A friend of mine shared that while she was sick in bed on this particular morning her husband waited for her to wake up to make him breakfast. She complained about his lack of compassion toward her. His actions in this case were clearly inconsiderate, and even hurtful. But not all failures to be compassionate are so easily seen. Most occur in very subtle ways, and they occur every moment.
The roots of the word compassion are the Latin com, which means with, and pati, which means to suffer. So compassion meant to suffer with. But today we view that definition more as empathy. The modern understanding of compassion goes beyond empathy. It includes action motivated by an internal desire to alleviate the suffering of another.
However, before we can be compassionate we must deeply understand the suffering of others. When we suffer with them, when we exercise our empathy for them, we come closer to understanding their suffering. Without such an understanding there can be no right action.
Similarly, before we can empathize, we must first be aware of the suffering of others; we must accept the fact it exists. That comes from attention. If we are inattentive or oblivious to our environment, if we ignore what is happening, then we remain unaware of the suffering. Without attention there can be no awareness, and without awareness there can be no empathy.
So in empathizing with another we “suffer with” them. But in doing so, if we are inattentive, we may act to relieve the personal suffering generated by our empathy rather than alleviating that of the other. This substitution is very subtle and happens all the time. Such action isn’t compassionate. It is not motivated by a desire to alleviate the suffering of another. Instead it is motivated by the desire to relieve our own suffering caused by the suffering of another.
Compassionate action flows naturally from clear understanding. Sometimes this action takes a positive form i.e. it requires we actually do something. Other times it takes on a negative form i.e. we stop doing something. Our whole lives we are conditioned to think that all action must take the positive form. “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” These days I am trying to just stand still and stop all my actions that have been adding to the suffering of others.
Unsurprisingly, this has created suffering of its own.