a significant crisis, the last thing they need is to feel that their situation is unbearable.  When my son died, there were many people who told me that they “would just DIE” if they were in “my situation” which was a terrifying thing to hear.  I felt like I could die, but death isn’t quite that simple!  It also made me feel ashamed, that I could continue to live, change the toilet roll, shop for milk and bread, while other (nobler) mothers would just DIE.

Compassion springs from being able to connect with someone without fear.  Most of us fear death, and those of us who are mothers fear the death of a child even more.  We fear getting sick and not being able to take care of ourselves and others.  We fear the breakdown of an important relationship, of losing our job, of not being able to fulfil our goals.  And yet every one of us faces at least one of these fears during the course of a lifetime.  As Nancy Rigg says, “calamities are equal opportunity visitors: sometime along the way, some life challenge will disrupt our comfortable reality or the comfortable reality of someone we care about.”

Fear is a very natural response to suffering and it takes courage to sit with someone suffering great pain without some fear.  The compassionate friend will acknowledge her own fear of what is happening (or has happened) and move beyond that to offer an honest connection.  The only way to move past this fear is to accept that we are not immune from immense suffering ourselves.

“It is lack of love for ourselves that inhibits our compassion toward others.  If we make friends with ourselves, then there is no obstacle to opening our hearts and minds to others.” ~ Pema Chodron, American Buddhist Nun, Writer

So compassion has to start with ourselves.  We can’t offer anyone our honest open self unless we are prepared to offer it to ourselves first.  This is the hardest step.

First we have to see that we are not super-beings, we are just human and as liable to make mistakes, experience despair and suffer tragedy as the person next to us.  We are completely fallible.

What makes us compassionate with ourselves is the ability to accept this as part of the human condition.  Eventually we do pick up, dust off and carry on, and all that we feel in a crisis is usually a normal response to the situation.  Understanding that suffering is normal, human and universal is a good first step to practicing compassion.

Stephen Levine, author of several books including Unattended Sorrow has a simple approach to learning how to honestly practice compassion:

“Mercy is defined by some as pity, but pity is born of fear - it wishes not to experience the pain of another or of oneself.  When we touch pain with fear; that is pity.  When we fear our own pain; that is self-pity.  But when we touch pain with love—that is mercy.  Mercy is a blessing.  Pity is a hindrance.”

Not pitying others means first not pitying ourselves.  This is hard!  We can’t all be the Dalai Lama or Stephen Levine, however we can take steps to get closer to how each live in their heart.

By observing those places inside ourselves that are fearful, angry, closed to others, unloving, we slowly learn how to change and become kinder, more compassionate, more giving, less judgmental.  Observing one’s self is the very first thing to be done.

Consider how you feel when someone pushes your buttons – are you angry?  Fed up?  Insecure?  You don’t even have to do anything about these feelings at that moment, just watch them in you and you will be surprised at what else begins to bubble up (and they are never dull) as well as a result of simple and honest observation.  Writing in a journal from time to time helps with clarity.

There are some practical steps that can be taken in order to practice compassion, both to ourselves and each other.
  • No expectations:  When you make contact with someone who is suffering, even if you think it’s trivial, try not to have any expectations about how they might be or how you might help.  Just be there and take it from there.  Don’t assume you will be useful or important (or on the other hand, useless) in their struggle.
  • Try not to judge:  This sometimes requires active concentration; we are geared by our upbringing to bring our own judgments to others’ situations.  We naturally benchmark other people’s actions and situations with our own.  Leave your judgments about the situation behind.
  • Use deep breathing to gain pause:  If you’re not sure what to say, take a deep breath and be honest (say that you don’t know what to say) or try saying nothing and listening both to your own heart and the voice of the other person.  Much more gets said in this way.
  • Know that the sufferer isn’t helpless:  “Most of us prefer to do things at our own pace rather than be treated as needy,” writes Cynthia Wall in her essay “Beyond Sympathy”.  It takes more energy to receive than it does to give.  Think about the level of compassion you bring with you to the person you want to help and try not to bring with it your pity:  “When the giver brings pity, the exchange depletes precious energy,” says Wall.
  • Don’t Fix it (or try to):  This applies to compassion towards you too.  In long silences it is always tempting to offer advice, and very hard to hold it back and let the silence continue.  It seems to be part of our DNA to solve things, but allowing them to unfold, or allowing others to come to their own conclusions about where they want to be - as hard as it is to do - allows compassionate relationships to flower and flourish.


When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it's bottomless, that it doesn't have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless.  You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space. ~ Pema Chodron


If you can try to be gentle with yourself and others, and not make judgments or try to solve problems, you will see that compassion can flourish, and with your compassion growing you yourself will blossom into being a beautiful, valuable friend both to others and yourself.

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